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I've been playing bass for about four years now. Before that I had some experience with guitar and piano but once I picked up a bass I loved it.

I'd consider myself at about an intermediate skill level. I have some basic scales down, can throw in some fills here and there, and come up with some basic bass lines off of a chord sheet.

My problem is when I'm not playing with a group I'm not sure what I should really focus on to practice and improve. Should I really focus on scales? Playing along with some of my favorite songs? Or something different all together?

Any advice would be really appreciated!

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Do you have a goal to aim for, more specific than just "being better"? –  slim Dec 5 '11 at 14:31
    
That's a good question. I guess one thing I'm struggling with most right now is that I can learn all kinds of scales but I have a hard time understanding how to use them to create a bass groove. I guess I'd like to improve my ability to play/create more complex bass lines when need be. –  Vecta Dec 5 '11 at 14:45

6 Answers 6

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My advice is to learn the bass parts of songs for which you wish you had created that bass part instead of the player who actually did. For example, I spent a good part of my late teens pretty much learning every bass part on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, because I thought everything Flea played was awesome. After that, it was onto Sly & The Family Stone songs, etc. etc.

Try to get every detail correct---not just the notes, but the timing, the inflection (did he slide up to that note? hammer on? re-pluck it?), and everything else that went into making that bass part. In this exercise, your goal is to be able to re-create the bass part so completely that if you could simply replace the recording with your own playing, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. You'll see the scales that you already know begin to emerge in the context of actual bass parts, and that way you'll learn how they all fit together to make actual music.

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In my personal opinion, one of the best skills you can have is being tight. Practice with songs you like and be extremely critical of your timing. This will help you in the long run a lot.

Also, there is no point in knowing scales and other stuff if you can't do them on time. Use a metronome when practicing your scales and don't give yourself any leniency. In a band, if the bassist isn't on time, the rest of the music becomes weak. It's almost as bad as a drummer with bad timing.

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My opinion, mirrored by many bass greats, is that your timing can never be too perfect in practice. So, timing exercises, such as playing scales to a metronome at varying tempos, are always good to include in an at-home practice session.

You can also never be too familiar with your fretboard. Sightreading music in standard notation may not be a skill you'll need in practice very often, but knowing how to play off a staff both increases your overall music reading skills, AND increases your knowledge of the fretboard by rote.

Other than that:

  • Train your fingers to know how to get to the next note at least 2 different ways. Different patterns of major and minor scales are great, especially if you play them in two octaves.

  • Coordinate your left and right hands. Your left hand fretting the note at exactly the right moment means nothing if your right hand isn't plucking that note, and by the same token, plucking the right string exactly in tempo means nothing if your fretting hand isn't where it's supposed to be.

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Since bass guitar predominantly provides a supporting role in bands, practicing against a rhythm is probably the best way to improve as a bassist. Use a drum machine and practice against different beats at different tempos. It will improve your ability to play with a band (a drummer at least) and will inspire creativity in your playing.

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As noted before, work on your timing, as a bassist, its critical to have a solid sense of time.

My process when I want to write something really intricate is to start extremely simple. Once you have a core rhythm, and your hand is comfortable playing that riff, push it a little further on the next refrain. Add a couple notes in, if they don't sound right, its ok as long as they're on time, just continue playing (gotta practice keeping time, even if you mess up.),and just fix it the next go around.

Experiment with hammer-ons and quick slides, they can make your playing sound much more intricate without the drawback of killing your hands once they get used to it.

As far as writing goes, its really all up to your level of skill and determination. Find a song that you know will challenge you, and try to see what that bassist was doing in his or her fills/rhythms, you'd be surprised how simple some extremely intricate sounding bass lines really are once you break them down.

As for your ability to play better... Exercise. The best way I've found to do that, is to play! If you're practicing and exploring new sounds or ways of playing, you will naturally get better.

When I want to push myself to improve, I try to speed up songs until I'm not fretting properly anymore, then I back off a little bit at a time till I play it, after four years you should have some skills behind you at this point, try to change your fretting to make it more percussive to save having to pluck or pick the string one or more times(allowing for more notes in a shorter amount of time).

If it sounds too harsh, try slowing down the speed of the hammer-on slightly until its smoothed out, and once you do that, try to lower where your fingers rest while playing until your fingers are moving as little as possible to fret or move to another fret.

Once this becomes muscle memory your hands will use less energy to play more notes than you are now. I seem to recall really starting to fine tune my playing around my 4th year and this is one of the things I wish I'd known then. Good Luck.

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Having played in a couple of bands over the past 15 years I can empathize with your question. Applaud yourself for your own self-critique. Most bass players can sound passable in a band situation while an extremely small percentage can sound great. The difference lies in your own self-evaluation. My advice, and the rule I live by, is to be your most intense critic. Play a song on stage with your band, bask in the groove of the audience while jotting mental notes of how you could play better. I play in a cover band and I will play along with a song thousands of times simply for the pleasure of wondering how I could have done better. If you are wanting to be better, you are most of the way there. To mirror several of the other comments, practice with a harsh ear and staunch determination to be on time. Always enjoy the rhythm section!

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