Do You Know Your Bass?

Hey Everybody!  This is my foray into the world of blogging, and im going to post thought up here on at least a weekly “bassis”

Knowing Your Bass (might be a discipline issue)

Hey Everyone!

My First Blog is one that might sound familiar to those of you who are my students, have been to Bass/Nature camp, Bass Boot camp, or a clinic of mine.  It is on a subject that I believe we all need to be aware of from time to time, it is the working title of my forthcoming instructional book.  Please feel free to leave comments and share with others.


Knowing your Bass

             Bass players are generally the most undisciplined members in a band. We’re usually the least knowledgeable one or the most knowledgeable one with usually no gray areas in between. That’s why you have a whole bunch of keyboard and guitar players just giving you the ROOT of chords. “Play a C”, “Play an A”., they tell us. If somebody does that to you, that’s an insult. You should be insulted by that. That is them saying that they don’t expect you to know what the rest of the chord means. They are implying, “We don’t expect you to know what to do with it, so we are just going to give you the root.”. But you can’t outline a C7b9, if you don’t know what that chord is. They’re not giving you the whole chord, because they don’t expect you to know what it is. We have to accept some responsibility for that. So my observation is that bass players are either the least knowledgeable in the band or the music directors like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor, or Ricky Minor. We have to do our part to make sure that we aren’t the least knowledgeable person in the band.

The notes on your bass….how many bass players know the notes on their bass? It’s not a trick question, either you do or you don’t. You will never, ever, ever meet a piano player who doesn’t know the notes on a piano.….ever. You will never ever meet a sax player who doesn’t know the notes on a sax. You will meet good bass players, and I mean really good bass players, that don’t know the notes on their instrument. THAT’S why they give us the roots. Because we’re the dummies in the band, and we bring it on ourselves. So I ask you again how many of you know the names of the notes on your bass?

Most bass players know the names of their notes in first position on the lower strings. That’s where we know the notes best.

I purposefully go in the opposite direction. (Here’s an example starting at 1:50  )

I start on the highest note on the highest position. In the case of my four string 24 fret bass, that’s a G. I play the highest G on that string and then I play the lowest version of that note on the same string. I play all the G’s on the G string from highest to lowest, then all the G’s on the D string from Highest to lowest, all the G’s on the A string from highest to lowest, and finally all the G’s on the E string from highest to lowest. If you can’t do that for all 12 notes in our music system, you don’t know the notes on your bass. There’s no gray area, either you do or you don’t. It’s a simple thing. KINDA knowing them, or knowing some of them, is not one of the answers to the question. You either know the notes or you don’t. Make sense? Piano players, can do that, its easy on piano. Sax players can do that. Bass players can’t do that. We have to take the time to get caught up.

We can use the excuse that this is a new instrument for only so long. This instrument is only 60 or so years old so we are still building tradition and curriculum on the instrument. But 59 years ago the 20th fret on the A string was an F, 59 years from now the 20th fret on the A string will be an F. If I ask you where all the Bb’s on your bass are and you need a bass in your hand to answer the question, you don’t really know the answer. If I know the notes on Tammy without her in my hands, its going to be EASY when she is in my hands.

How many of you love your bass? I absolutely love my bass, its provided a great living for me. Because of that I have an open and honest relationship with it. She’s provided a great living and a great lifestyle for me. The only way your instrument is going to do that, is if you know everything about this thing that you say you love. How many of you love your car? You can describe your car to a “T”, If you need me to get something out of the glove box, you say “Anthony ok, you can reach in glove box, my Ipod is in there behind that you can grab that thing”. How many of you are married or have significant others? If I asked you to describe him or her right now without him/her standing right there, could you do it? Because you love her/him. So if you say you love something you should be able to describe it even if that thing is not around. If you say you love this instrument, Is that fair to say? Every musician on the planet can do that except bass players. We’re the dumbest ones in the band. Make sense?

It’s a fair assessment, guitar players are the same way too, they just have more ego attached. Here’s why: This instrument is tuned symmetrically so it lends itself to being played in patterns. If I want to play something like “Brickhouse” (which is in A) in the original key and the singer can’t sing the original key but he can sing it in C, I can still play it with the same exact fingering. We can transpose without regard to what notes are played. If a sax player wants to move up a minor third (three frets), he can’t rely on a shape or pattern, he has to know the notes on his instrument. A major scale or minor scale in all keys will have a different shape on a sax or a keyboard. They can’t take a familiar shape and move it up. We as bass players have it easy in one sense because we have a pattern based instrument so we can take a shape we’re familiar with and simply move it up. But at the same time, we never have to know the notes we’re playing. So it’s a plus or a minus. It’s kind of built into our instrument, the dumbness is kind of built into it. So we have to overcome that intellectually.

This is a discipline issue when you don‘t know the notes on your instrument, make no mistake about it, it’s a discipline issue. We all know that the first fret on the E string is an F. You just have to have the discipline to do that for the rest of the notes. If you don’t have that learned, and you’ve been playing longer than a year, IT’S A DISCIPLINE ISSUE. Own up to it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing and getting gigs, and not taking the time to do it. But how we get invited to the NEXT Level of doing this is based on what you know.

If Chick Corea holds an audition for a bass player, and 20 bass players show up, all 20 of them are going to know how to play. That’s not going to be the deciding factor. The deciding factor is going to be based on KNOWLEDGE. Because what you don’t know could cost an artist money. If an artist says “hey lets take it up a tritone, you either know what that means, or you don’t. And if you don’t know what that means, you are now officially costing them money. It’s easy to replace you, because there’s somebody who knows what it means, and can play it.

There’s not too many feelings that are worse than auditioning for something and getting rejected. The only thing that is probably worse than that is having your heart broken, but losing an audition is a close second. If I go audition for a band and if I don’t pass that audition because I’m black, because I’m short, or because I’m extremely good looking, I can’t do anything about that. But If I don’t get that audition because I don’t know the notes on my bass, That’s shame on me. That’s something I have got to take care of. I can’t do anything about the dark skin, I cant do anything about being short, or change the fact that I’m extremely good looking. But I can take the time to learn the notes on bass, and if I don’t that’s a discipline issue. Is that fair to say? The last thing I want to have happen to anyone is for them to audition for a scholarship to college, or to get into college, or to get into a band and don’t get it because of something they could have taken care of like knowing the notes on their bass.. It’s a discipline issue, and if we all address it, we may no longer be the dummies in the band.


About anthonywellington

Musician, Clinician, bass Player for the Victor Wooten Band.
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14 Responses to Do You Know Your Bass?

  1. Lorenzo Toppin says:

    “It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing and getting gigs, and not taking the time to do it. But how we get invited to the NEXT Level of doing this is based on what you know.”

    I made the mistake of not being properly informed with my saxophone and hit a ceiling really fast. I’m going over all 12 notes on my bass every time I pick it up since you shared it at the clinic. The funny thing is, it’s making me a better saxophone player. Naming the notes on the bass quickly exposed my ignorance of certain interval distances on both instruments.

    To answer the question of your blog: No, I don’t know my bass……yet. But thanks for lessons, FB, the YouTube channel, and now this blog to keep me pointed in the right direction.

  2. Great first post, Ant.

    I remember you talking about knowing your bass during Theory Weekend, but this article really hit it home for me.

    I like how you provided both the concrete exercise and the abstract/philosophical reasoning behind it. I now know what I have to do and why!

    Many thanks,

  3. Dave Clark says:

    I was lucky in that, as a kid, I started out as a saxophone player, albeit a terrible one. So, when it came time to learn the guitar, my pops taught me the first position chords and lead patterns, but I already felt an anal-retentive compulsion to learn by name each note in each chord I played. When I turned to bass, it only made sense that one would know each and every note on the instrument, again, by name. To me, it was the only way!

    Having a knowledge of chord structure, and specifically the bass’s role in that chord structure, has served me immeasurably. On the occasions where I’ve subbed a gig and had a guitarist tell me condescendingly, “Just play an A here”, I’ll be a wise-ass and play every figured note. So, while Johnny Guitar is chugging away on that Am7 chord, I’m playing a solid melody that punches on C, E, G as well as the A, and also pays heed rhythmically to the patterns of the drummer. Suddenly they hear each other, and I am the translator!

    Also when subbing a gig, I watch the keyboardist for the changes instead of the guitar player. In general, they’re more reliable and logical. This throws them for a loop! Not only can a bassist “read” keyboard in real time, but a bassist can make use of what he’s seeing in a valuable way. Impossible!

    In addition, the bassist has the power to indicate or imply passing chords where before, there were none. A perceptive guitarist or keyboardist will pick up your movement and add in that passing chord, making the song more dramatic and colorful. You did that!

    Invariably, these will put an end to the patronizing of the bassist. When you make it clear that you’re more than just a lackey, there to be dragged along by the guitarist; when you show you’re not just an unfortunate but necessary part of the infrastructure; when you establish yourself as the hub of the group, tying together melody and rhythm in one relentless and unfailing presence; when you make it clear that you’re driving this bus…..well, everything seems to fall into line.

    Which is why I love playing bass.

    Thanks for a great article, Anthony. I look forward to reading you on a regular basis!

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  5. ToddF says:

    I had my flute and keyboard player challenge me on this. They were not impressed. They know all their notes. I didn’t show the guitar player. That would be mean. I make a few mistakes, but I’m very close to being able to pick out all 122 notes without having to stop and think.

  6. Wendy says:

    Thanks Ant. Fantastic Blog right out of the gate. First thing I did was pick up my bass and do the exercise and will commit to doing that each and every time. Reminds me of the “pay yourself first” axiom as a discipline for investing — “play your notes first” will pay huge dividends in the long run, I’m sure.
    Thanks! YOU ROCK!! Can’t wait for B/N Camp!!

  7. Gerry says:

    Nice post Ant!
    Looking forward to seeing this blog!

    All the best!

  8. Al says:

    Since being introduced to this at camp, I have now included it in my teaching. Thanks Ant !

  9. JimL says:

    Anthony, thanks for the great written version of what you went over at your clinic in San Jose last fall. Kai already had me playing all of the notes on my bass, but after your clinic, I started playing them high to low as well as low to high. It felt completely different going the other direction.

    Recently, I got another bass — 20 frets instead of the 24 that are on my older bass. That twisted the pattern for me again because some notes can only be played in one position on a string — For the first week, I kept reaching past the high end of the neck for frets that weren’t there.

    I can hardly wait to see your next post.

  10. heydomajor says:

    What I like most about this is now I don’t have to transcribe what you told us at camp! I think this is a great first post and I can’t wait to read the next ones.

  11. Preston says:

    Very well put. Knowledge of theory is the essences of becoming a better that average bassist. Good read. Keep the theory coming.

    Las Vegas

  12. Sonicfrog says:

    Ant… Welcome to the bloggosphere!!! I’ve been blogging for over six years, and already you’ve gotten more hits than I have…. EVER!!! 🙂 Congrats!!!

    I’ve been a bass player for some 25 years, but haven’t been a student of bass since I took up the instrument all those years ago. Back then, I wanted to learn where all the notes are on the bass. I went so far as to hand draw a huge chart showing every note on the fretboard. But early on, slowly but surly, my ear took over. I love having that talent to hear a song just once, and be able to play it at least reasonably well. That works great when you’re in a jam session, and the keyboard player calls out “hey, do you know this song?”, and you can say “Yeah, I can play it!”. even though you have never done so. It’s a tremendous gift for which I’m grateful. That said, I didn’t realize by placing all my eggs in that basket I was choking myself, denying myself the breath of knowledge that would have made me a better player. I stunted my growth as a musician.

    Fast forward 20 something years later. For the longest time I swore I would learn to play guitar. Last year I finally started to do just that. I’m making good progress and even played a few rhythm guitar bits on stage. I’m also making the effort not to just learn where the fingers go to make sounds, but I’m learning what those notes are and how they relate to chord structure.

    Has it helped?

    My band, Acoustic Highway, will often have two or three guitars going at the same time. Late last year during a rehearsal, while trying to figure out a new song we had started to work on during the previous get-together, one of the guitarists asked what key it was in. I blurted out A minor! Now, to many here, that may sound like a basic thing. But, for me, it was connection I never could have accomplished if I hadn’t been working on the guitar.

    I still have a very long way to go, and things don’t sink in as quickly as they do when I’m playing by ear…. But, I’m improving. I guess that is all I can ask.

    Mike aka Sonicfrog.

    PS. I loved watching you play when you and Vic came through Fresno last year. You were so gracious and knowledgeable. It was a tremendous privileged!…. And Yes… I blogged It!!! 🙂

  13. wojtham says:

    simple truth… going back to the roots…
    Thanks Anthony!

  14. Kurt Skrivseth says:

    Great advice Ant. I’m reminded of what happened to me last year.

    I had just left a band that wasn’t going anywhere and trying to focus on more productive efforts. I responded to a craigslist ad for a bass player who was needed ASAP for an upcoming gig (the following weekend). I went to the band’s website and learned the 3 songs they had on there just to get a feel for the style and to help me with a common ground when I got to rehearsal, I also really liked their sound. They called me back and we set up a time to rehearse, and gave me their address. I asked the guitarist that called me about their song arrangements and he seemed a little confused. Toward the end of the conversation I had asked them how accessible their rehearsal space was, and if they wouldn’t mind helping me get my wheelchair, bass, and amp downstairs. They said no problem and we agreed to meet at 10 o’clock. While practicing with their myspace songs about 20 minutes later I received a phone call from them, telling me that they “weren’t comfortable with accommodating my disability” and “didn’t think it would work out”. I pretended to shrug it off, but it really hurt me for a while. I’ve played with Slash and Snoop Dogg before at a gig, and this unsigned/indie/alternative band was too good for me. When I look back on it though, I’m baffled by the fact the when I spoke with them, I knew more about the key and arrangement of their songs than they did. I was fully prepared and professional, but I can’t change the fact that I’m in a wheelchair and that, I too, am extremely good looking.

    Kurt Skrivseth

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