So who listens to the radio anymore? We’ve got MP3 players for when we’re on the move. We’ve got CD players in our cars – mostly with the ability to play MP3 CDs or with an adaptor to plug our MP3 player in. And at home we’ve got docking stations for our MP3 players – or we can wirelessly stream iTunes to our stereo.
So hands up, who actually listens to the radio?
And yet the radio played an important part in the development of some of the great bass players. I was reminded of this two nights ago when I was reading an article on Bob Babbitt’s website. (If you don’t know, Bob Babbitt was one of Motown’s legendary funk brothers – he played on tunes like Ball of Confusion, Tears of A Clown, Signed Sealed Delivered and a whole lot more).
OK, So Technology Was Different Then – What’s The Radio Got To Do With Playing The Bass Now?
Here’s what Bob Babbitt used to do. He started out learning classical upright bass in school. And when his parents were around that’s what he’d practice at home. But when his parents went to bed he’d take his bass into the kitchen, turn the radio on and play along to tunes on the radio.
And he’s not the only bass player who used the radio in learning the bass. In an article in Bass Player Magazine Steve Swallow recommended that you should play along to the radio at least 15 minutes every day.
So How Does Playing Along To The Radio Help Your Bass Learning?
The first thing that’s important about playing along to the radio is that almost certainly you’ll be playing along to tunes that you may know (as in be able to hum along with the melody) but that you don’t know on the bass (as in play the bass line).
So by practicing playing along to the radio you’ll definitely be out of your comfort zone. And as we’ve seen in previous posts improvement in your bass playing only comes about from practicing in the learning zone.
And doing this a bit of this kind of practice as part of your daily practice routine will really do wonders for your LISTENING skills. One of my favourite quotes on this topic comes from jazz bassist and author John Goldsby: We don’t get hired to play fast, we get hired to hear fast.
So How EXACTLY Should You Be Aiming To Do This Radio Playalong Practice?
What you’re aiming to do with this kind of practice is not to reproduce the bassline that’s on the song you’re playing along to on the radio. What you’re aiming to do is to be able to play along to a tune that’s unfamiliar to you from a bass playing perspective.
So you’re looking to quickly identify chord progressions and root movements. And find them on the bass.
This is fantastic training for the real world. If you’re on a gig the people who hire you won’t care if you can play Vic Wooten’s “Classical Thump’ note for note if they have to call a couple of ‘classic’ tunes and you can’t negotiate a I-vi-ii-V progression. And can’t modulate it a semi tone. Or a tone. Or a minor third.
Caveat: Avoid The Panic Zone
There’s a caveat with this exercise. You have to tread a fine line between using the radio as a learning zone activity and not have that activity turning into a panic zone activity.
One way of ensuring this is choosing a radio station devoted to a genre of music that corresponds to your current level of harmonic awareness.
So if you’re just starting out on this activity, then maybe a Blues Station will be a good place to start. Most people are familiar with the sound of a blues progression – even if only subconsciously. So starting out with a blues radio station you’ve got to playalong and first identify the key that the song is being played in, and then as you play through the song you can then try and identify what turnarounds are used at the end, and what ‘variation’ of the blues tune you’re playing through is being played.
If your level of harmonic awareness is slightly higher then you can use genres of music that use diatonic chord progressions – basic 60s soul stations, or a lot of country music. Or reggae music. And a lot of basis pop and rock.
And from there you can progress to more complex tunes to play along to. Maybe smooth jazz tunes. Or Prog Rock.
How This Radio Playalong Exercise Conforms To The Principles Of Deliberate Practice
If you do this exercise for 10 – 15 minutes every day you’ll be putting the following principles of Deliberate Practice to work for you:
- Practicing in the Learning Zone. The chances of the radio playing a song you already know AT the precise time you’re doing this exercise are remote. So you’re always going to be playing along to something you don’t know. So you’re always going to be in the Learning Zone.
- Repetitions. Doing this exercise every day provides the repetitions that are necessary to build this skill up. And as your skill progresses you need to progress onto more harmonically advanced material so that you’re constantly in the learning zone.
- Feedback. There are two ways you can get feedback on this exercise. The first is simply to record yourself playing along to the radio, and then listen objectively later. The second is to monitor your performance as you’re doing this exercise. To paraphrase Alexis Sklarevski: If it sounds good, the exercise IS good.
How To Do This Exercise WITHOUT A Radio
Let’s face it, few of us have radios these days. And depending on where you’re based tuning into genre specific stations can also be difficult.
But if you have a decent broadband connection a great way of doing this is to download iTunes (and yep, even if you use PC you can get iTunes) and then use the streaming radio stations.
Radio Stations on iTunes are categorized by genre – and you’ll literally be presented with dozens of radio stations to stream. So you’ll never be short of music to practice to!
- Turn on a radio for 10 to 15 minutes a day and simply play along. Make this part of your daily practice. Don’t strive to play what the original bass player is playing – merely strive to play along.
- Make sure the genre of music you’re playing along is matched to your current level of harmonic awareness. So if you’re a newbie to this exercise don’t pick a jazz station!
- If it sounds good – it is good! If at first you find that you’re not getting anything sounding right, then try some simpler music. Equally if you find you’re getting it right without expending any effort, then move to something more complex.
Don’t read this and think: Oh, that sounds klnd of cool. Go out and do it – implement it immediately. That’s the only way to learn anything.