In this article I’m going to point out what I consider to be the biggest mistakes beginner bass players make when learning how to play bass. I'm assuming your goal as a bassist is to be creative and knowledgeable. Most people want to play original music and understand how music works. I often feel bad (and sometimes downright angry) when I see someone who really wants to learn, but they are misguided in their learning approach. Most of the time it's not even their fault. A student might pick up the wrong book at the wrong time or a student might take lessons from a poor teacher.
There are many approaches to learning. I don't have all the answers. But, in my years of teaching experience I’ve seen a lot of people try different approaches to learning and I feel like I have a good sense of many things which work and don’t work. These are all my opinions of course. So take what you want from them.
Here is my list of common beginner mistakes:
Not Making the Effort to Find a Good Bass Teacher
Sometimes even one lesson with a good bass teacher can put you on the right path and approach to learning. Take the time to ask around or look up teachers. Don’t just choose someone because they live 3 houses down from you. If you have to drive 45 minutes each way for good bass lessons, so be it. Don’t be afraid to try out a lot of teachers and see whose style you like best.
If you can help it, make sure you study with someone who is really into bass and has spent a lot of time studying it. There are a lot of guitar teachers who will gladly teach you bass, but they're not really bassists at heart. Even though they share similarities, guitar and bass are not the same instrument. The role and the approach to playing them are very different.
Just Learning Tabs and Songs
Learning songs, basslines, and solos is an important part of developing as a bassist. One of the biggest mistakes bassists make is only learning songs. Unless your goal is to be a human bassline jukebox, learning songs should be just one of many parts of your bass practice routine.
The trap here is students feel like since they can physically play a song, they are learning and developing. That’s only a fraction of really learning about the instrument and about music. When you learn a song you have to take away something from it beyond the physical ability to play the song. If you want to develop your creative muscle, you need to glean concepts from songs you learn such as the use of rhythms, the way the notes were used, and other various musical concepts. This is essential if you want to create your own basslines and music. If you don’t study what makes the bass part work, you’re getting very little out of it.
To gain an understanding of what makes basslines and music work, you need to study the building blocks of music melody, harmony, and rhythm as well as the technique to produce them. If you’re not studying the foundations of music, you won’t be able to make as much use of and make sense of the songs you are learning. You want to approach things from both sides: the songs and the underlying musical principles.
Not Having Fun
The flipside of just learning songs is not having any fun while learning how to play. There are some boring and tedious parts to learning to play bass. But, you should always be working on something that is pleasurable and satisfying. Most of all, find the right balance of the tedious stuff and the fun stuff so you are motivated to practice. Just don’t do only one or the other.
Getting Stuck in One Style
One thing I never understand is when people say, “I just like metal” or, “I just like jazz.” To me it seems like if you really like any one style of music, you just really like music. And, if you want to be a musician, you’d want to study music. I urge you not to define yourself as only liking one style. You might prefer metal, but you might learn a bunch of useful concepts from reggae to apply to metal. Music is music. Some styles make some musical concepts easier to grasp than others. That’s why you want to explore everything.
Not Learning Music History
A big part of understanding music comes from studying its origins. A lot of students get caught up in what is happening now. That’s all they want to look at. What’s happening now is a result of what happened before. Analyzing what was done before can lead you to deeper insights about current trends. Also, it can lead you in new directions altogether. If you don’t like music’s current state, you might go back in history and build a new direction off of a previous time in music’s history.
Many of the beginning mistakes can be reduced to impatience. There is a lot to learn and it doesn’t happen quickly. If you are really into learning you may discover it’s never-ending. However long it takes to learn something is how long it takes. There’s no timetable. You don’t have to meet certain goals by a certain time. Just keep at it and it will come.
Something I feel is important is you need to learn to enjoy every moment of your musical development. You will always feel like you can play better and that there’s so much to learn. That never goes away. The way you relate to your playing right now is probably the same way you will feel all of your life. Embrace it. That’s you.
Playing Too Much, Too Fast
A lot of times beginning musicians get it in their heads that proof of mastering an instrument is being able to play a lot of notes and play very fast. After all, all of those masterful musicians do it all the time. Therefore, beginners think, I need to play fast!
For novice musicians, the speed and quantity of notes is just the easiest part of it to perceive. There is, however, a lot more going on than just the speed and quantity of notes.
In the early stages be careful not to play too much or too fast. Bad habits develop quickly. Practicing slowly and accurately is more important in the early stages. It gives you time to absorb the sounds and pay attention to details. Be patient. A metronome is a good aid to pacing yourself.
One of the hardest things to get beginners to do is listen. You need to listen to what you are playing. I’ve seen a lot of young players come in and say they can play a song perfectly. Sure enough they put their fingers on all the right frets and play the right rhythms, but the bass is out of tune! As a result, it doesn’t sound like the song at all. Think with your ears, not your fingers.
Not Playing With Other People Soon Enough
The students I see develop the most quickly are the ones that go out and play with other people. There’s nothing like making mistakes and making a fool of yourself to motivate you to practice. You are constantly made aware of flaws in your playing. And, playing with others will help you prioritize your learning. You will realize things like: I don’t need to work on playing slap bass, first I need to work on playing quarter notes consistently!
It doesn’t need to be a public performance. It could be you and a friend at home. Find a jam session. Play with a teacher. Don’t be scared.
Underestimating and Overestimating Abilities
I’ve noticed two prevalent personality types among bass students. Some students are always really down on their playing the “It’s not good enough” syndrome. And, others think their playing is great when it’s not the “I’m awesome” syndrome. Neither of these is good for you.
Those who are down about their playing delay themselves or procrastinate. They won’t play with people until it’s good enough. Don’t wait for absolute perfection. It’ll never come. Just jump in and do it!
Those who think they are awesome miss all the faults in their playing. You can’t fix what you don’t recognize. This is where a teacher pointing it out comes in handy. Not realizing there are things to work on in your playing will greatly stunt your musical growth. Don’t let your ego get in your way.
Not Realizing How Much Work It Is
Learning to play an instrument is a lot of work and commitment. No one can do it for you. In that sense music is a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much bass gear you can afford, your race, or where you live. Every musician has to earn it. Just a few years of solid work can take you far. In the scheme of things a few years is nothing.
Hopefully this article will point some of you in better directions with your approach to learning. I hate to see people get discouraged, frustrated, or quit just because they didn’t go about learning in a good way. Fill your learning approach with variety, have an open mind, listen, be patient, don’t judge your playing too much or too little, practice, and have fun!