Do you need an instructor to learn how to play?
When I first tried learning to play bass, I didn’t have an instructor and I didn’t really get anywhere. I’d asked friends, but they were busy with other projects, and were more guitarists than bassists to begin with. I had no one to compare myself to, to see if anything I was doing was right or wrong. I just went through the exercises in my book, slowly, and stopped somewhere around where blues bass lines began.
Some years later, after we’d all gone our separate ways, I hung out with one of my old friends (Hi Ray!) again. He was still playing guitar in a band. The talk turned to bass and I told him that I still hadn’t learned how to play. He told me that I should just grab tabs from an easy band that I liked, like Green Day, and learn how to play from that.
Well, I didn’t do that. I didn’t do much of anything with bass at all, other than read Bass Player magazine semi-monthly. Last Thanksgiving (2010), I finally dug up my old bass and went to a teacher. I found someone in my city (Yonkers, NY) and ran out to make a start.
My teacher is a pianist and guitarist. He’s younger than me and has been playing since he was a teenager. He doesn’t read music, but can play pretty skillfully. During our first lesson, he went over my experience with me, what my musical interests were and asked me if I was sure that I wanted to learn bass, and why I wanted to do it now, after all of these years.
I explained to him that I loved bass, but hadn’t made time to sit down and learn to play. I told him that when I listen to music, although I love a lot of music as a whole, I really focus on what the bass player is doing. Those deep sounds are the ones that pull at me and move me the most. I think he might have been secretly trying to gauge whether or not he could sway me into learning guitar instead, but at some point, I told him that there are too many guitarists in the world, and we need more bass players. That might have steered him off of that course.
My instructor had asked me to bring a piece of music that I’d like to learn when I come. I brought “Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious”, from Carcass, one of my favorite bands (and probably one reason why grabbing Green Day tabs didn’t happen). I had hopes to learn “Incarnated Solvent Abuse”, even if it took me all year. I figured, it was probably difficult and would take me a long time to learn, but that if I could do that, I’d probably be able to learn other things more easily.
We never got to look at the CD. We ended up discussing a bunch of other things, like bass players (Cliff Burton) and techniques that I’d heard at shows and read about (harmonics) and then my hour was up. I also had the chance to show just how uncoordinated I was with the instrument by trying to show some of the exercises I’d practiced, years ago and apparently doing everything wrong.
The good things that came out of this were (1) my instructor let me know that my fretting fingers weren’t pressing the strings correctly – they were far too wobbly and were bending backwards at the first digit and (2) I had to come back in a week and now had someone to report to.
My advice to new students is this: Get an instructor. Even if its just for a few lessons in the beginning, do it. Learn how to properly hold the instrument and learn some initial exercises to move around the bass. Once you’re comfortable with holding the bass, fretting and attacking the strings (I don’t like the word plucking), you can probably turn to books, videos and the internet to learn more until you feel like you need an instructor again.
Also, having someone to report to, who monitors your progress, helps keep you actually practicing. That’s really important. You have to practice every day, even if it’s a little, like 20 mins. at a time, you just have to do it. Playing bass, in the beginning, is a physical skill. You’re conditioning your fingers and building strength, coordination and muscle memory. It has to be practiced, like an exercise regimen. I remember reading somewhere that it takes the body about 3 weeks to learn a physical skill. So, really, those first 3 weeks are key.
I actually screwed it up. I didn’t practice consistently, so my physical ability increased in an awkward manner. I only took 2 lessons, and although I practiced, I skipped a week in the beginning. Work also got in the way, so for months I’d skip days frequently. Don’t do this. In the time that followed, when I did dedicate time to consistently practice, my ability grew much more rapidly and I was able to move onto topics that really made me feel like I was making progress.
Initially, I focused on exercises, nothing musical. I’d read things, but I still just did exercises over and over. I think it helped give my hands the ability to move around, but it did make me stagnate a bit, because I didn’t feel like I was learning anything. Its probably a good idea to do something musical and something physical in the same day. I’ll get into that at a later point though.