Learning the Bass Guitar – “Listen for the Feeling” 

By Cal Coleman 

Let your ear, your instinct, and your soul be your guide. 

I am going to talk about some of the intangible parts of music in this article rather than just mechanics. I want to focus on how to create the “feel” when learning to play bass. The bass guitar is a rhythm instrument, and you need to have an understanding of emotion to avoid sounding robotic when you play. Mastering this feeling will launch you to new places faster than just knowing where to put your fingers. I have noticed that bass guitar players seem to have an instant friendship when we meet. I think we all understand that we have a special role we play in music that we cherish. 

A few weeks ago the drummer on our gig called me, as a bassist, the “warm blanket” wrapped around his guitar melodies. My bass amp was going bad during sound check, and while the band played, I tried to problem solve. He spent this time saying that he missed that feeling of comfort that comes from the bass. He described exactly what I want to do for people when I play the bass. I hope that people feel like my playing is satisfying, so solid, and yet with such feeling, that it literally gives them comfort. 

The bass guitar is the low tone, with big, slow-moving sound waves. It is kind of warm to the body and ears, so I actually try to play the bass that way. Listen to some reggae: notice how there is really no treble or much mid range to the tone. Just a pillowy, bump bump sound. 
Listen to other genres of music. Notice the subtle differences in the tone of the bass guitar. Once, at a Tom Petty concert I noticed the bass player generated a mid-rangy plucky tone. On one particular song, he was using a pick which really brought out that sound. This is how straight ahead roots rock music sounds. It gives the music a certain feeling. 

Then there is the feel of how the other musicians are playing. Bass players adjust to the requirements of the song’s feel but they don’t go with the flow in the same way on every song. When we play “Stayin’ Alive” in our disco band, Satin Love Orchestra, I play on top of the beat. I almost push the tempo, as that is the total vibe of that song. It really bounces along. But when I play bass for “Is this Love,” a rock ballad by Whitesnake in our ‘80s band, Shelley James Musicbox, I lay back and pump the notes trying to be totally inside the drummer’s beat. In those songs, I really don’t ever want to sound like I am rushing. It kills the flow. 
Another consideration when you are playing the bass: connect with your drummer. All drummers have slightly different ways they feel the music. I tend to lock in on the high hat as my guide for where to place my notes. It is also very helpful to play your patterns in accordance with the drummer’s kick drum pattern. You will notice that two different drummers will play different kick patterns on the same song. I feel that I do better if I make adjustments to the drummer. I like to position myself to the drummer’s left. That way I can turn to him, and we can make eye contact easily. The friendship is powerful, and if you are giving each other nonverbal cues of approval, smiles, nods, etc, you will get into a tighter and tighter rhythmic relationship with each other. You, as a rhythm section, will be supporting your band in the best way possible, and will enjoy the experience. 

When I was single and had more time to myself, I used to listen to my favorite albums over and over. Every Friday after class during my freshman year of college, I would hole up in my dorm room and listen to Tower of Power’s “Back to Oakland” and Weather Report’s “Black Market” front to back. It caused me to learn every note on both records. It was my Friday celebration, and I didn’t realize that it was embedding amazing bass playing into my soul which I would use for years to come. The bass players on these records are two of the greatest: Francis Rocco Prestia, and Jaco Pastorious, respectively. 
I find this to be so valuable! Learn what the notes are doing. Hear the song. Hear the scales. Hear the licks. Get them into your soul and mind. Then when you strap on the bass guitar, you will find that as you explore the process of recreating those sounds, the bass lines are already familiar. It is the same as a great skier imagining the course before the race, or the golfer seeing the flight and landing of the ball before the shot. Internalize what your body will do. You will develop elements in the quantum realm to engage the flow you want to achieve in music. Visualization is key to music. So is the mindset. If you take the time to place your mind and heart in the music, your body will follow. 

Final nuggets of wisdom to help you learn to play the bass guitar: Learn scales, master the basics. Learn to read music. Learn to be really good at easy before you tackle complex. Be simple. Bands will love you if you hold down the simple groove more than a fancy player who does not keep time. After all, they want you to be their warm blanket. 

Links to helpful articles and lessons for all bass players: 

Abe Laboriel Bass Guitar Lesson on YouTube I had the pleasure of having dinner with him at PF Chang’s in Sherman Oaks, CA. He is an awesome guy, and I love the way he teaches. We later had the pleasure of watching him perform with his band at the Baked Potato on Ventura BLVD. It was an awesome night. 

Bass Player Magazine 

A wealth of information about gear, lessons, and interviews with the greats. I have subscribed for years. 

Leave a comment