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Woodshedding: A Bass Player's Guide To Getting Better

Everyone knows that the secret of becoming a better musician is to play with other musicians, especially ones who are better than you are. But what do you do when you can't play with musicians who are better than you are?

I started playing bass around the age of 15. I didn't get lessons, or study under another bass player, though my brother in law would come by sometimes and play something that made me feel miserable for the rest of the day. He was so much better than I was. He was in his mid 20's and had been playing ever since he was 15. But I owe him a debt of gratitude for getting me started. He loaned me a bass to learn on, and a year later on my birthday took me to buy my first bass (a Fender Jazz).

In fact, I wouldn't study music formally until about a decade later. Still, I learned some basic music theory, and more importantly, I practiced along to tapes of my favorite bands. I think this relative freedom from being told what to do gave me the ability to develop my own style. I would eventually develop a highly melodic style of playing that was like nothing else I'd been hearing at the time (and like nothing else I hear today).

My Early Homework

John Paul JonesInstead of doing homework in high school, I picked up the bass and a book and started learning Led Zeppelin riffs. Heartbreaker. Living Loving Maid. How Many More Times. Dazed And Confused. This was my homework, and it was much more gratifying than book reports and math equations. John Paul Jones' big fat bass lines - the ones that were simple enough for me to comprehend and play - gave me something to aspire to.

The first bass lines I was able to pick out were from the Violent Femmes. Brian Ritchie's brash lines defined many of the early Violent Femmes songs. My second bass was an acoustic electric, and I bought it because of Brian Ritchie.

Whenever I see music teachers talking about how to learn the bass, I see them talking about theory and practicing hand positions and scales and all sorts of other things that turn learning music into work. While I agree that all this is important, I think the first lessons should be the ones that are going to inspire someone to keep going and eventually learn all the theory.

In short, you should learn to play the (simpler) bass lines of your favorite bands, and maybe the guitar parts too. Every bass player knows how to play guitar, but most guitar players don't know the first thing about bass, yet recommend it to their friends who want to learn guitar the easy way. Let me tell you a little secret.

Guitar is infinitely easier than bass at the beginning. I'll tell you everything a guitar player needs to know to get started. E minor, G major, A minor, C major, D major, and about 4 barre chords. If you learn these few things, you should be able to strum your way through thousands of songs. The bass player is responsible for moving the song along underneath these chords.

Being able to play along to your favorite songs will give you the energy to keep going, and the thirst to know the why behind the what.

Expanding Your Vocabulary - Required Listening

Larry GrahamA few years after I started playing bass - before I was any good, I went to my brother in law and asked if he had a Sly and the Family Stone CD. I'd heard that this guy Larry Graham was doing things that I needed to know about. He told me I had to borrow his James Brown CD as well. James Brown's bass players, like a young Bootsy Collins, were doing important shit that I needed to know.

Larry Graham single handedly invented what we call "slap" style bass playing. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, that's ok. I never did get any good at slap anyway. Still, you have to buy Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. The release of this album changed the sound of electric bass playing forever.

James Brown's backup band (whose roster kept changing over the years) laid down some undeniable grooves, and along with Parliament-Funkadelic, is probably the most sampled artist of all time. James Brown - 20 All Time Greatest Hits and 20th Century Masters by Parliament are a good starting point for your bass education.

Still, the roots of Fender Bass playing (as it was known before there were any other electric basses!) go deeper.

Baby's First Words

Before he joined Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones was a highly sought after session bass player. He was actually a rock star before he joined Led Zeppelin when he was in the Jett Harris band, and played on a few hits. The reason he was in such high demand was that he could mimic the Motown sound that was exploding across the ocean. In an interview he said all the other session players were just playing "root and fifth" and he could improvise in a Motown style.

James Jamerson was the Fender Bass' first genius, and his style subtly influenced the language of bass. But as a beginning bass player you have to learn to walk before you can run.

While in Detroit (back in an era when each city had a sound), the Motown sound was taking hold, in Memphis another revolution was taking place. Stax Records "Soulsville, USA" had a roster of artists that included Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. Their house band, also known as Booker T and the MG's was setting fire to record players across the nation with their own brand of Memphis Soul.

If Standing In The Shadows of Motown was the moment when the Motown house band got it's moment in the spotlight, for the Stax Record musicians (who were popular already in their Booker T and the MG's incarnation) it was the movie The Blues Brothers. The amazing thing about The Blues Brothers is that the musicians playing on all those classic songs are the ones who laid down the definitive versions 20 years earlier, and on bass was the incomparable Donald "Duck" Dunn.

When the Black Crowes released their first single, they decided on a Stax classic - Hard To Handle.

Donald "Duck" Dunn

Donald "Duck" DunnDuck's the greatest. When I first started recording the producers would say try to sound like like Duck, do it like Duck does. he had a really big impact on us.
- David Hood (Muscle Shoals studio bassist)

Duck's lines are classic. He proves that you don't need to play a lot of notes to make a statement. His bass lines move the song without a lot of fuss.

Whenever someone asks for a place to start improving his bass playing skills, I point him to the book What Duck Done. While none of the line are in tab format (this is a good excuse to learn to read music) many of Duck's lines are easy for a beginner to pick up, and this book makes up an essential part of any bass player's vocabulary.

Duck's use of the 6th is an important part of my musical vocabulary. Their prominent use on songs like Mr. Pitiful, I Can't Turn You Loose, and Soul Man, and the feeling he plays them with are great tools to reach for. I actually consider my learning to use the 6th an important part of my musical development.

James Brown & the Funkmasters

James Brown immortalized as a singing doll.James Brown Is Still Alive. Anyone visiting a dance club in the 80's knows those words. So influential that songs were written as a reaction to his influence in the hip hop and dance communities.

The only way I can think of think to describe James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is relentless rhythms. James Brown is without a doubt one of the most influential musicians of all time.

His song "I Feel Good" is so iconic that along with Elvis Presley and Santa, he has a singing, dancing doll.

The book The Funkmasters: The Great James Brown Rhythm Sections 1960-1973 is probably the most well organized of all the books in my collection. A note-by-note transcription with tablature of 23 of James Browns most important songs with notes on each performance. Just reading the commentary could make you a better bass player.

While there's nothing rudimentary or simple about these bass lines, an intermediate bass player should be able to pick them up, though playing them with the right feel could take years of practice. These songs are more sophisticated both rhythmically and melodically than the Duck Dunn songs, and I think this book is a good second place to go. You could spend years learning these songs and getting them just right, and you'd come out of the experience a much better bass player.

Standing In The Shadows of James Jamerson

James JamersonThe epitome of electric bass playing, James Jamerson's lines are sublime. Some of his lines are as simple as breathing - My Girl comes to mind, Just My Imagination as well. Other lines are staggeringly complex, yet he executes them as easily, spontaneously, and beautifully.

Wynton Marsalis said of Louis Armstrong that his solo's are so good they sound as if he'd written them out ahead of time, yet he wrote them spontaneously. The same could be said for James. For him, playing bass seems to come as easily as speaking, and the things he said though the years spoke to the heart, soul, and hips of America.

Standing In The Shadows of Motown is more than just a lesson book. A lot of the book is a history and appreciation of James Jamerson. You really come to know the man behind the bass. His highest and lowest moments are all here. The book is compelling reading, but if you want, you can skip ahead to the last section.

Over 20 bassists, some of them world renowned (Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Gedy Lee, Chuck Rainey, Jack Bruce and others), donated their time time and talents to talk a bit about Motown, Jamerson and perform some classic tracks, which are also transcribed for you to learn from.

I know it may seem like I have an extremely narrow focus here - Rhythm, Soul & Funk, but I really believe that this is the legacy we have as electric bass players. After working your way through these books (if you can manage it!), rock music will seem simple.

Variety is the Spice of Life

As I mentioned before, Larry Graham single-handedly invented slap style bass playing. His video Graham Funk Bass Attack (which I haven't seen - it's on my wishlist) should provide a solid foundation for any bass player looking to learn slap bass.

Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing Baby

All of these books come with accompany CD's with a bass track panned hard left or right, and the rest of the instruments panned to the other side. This lets you isolate the bass to learn, or extract it to play along. But these are also all modern recordings, none of them are the originals. They're a little to clinical for my tastes.

So I suggest you do what I did and track down the original versions of as many of the songs as you can, and burn them to CD or stick them in an mp3 playlist. Here's a recommended list of CD's that have a lot of the tracks in these books.

Duck Dunn & Stax

James Brown

James Jamerson & Motown

Larry Graham


I admit to a certain amount of reverence for these musicians and an unabashed love of this kind of music. I'm sure a lot of people looking to learn bass, or improve their skills read things saying to themselves "Why should I learn all these crusty old tracks?"

My defense comes in the form of John Paul Jones. Often credited with bringing the Motown groove to British Rock, he reminds us that what made Led Zeppelin great was that they listened to a wide range of music. All the imitators fall short because they're just listening to one kind of music- Zeppelin.

Sure you can play whatever kind of music you want to, and do it well without listening to or learning any of the music I talk about here, but once you start examining your lineage as a bass player, you're going to find that some of your idols revere this stuff as much as I do. There would be no Flea if there was no Larry Graham.

This is by no means a complete list, and I'm sure there are some who would disagree with my choices, or want to add their personal hero's to the list. My idea here wasn't to create a difinitive list, just to provide a foundation for you to build from.

Woodshedding is the act of practicing by yourself - out of site in the wood shed.

page first created on Wednesday, September 22, 2004

© Mark Wieczorek