How To Play Bass in 50 Songs - Article #2

The Mathematical Case AGAINST Practicing Scales

A New Song Based Model Of Learning Bass Fundamentals

I now want to address why practicing scales definitively wasn't on the list of the 6 things that bass beginners should be practicing.  (If you missed the article, here's the link: The ONLY 6 THings A Bass Beginner SHOULD Practice.)

And I don't know about you, but I like to base my decisions on mathematics and logic and not raw emotion.  (Though being human, emotion does play a part in the decision making process.)

Before we start, a quick caveat: these  articles assume that you want to learn the bass or improve your bass playing in order to play along to your favourite bands, or play your favourite songs with other musicians in band and jam situations.  If you've got some other goal, then please use that other goal as a lens to filter and refine this information.

Ok, onwards.

What you may not know is that I run a weekly magazine for bass players.   That magazine is in its 9th year...and I've published over 440 issues!

For years each magazine contains a transcription of a bass line and a number of  song tutorials where the sections are broken down.  Currently (2017-18) each magazine features  five song tutorials.

Back in the day I used to do everything - was the archetypal one man band - but now I've started building a team who help with the production of transcriptions, videos etc.

But I still look over every bar of music that goes into the magazine.

Now I tried to quickly tally up the number of songs I've transcribed (or commissioned to be transcribed) for First Bass And Beyond over nine years or so and 400 plus issues.

All I can tell you is that it's over 1000.

But for the sake of mathematics, let's call it 1000.

Now I tried to work out an average number of bars per song as well.  Some of the shorter Motown style songs that I've transcribed might only have 60 or 70 bars.  And a 30 minute beast like Mountain Jam by The Allman Brothers has over 950!!!

Most tunes over 3 minutes or so tend to have 110 bars and up.

Again, I wanted to err on the side of caution.  So let's assume the average length of a song is 80 bars.

So our 'sample size' is 1000 x 80 - even for the mathematically challenged that's an easy one.  That's 80,000 bars of music.

Now, during that period how many instances of a complete scale being used in a bass line have I found?

The answer may surprise you....'s just 7.  (And 3 of them were pointed out to me by subscribers of my weekly magazine).

In those 7 song, the complete scale in the bass line only happens a small number of times.  Let's be really, really generous and say it's 10.

So in 80,000 bars of basslines in all genres ranging from Motown to R&B to  Rock to Disco and Funk to Blues Rock to Reggae to Country and more....we're looking at no more than 70 bars where there is a complete scale played.

In percentage terms that's 0.09%

That's less than 1 in a thousand to put it in real terms.

And when you factor in that I've probably under estimated the amount of songs that I've looked at AND over estimated the amount of times a complete scales actually's an even smaller number.

That leads me to this conclusion...

...if you aspire to play the bass lines of your favourite songs - either with the original recording or in a band situation - the chances of you needing to play a complete scale are very close to being zero.

Read that again  - the chances of you needing to play a complete scale are close to zero - and ask yourself this question:

if the chances are almost zero of you needing to play specific patterns why would you invest your precious practicing time learning that?


But Surely You Need To Know Music Theory?

Before anyone objects and says you need to know music theory.....I totally agree.  In all the years of prioritizing songs over scales I've never, ever said that you didn't need to learn music theory.

The more advanced you get, the more theory you'll need to learn. For beginners though, there's more Practice ROI (return on investment) in learning rhythm theory than learning harmonic theory.


Couldn't You Use Scales To Warm Up?

This is a common question I get when I point out how unlikely you are to ever need to play a complete scale in your bass playing.

You could.

But I don't recommend it.

Here's why: all of us have limited time.  Practice time is a scarce resource that you should be miserly with.  And not only should you hoard that precious practice time, but you should look at ways to increase its effectiveness.

So if you're spending 5-10 minutes to warm up - which you should  - then why not invest that time doing something productive that will increase either your knowledge of the bass OR your technique at the same time as you are warming up?

Warming up by playing scales slowly (because warming up implies starting out slow) doesn't increase your knowledge or your technique.  Some people will argue this...but to use some more mathematics if you play a major scale with the conventional fingering you'll use the following fingering patterns ascending:


And descending:


If we disregard 2-4 and 4-2 as being subsets of 1-2-4 and 4-2-1 respectively, we're left with four different fingering patterns that you're practicing.  Each of which ignores one finger.

There are 24 possible permutations that you can play of your four at best you are exercising less than a sixth of the available patterns.


I Could Go On....

...but I won't.

I don't teach my students to play scales by rote because it wastes their precious practice time.

The mathematics convinces me that I'm right.  I'll sign off with these final observations...

I've analyzed approx 200 bass lines played by James Jamerson...never found a single instance of a scale.

I've analyzed close to 100 Paul McCartney bass lines - there's a complete descending minor scale in Hello Goodbye.  Happens three or four times.  Only time he plays a complete scale.

I've analyzed all of Tommy Shannon's work with Stevie Ray.  Guess scales.

I've analyzed most of Rocco Prestia's work with Tower Of Power....ditto.

The list goes on...I don't think I need to.

In the next installment in this series of articles we're going to look at the Missing Element from every bass book and from nearly every online course.  If you're serious about learning and improving on the bass  you'll want to know what this find out, just click the 'CONTINUE' button below:

Previous Article In the Series

If you haven't read the previous article in this series  yet - here is the link where you can read it:

Article 1: The Only 6 Things A Bass Beginner SHOULD Practice