Thursday, January 19, 2012

One year in

It's been one year, give or take a couple of weeks, since I dove back into bass playing. What have I learned so far?


You've got to play. Don't think about playing. Don't read about playing. Don't watch other people play. You've got to just play.

Every minute you spend playing, from warming up to jamming to records to just noodling around on your own makes you a better player. Sure, some things are more efficient at making you proficient than others, but the worst possible way to get better at playing bass is to not play at all.


Music theory isn't exactly the most fun thing in the world. Learning it can be... well, a little boring, out of the context of actual music. Get around this by keeping the "music" in music theory. Learn theory in the context of songs you love. Figure out why they sound the way they do, and internalize it. That way when you hear a certain sound in your head, you have the language you need to communicate that through your fretboard.

Play... with other people

You'll never stop playing on your own. Solo practice is essential no matter how good you get. But playing with other people is one of the reasons most bass players get into the instrument. Because, let's face it, the bass isn't exactly a solo instrument. (At least, not for most mortal players. Solo virtuoso bass is a topic I don't have much insight on.)

So get out there. Take chances on people you don't know and play some bass. Sure, putting an ad on craigslist or or your local music store is a lot like randomly dating people on the internet. You're going to come across some weirdos, flakes, and oddballs you'll probably never want to see again. But you'll also meet some awesome people who are in the exact same position you are in: cool people just looking to play.

So get out there and do it. As often as you want, if not more.

Don't just learn... understand

I hit on this in my post about learning a Pretenders song, but the biggest thing I learned all year about music is that rote memorization doesn't get you very far. Instead, working to understand the structure of a song allows you to play it, internalize it, and then apply what you've learned to new music.

Playing music you don't understand is the equivalent of learning a speech in another language. Sure, you might be saying the words right. You might even get the inflection right. But the intent behind is going to be empty. When you understand the music, down to the rhythm and harmonic relations, you don't need to think about the mechanics of it. You're not reading; you're speaking.

If you haven't already, give it a try. I promise you'll notice the difference.

What's next for 2012

So, what's next? More of playing, for sure. More jamming with new musicans. Hopefully, more gear and book reviews. (I'm hoping to write up a review of The Lost Art of Country Bass some time in the next few weeks.) I'm also hoping to start exploring original songwriting as a bassist, so that should provide some fertile ground for posts.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Learning to count (a simple guide to time signatures)

Perhaps the most important skill I use when playing bass doesn't have anything to do with the instrument itself. As a rhythm instrument, staying in rhythm is pretty damn important. To stay in rhythm, locked in with a drummer, I count.

Do I constantly count? Well, no. I've internalized it. But when I'm learning a new song, or working on a difficult passage, you can bet I'm focused on counting out the notes.

(This post isn't a replacement for learning to read music, which I think any serious bass player should do. For a deeping delving into musical theory and bass guitar, I recommend reading the Hal Leonard Bass Method books by Ed Friedland.)

I highly recommend using a metronome to practice your counting. The metronome doesn't lie-- it'll keep you honest and accurate when counting.

So, what do you need to know about counting to keep time? In my opinion, not that much.

Time Signatures

95% of the songs that most rock, country, and R&B bassists are going to play are going to be in 4/4 time. Essentially, 4/4 time means that there are four beats in a measure (or "bar" as it is occasionally known) and that each of those beats are a quarter note (the "/4" of the time signature). So in 4/4 time, you count from one to four. Each of those beats is a quarter note.

Compare this 3/4 time (you might know it as "waltz" time). 3/4 time has three beats in a measure, and each of those beats is a quarter note. So 3/4 time is counted "1... 2... 3... 1... 2... 3... "

But 95% of everything you want to play will be in 4/4 time, which is four beats a measure.  This is counted "1... 2... 3... 4... 1... 2... 3... 4..."

Whole, half, and quarter notes

So what's this quarter note business? Well, technically it's kind of arbitrary and dependent on the time signature, but for our purposes you can just treat a quarter note as one beat as long as the time signature is some variation of */4.

If there are quarter notes, there must be whole notes, right? Of course there are. And as you might expect, a whole note is four times as long as a quarter note. A whole note lasts four beats, which in 4/4 time is also an entire measure. To count a whole note, simply count for four beats.

You also have half notes. A half note is two beats. Count two beats for this one.

To review:
  • Whole = 4 beats
  • Half = 2 beats
  • Quarter = 1 beat
8th notes

So far, all the notes we've talked about can be counted using a simple "1... 2... 3... 4..." style. Once we have notes that are subdivisions of a single beat, we need to change our counting pattern.

Perhaps the most common sustained pattern in rock music is a root note of a chord played as eighth notes. This one goes a long way. To count sustatined eighth notes, we add a subdivision to our counting pattern, so we have two syllables per beat. So, to count eighth notes we say "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and..."

16th notes

For the speedy stuff, we need to count in sixteenth notes. To do this, we need to double the syllables we were using per beat from two ("1 and") to four ("1 e and ah"). This might sound a bit awkward at first, but it gets you counting in sixteenth notes.

(Note that counting eighth notes at a tempo of 160 beats per minute (bpm) is the same as counting sixteenth notes at a tempo of 80 bpm.)


The last kind of note to consider counting are triplets. Triplets are a single beat divided into three parts. This is a departure from the previous kind of notes we talked about, these aren't a multiple of two. But, as you might guess from the name, counting a triplet just requires you to divide each beat into three parts. We've already got the syllables for this: "1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah..."

Tied together notes

Often you'll hear a note that's three beats long or a beat and a half. In musical notation, these notes are considered "tied." Essentially, they're a combination of whole, half, quarter, eighth, sisxteenth, or triplet notes. Count like normal through them and you should stay on rhythm.

That should be enough to get you started counting. Have questions? Leave a comment!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Introduction to bass guitar amplification

Most bass players get started with an entry level bass and a practice-grade combo amp. But to play with a full band, more power is needed than even loud practice amps can provide. Curious about bass amplification? Here's the bare-bones of how it works and an introduction to the different types of equipment in use.

Bass Amplification 101

Here's the part you probably figured out for yourself. You pluck a string. The string vibrates. The vibrations of the metal string over the magnets in the pickups on your bass create an electric signal. That signal is sent from your bass to your amplifier through your instrument cable.

Before that signal becomes noise, however, a few things need to happen.

The pre-amp
The pre-amp is where the signal from your bass guitar is processed. If your amp has an EQ to adjust things like bass, mids, and treble, it does those things in the pre-amp stage. If your amp has a built-in overdrive channel, this takes place in the pre-amp as well. After travelling through the pre-amp, the signal from your bass guitar is now ready to be... AMPLIFIED!

The power amp
This section is what gives amplifiers their name. The signal from your bass has originated in the pickups and traveled through the instrument cable to the pre-amp, where it was shaped using EQ tone controls. That signal continues on to the power amp.

The power amp is where the power of that electric signal is turned up. It's that simple: the power of the signal is amplified. The power amp then sounds that signal on to the speaker, where it makes noise.

The speakers
After your signal has been processed in the pre-amp and juiced up in the power amp, it's sent to speakers. It might seem like the least complicated step, but there's some things to keep in mind. The size of the speaker affects the sound. In addition, bass guitar amplification requires speakers designed to handle the frequencies a bass guitar puts out. More on speakers below.

Putting it all together
But this doesn't look like the combo or head and speaker cab combination people actually play. What is the equipment that you're likely to see in a store and play on yourself?


Combo amp are an all in one combination of pre-amp, power amp, and speaker cabinet in one (usually) portable box. Power levels of combo amp vary, from the low wattage practice amps you might use when you're at home to beastly 500 watt combos with four 10 inch speakers. Usually, these tend to be on the smaller wattage scale.

As a rule of thumb, you need at least 100 watts to play with a drummer in a practice setting. Anything lower than that is probably what would be considered a practice amp. For loud drummers, or for loud bands in general (say hard rock or metal) you'll likely need more wattage than a combo amp can provide.

Combo amps:
  • Combine pre-amp, power amp, and speaker cabinet all in one package.
  • Have great portabilitiy, usually sacrificing power/volume.
  • Have no compatibility issues; all components are selected by the manufacturer to work together properly.
  • Can possibly use extension cabs, but don't have enough volume to get LOUD


A head is a pre-amp and power amp in one package. These are often seen sitting on top of a speaker cabinet (hence the nanme "head"). The head processes the signal, amplifies it, and sends it off to a speaker cabinet (or multiple speaker cabinets).

When matching a speaker cabinet to a  head, keep in mind that you MUST match the impedance (the minimum resistance, measured in ohms) of the amplifier head to the resistance of the speaker cabinet.
In addition, the wattage of the head (the amount of power in the signal it puts out) changes based on the resistance of the speaker cabinet. Figuring out how to the "ohms" situation can be a tricky topic, so be aware that it's something you'll need to learn about if you decide to get a head and cab.

Pre-amp / Power amp

It's also possible to just run a pre-amp and a power amp, mounting each on a rack, to power a speaker cabinet. This is usually more of a high-end, high-volume setup and not something most bass players use, especially when starting out.

Speaker cabinets

I'll only touch on speaker cabinets briefly, as I think they deserve a post all to themselves. At the end of the day, this is the other end of the line that began with you plucking a string.

A speaker cabinet has a few parts to know about as well. There are three main parts to most bass guitar speaker cabinets.
  • Drivers: These are what you think of when you think of speakers. Round, usually in 10, 12, or 15 inch varieties.
  • Tweeters: Small speakers (sometimes called horns) that are used to recreate high frequency sounds.
  • Ports: Some speaker cabinets are sealed. Some have ports, which allow air to move into the speaker cabinet. These definitely have an effect on the sound of a cabinet, and whether you like the sound of that effect is a personal preference.
All speakers aren't made equal; in fact, bass cabinets require speakers that are specially made to handle the frequencies that a bass guitar creates.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a whirlwind tour of bass guitar amplification.