One of the mantras I’ve used since I’ve been teaching online (wayyyy back in 2008) is to learn songs not scales.
Now without going into length (which I’ve done before – and no doubt I’ll certainly do again) on why practicing scales is a poor investment of practice time, what I’ll say for this article is that in the last 10 years I’ve transcribed, taught and analyzed literally thousands of songs. And in all that time I’ve found less than 10 songs where a complete scale is used in the bass line.
Sidenote: whilst practicing scales is a poor investment of practice time, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to understand the theory of scales, how they are constructed in western music, scale degrees, chord tones, avoid notes and so on.
So What Should You Practice INSTEAD Of Scales?
What you should practice should be determined principally by your bass playing goals and you should ONLY practice activities that bring you closer to those goals.
If one of your goals is to improve your bass playing the practice activities that you work on will depend on your current ability level. But for players of just about any level one thing that will force them to up their game (and consequently their ability level) is to consistently learn songs that are slightly out of their comfort zone.
The Comfort Zone – And The 3 Zone Model Of Learning
If you’ve read the book TALENT IS OVERRATED by Geoff Colvin you may remember this. (If you haven’t read that book, then I highly recommend it). There’s a short but powerful section where Colvin talks about The 3 Zone Model of Learning, which was put forward by a sports professor (if memory serves) called Noel Tichy.
Tichy’s 3 Zone model boils down like this:
- first imagine three concentric circles
- the first concentric circle is ‘the comfort zone’ – in relation to bass guitar this represents everything that the bass player can comfortably do and play
- the second concentric circle – whose diameter is only slightly larger than the first circle – represents the learning zone. This zone represents things that the bass player can’t yet do – but can envisage being able to do with an amount of focused and deliberate practice
- the third concentric circle is the panic zone. This represents everything that the bass player not only can’t do, but can’t envisage being able to do and if they were suddenly forced to do they would literally ‘panic.’
Now there are three important things that people who talk about this on the Interwebz miss:
- The model is unique to each player – your comfort zone will be different to mine and different to any other bass players. And thus so will your learning zone and your panic zone.
- The model is dynamic. If you using deliberate practice to practice and are making constant and consistent improvement then over time the radius of your comfort zone will expand, the learning zone radius will expand at the same rate and the panic zone will shrink at the same rate too!
- The model can be used on a micro basis as well as a macro basis. I’ll maybe write more about this later…but you can apply the model to individual topics and use it to really drill down on where you should be practicing in those individual topics.
How The 3 Zone Model Works With Learning Songs
Let’s take a bass player who is probably still a ‘beginner’ but is looking to push forward. And let’s say this bass player can play With or Without You by U2 reasonably comfortably…but let’s further say this bass player wants to tackle Duck Dunn’s line on Shake A Tailfeather which is mostly built on straight 8th notes but is much faster than With or Without You (160 BPM versus approx 110 BPM)
Currently Shake A Tailfeather is probably in the panic zone.
But one of the main technique upgrades needed to get from With Or Without You (110 BPM) to Shake A Tailfeather (160BPM) is increasing plucking hand speed.
So if the bass player picks a song with a constant or mostly constant 8th note pulse at a tempo of 120 BPM and works on that until it’s mastered then the player has moved his comfort zone 10 BPM outwards. And then he picks a song with a constant 8th note bassline and a BPM of 130 BPM and works towards mastering that, this his comfort zone moves outwards again.
And this process can be continued with 140 BPM and 150 BPM. And when this bass player has mastered the 150 BPM track he can start to work on Shake A Tailfeather.
Over whatever time period this takes plucking hand ability (remember it works on a micro level as well as a macro level) improves from 110 BPM to 160 BPM (which is almost 50%).
See how this works?
However, if you’re a bass player who is playing in a band there’s a good chance you suffer from the Catch 22 I refer to in the article’s title.
The Catch 22 Of Learning Songs FOR A BAND
For those of you who play in bands – and I hope that’s most of you, playing great songs in a great band in front of a great audience is just about the most fun you can have that’s legal! – there’s a problem though.
And that is that the songs you have to learn for a band won’t be chosen to have any kind of learning benefits or to fit any kind of learning sequence that you might be working on.
If you have limited practice time – and let’s face it, those of us with jobs and families DO have limited practice time – then it can be quite frustrating to have to invest that valuable practice time in activities that don’t actually improve our bass playing.
This frustration can be compounded if your band doesn’t play that regularly and you have to go over the songs at periodic intervals.
Back in the mid 2000s I used to manage and play in 7 or 8 different bands with a combined set list that I needed to know of around 250 songs. Plus I had two children under 5! So practice time was limited. And I faced this problem on just about a weekly basis. In the next few posts I’ll detail some of the strategies I adopted to turn learning songs that were within my comfort zone into learning zone activities to make the most of my limited practice time.