So there are fast and/or complex tunes that we ALL want to learn to play. If you’re into rock it might be YYZ by Rush. If you’re into Jamerson it might be For Once In My Life. Or maybe it’s What Is Hip by Rocco. Or Classical Thump by Victor Wooten. Or it could be any one of a hundred tunes.
And here’s what most guys do. They find a transcription of the tune, or a tab of it, and they’ll put some parts of the tune together. But then they’ll make a fatal mistake, they’ll start trying the play the bits of the tune they know at the song’s tempo, or close to it.
Why Is This A Fatal Mistake?
The reason that trying to play the different parts of the tune too fast too soon is a fatal mistake is this: it doesn’t take advantage of how the brain learns best. And because you’re not taking advantage of how the brain learns best, the brain hasn’t actually learned how to play the tune yet.
And that’s why when most people try to do this they make lots of mistakes, their fingers trip over each other and they either give up in frustration wishing they had the ‘talent’ to play that song, or they have to find another way of learning the tune – a way that takes advantage of how the brain learns best.
So How Does The Brain Learn Best?
When we want to learn something new – whether it’s computer programming, or speaking a language, or ski-ing – the central processor part of the brain has to send messages to other parts of the brain telling them what to do, whether that’s mental or physical.
And the brain sends these messages by electrical pulses that are transmitted via neurons. But here’s the thing, the more the brain repeats the same – or very similar – message the easier it becomes. So that you can learn to just do things.
If you think of any activity or skill you’ve learned, it’s always awkward to start with. But as you get repeated practice you become more ‘natural’ at it. Until you acquire competence.
And this is how the brain learns.
How Can We Apply This To Learning A Fast And/Or Complex Tune On The Bass?
The first thing you’ve got to do is to slow down. You’ve got to play through your complex piece of music slowly enough so that you can be sure you’re playing it perfectly.
And then you need to repeat it. Over and over so that your brain truly learns how to play it. And when you can play this complex piece of music flawlessly at a slow tempo – that’s when you can start increasing the tempo that you’re playing the tune at. But you still need to ensure that you’re playing the tune flawlessly.
That Kind Of Makes Sense – But What’s The Deal With All The Repetition?
The repetition is what makes this work. If you can remember back when you learned to drive your first lessons were probably quite stressful – because there’s a ton of things you have to do (look in the mirror, manoeuvre the car, change gear, apply different levels of pressure to the clutch, brake and accelerator pedal, look in the mirror again, ooops STEER the car, etc etc).
But if you drive now you’ve done it so much that the hundreds of tasks you have to do in just driving a few hundred yards have all sunk into the subsconscious and you can do it without really thinking about it. And that’s the power of repetition in action.
And it works with ANYTHING. If you repeat it often enough slowly your brain WILL get it, and you’ll ‘know’ the piece of music. That’s when you can start putting the tempo up. And working the tune towards what they call in classical music circles ‘the performance tempo.’
The Mistake Most Bass Players Make When They Try And Learn Using This Technique
Now I’ve personally taught this technique a bunch of times to my bass students. And despite what I tell them, and how often I mention this, and how specific I get about it, nearly every one of them makes this mistake.
Their ‘slow’ tempo that they start learning the tune at is too fast. And usually it’s waayyyy too fast. By 30 or 40 BPM on the metronome. And when I ask them what tempo they’re trying this technique out on – and then tell them to drop it 30 BPM they react as if I’m crazy.
And I tell them: trust me. Take the tempo down. Do the work. And sooner than you think you’ll be playing the tune. And there’s a reason why you have to start out really slow: you’ve got to be able to consciously control your fingers so that you’re playing the piece flawlessly.
Because if you learn a song ‘badly. (ie with mistakes in it), all that repetition will do is engrain those mistakes. And you’ll find that as you get near to performance tempo you start to struggle – because those mistakes are still there and are now ‘coming out’ to hinder your playing.
So if you want to learn a fast and/or complex bass line here’s what you have to do:
1) Take the tempo waaaayyyy down. Slow enough that you can exert conscious control over your fingers as you play through the different parts of the tune.
2) Play through the tune a bunch of times. Strive to play it flawlessly.
3) When you can play it flawlessly – but slowly – think about upping the tempo on your metronome or drum machine a notch or two.
4) I always make sure I’ve played a tune flawlessly at least 5 times before I up the tempo.
5) Start working towards performance tempo.
And yes, this process takes time. But it GUARANTEES that if you put the work in, that in time you’ll be able to play a tune that you may have thought was beyond your ability level. And in doing so your ACTUAL ability level will go up a notch or two too. So it’s a win-win scenario.