Practice Tips, Part 1: How to Learn to Play Bass

Before you can learn what to learn on the bass guitar, it’s important to know how to learn, and that’s what this article is all about. It contains twenty-one specific tips on how to learn to play the bass guitar. We’ll talk about what to learn some other time. For now, let’s stay with the fundamentals of mindset, focus, technique, and creating good habits that will get you started on the right track. Because if you spend a little time learning how to learn, you’ll find that you progress more quickly, and that’s a Very Good Thing!

I’ve listed the tips in what seemed to be the most logical order at the time. All are equal in value. OK, fine. There are a few that are more equal than the rest. Here’s the thing, though. Taken as a group, there’s a real synergy in their combined application. While this article was written with the beginner in mind, these principles will serve any bassist well, regardless of level, or number of years on the instrument.

Here, then, are my tips on how to learn to play the bass.

Plan the work – Work the plan

Regardless of your skill level, it always helps to map out where you want to go. This is important in both the long-term – knowing what you want to accomplish over the next six months to a year, and in the short term – knowing what you want to accomplish in a specific practice session. Very few people achieve their goals without planning.

Get Teach Me Bass Guitar

OK, you knew this was coming, right? You should also know that my main reason I’m involved with TMBG is that I know first-hand what an outstanding teacher Roy Vogt is. Without going into all of the reasons I recommend TMBG above all others(which I do over on my web site), let me point out that Roy walks you through the most logical series of steps in learning to play the bass. He also does it in a way that’s very consistent with the tips in this article.

It’s also fair to point out that I learned a lot of these from Roy himself, or from sources he has recommended over the years. So, yes, I highly recommend using TMBG as a cornerstone of learning to play bass. I’ll admit my bias, but would ask you to admit I have strong reasons for my opinion on this.

Get a teacher

I’ll be the first to admit there are a lot of self-taught bassists out there. (In fact, to some extent, I’m one of them.) However, they often fight poor technique and a lack of basic musical knowledge. Taking lessons, even if only for a few months at a time, is a great way to clean up your technique, identify areas that could use a little work, and learn a few things you might not otherwise learn. In addition, by forcing you to prepare for each week’s lesson, it instills a certain level of discipline into your practice routine. By the way, there are far more successful, well-paid bassists who have received training than those who haven’t. I’m just sayin’…

By the way, using Teach Me Bass Guitar and working with a teacher are not mutually exclusive, and a good teacher will not be intimidated or feel threatened by your use of course materials. In fact, a good teacher will be able to add on to TMBG in numerous ways to help you get even more out of the course. Don’t forget that Roy has a schedule packed to the brim with private students.

Learn to Read

I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Learning to read opens up an incredible world of instructional material. There are a ton of excellent books available to the aspiring bassist, but you need to know how to read to make use of most of them. As with any other skill, start slowly and be patient with yourself. Regardless of your current skill level, even a few minutes a day spent on reading will bring immeasurable benefits. And for beginners, I promise you, the time you take to learn to read will be repaid many times over.

Learn to Read Number Charts

I can’t stress this one enough, either. Fine, you can scratch G, Em, C, D on your notepad and play the song. But, if you write I, VI, IV, V instead, you can then play the song in any key. How cool is that? In addition, when telling the rest of the band to go to a new chord for the upcoming part of the song, FIVE is more easily understood that GEE, which may be confused with the other four chords that end with an EE sound. Please note that, in some circles, you’ll see a lot of Number Charts. If you can’t read them, you don’t get to play.

Practice every day

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only an outstanding composer; he was also an excellent organist. According to legend, he once told a friend that if he didn’t practice for one day, he could tell; if he didn’t practice for two days, his friends and associates could tell; if he didn’t practice for three days, the whole world could tell.

Even if all you can manage is fifteen minutes a day, do it! It’s fine if you put in marathon sessions a few times a week, but you’ll lose your edge if you don’t play your instrument daily. And anyone can find fifteen minutes in their day.

Turn off the TV

And get rid of other distractions while you’re at it. Playing around with your bass while watching TV is NOT practice. In fact, it can cause you to slide backwards because it often reinforces bad habits. So, if you just have to watch that Simpsons rerun for the umpteenth time, go ahead. But if you want to practice, pay attention to what you’re doing.

Wash your hands first

This serves several purposes: It removes the dirt and oil that could otherwise deaden your strings faster (and saves you money). If you use warm water, it will help warm up your hands. Finally, it gives you a small “ritual” with which to prepare your mind, focusing on what’s to come.

As you practice, so shall you perform

A bandleader once scolded his musicians during a rehearsal because most of them were just going through the motions instead of really concentrating. He pointed out that, if the band rehearsed like a bunch of zombies, that attitude could easily invade their performances. I find this to be true of personal practice time, as well. Regardless of what you’re practicing, you should play with conviction and demand of yourself the best you can give. This is called “discipline”.

Keep bass placement consistent

Muscle Memory is an important part of playing any instrument. If your hands are in different positions relative to the bass when you practice, it may be difficult to play live what you’ve practiced so diligently. Therefore, the position of your bass during practice should be the same as when you perform. This is the reason I began playing my bass slightly above my lap. Whether I sit or stand, the bass is always in the same position. If you prefer to wear your bass below this level, it’s best to stand while practicing.

Hit the fret wire

When fretting a note, your finger should be right up against the fret wire, not in the middle of the fret. If you’re aiming for the middle of the fret and fall a bit short, this could lead to a fuzzy note, or a note that’s 1/2 step flat if you’re up in those skinny frets. If you aim for the fret wire and fall a bit short, you’re still in the middle of the fret, and still have a clean sounding note. Carol Kaye drilled this into me more than 20 years ago, and I am forever in her debt for doing so.

Keep a notebook

Building a notebook helps you keep track of your progress. It makes it easier to review the things you’ve been working on (see above). I also helps you to remember to practice that F# minor scale you keep forgetting.

Keep a list

At the beginning of your notebook, keep a few pages for lists. At a minimum, you should keep a running list of the scales you work on. Another one of songs you’ve learned.

Begin with review

It’s always a good idea to start your practice session with something you already know. That way, you begin by playing something well. And that’s always a good feeling.

Basics first

Whole notes. Major scale. Simple riffs. Consistent, correct technique – in both hands. If you’re a beginner, start building proper habits now and don’t ever lose them. If you’ve already got time under your belt, the time to replace bad habits with new, better ones, is now. The sooner done, the better.

Start slowly

Crawl. Walk. Run. It made sense as a baby, and it makes sense as a bass student. Sure, it’s more fun to play that cool riff at blinding speed, impressing your friends and potential girlfriends. Even more fun is to play it fast and well. When learning a new exercise, scale or riff, start slowly to give your muscles a chance to learn to play it correctly. The speed will come later.

Play it perfectly

Whether you play an exercise well or poorly, your muscles are learning. So it only makes sense to teach them to do things correctly. Begin at a slow speed, one at which you can play the exercise perfectly ten times in a row. Then – and only then – increase your tempo by small increments. At each new tempo, the Ten Times Rule applies, so be patient.

One at a time

Don’t take on too many scales at one time; it only leads to confusion. Instead, focus on a single scale until you know it cold. Learn to play it in every key and in various rhythms. Once you’ve mastered a scale, move on to another one.

Review Constantly

This is important. It won’t help you to practice the Fridgidarian mode until you can play it at 240BPM in thirty-seconds if you don’t keep it under your fingertips. Along with muscle memory comes muscle forgetfulness. Review, review, review.

Assess your progress

Once every three months or thereabouts, get your notebook and a beverage (my favorite is coffee); sit down and see how far you’ve come. Look at everything you’ve learned. New scales, new riffs, new songs. Sure, you might have had a slump for a week or two, but, overall, it’s been a good, steady climb. If you see any areas that need a little extra focus, add them to your plan (you are working the plan, right?) for the next three months. Now, take a moment to feel good about your progress and pat yourself on the back.

Join a band

After about three months of lessons with a guitarist at the local music store, the teacher told me he’d taught me everything he knew about bass. Then he said, “what you need to do is join a band.” And he was right. As with personal practice, start slow. Learn easy songs. Practice a handful of them until your presentation is solid from beginning to end, and everywhere in between. Then, add a few more, and a few more.

Take some time off

That’s right. Put your bass down. Leave it there. Sometimes, that’s all you can do to get yourself out of that rut you’re in. Take a short sabbatical from the bass, just a week or two, and you’ll come back with new perspective.

There you go. Twenty-one things you can do to get more out of your practice time. Remember, each one – by itself – is useful. But, do them all, and watch out! The sky’s the limit.