Saturday, March 28, 2009

Groovin' on the Upright Bass

I reported some time back that I am learning to play the upright bass (see picture of an upright bass). I am amazed and pleased to see a lot of progress in my mastery of this instrument.

I love many music styles, including rock, bluegrass, country & western and rhythm & blues. However, the genre I am looking to learn is jazz. Jazz gives maximum opportunity to improvise, but improvisation isn't as easy as it sounds -- where just play any darn thing that pops into your head. Being able to improvise requires a sound knowledge of scales and chords. What you are playing must resonate harmoniously with the key and chords of the song you are performing. You can't just play anything. It has to fit.

I have been practicing scales (do re mi fa so la ti do) in every key, for both major, minor and dominant 7th scales, as well as arpeggios (chords, which involve only select notes in the scale). If you want to learn bass, you have to practice your scales a million times each, until you could jump out of an airplane at 5,000 feet and rip through all of them before your parachute opens. Well, to be honest I am not going to test my knowledge this way.

Practicing scales allows you to exercise your fingers, using the right fingers at the right time for maximum reach, dexterity and tonal quality. It also greatly trains your ear and creates something called muscle memory -- you know where on the finger board to press without thinking about it; it's instantaneous.

Playing scales is only part of your ear training, however. You need to listen often to the music you want to learn. I play jazz CDs in my car going to and from work, with the bass speaker turned up and the treble speaker turned down so I can clearly hear every pop, twang and hum of the bass. I want to hear these bass lines in my head when the music is turned off and now I can.

So after doing all this for awhile, when you hear a jazz tune and are familiar with jazz chord patterns, like minor blues patterns, you know what to play instantly.

I'm using some CDs created for training jazz muscians. They are produced by a guy named Jamey Aebersold. Each CD comes with a book of the music so you can follow the chord patterns. This week I played the Minor Blues in II-V7-I pattern, took my bass out of the stand and...played the music almost perfectly on the first try. I was truly amazed. So regular practice actually works! Who would have guessed?

So to sum it all up, to play an instrument you must (1) learn what the music is supposed to sound like and (2) learn to make those sounds! Simple. Well, not really, you have to be willing to work and be patient.

I've also taught myself to read notes in the bass clef and that comes in handy when learning patterns and tunes from a book. Dang, I be a musician, Bro!

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