Sunday, 10 May 2009

Dynamic Control

While writing the previous post, I began to think about dynamics in general and how we can control them on our instrument. This is a really simple exercise but often overlooked.

The first thing to think about is how loud/soft our instrument can go. And by this I don't mean how loud your amplifier or preamp can go, I mean how loud or soft we can make the bass purely by how we play. For this exercise, you may want to plug your bass in. Personally, I nearly always practice unplugged but this will mean possibly not hearing the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum.

Start by fretting a G at the third fret of your low E string. Now pluck it as gently as you can. You should hear a very quiet note. Now progressively increase how hard you pluck the string. Pay careful attention to how hard your fretting hand is holding the note down. Our body's natural instinct is to say "one hand is using more energy, better make sure the other one does too" and, as a result, as we pluck harder we tend to grip harder. Concentrate on keeping the fretting pressure the same no matter how hard you pluck the string. It's surprising how little effort it actually takes to hold a note down.

Keep plucking harder until the note begins to "clank" on the frets. How loud you can get before this point will depend on the setup of your bass. If you have a low action, you'll reach this point much earlier than if you have a high action. I keep my action reasonably high so that I can have a wide dynamic range before I start to hear that Stanley Clarke/Marcus Miller style clank. I can still get that sound by digging in but I like it to be by choice, not the only option.

Once you've reached the maximum volume without fret noise, progressively pluck softer until you can barely hear the note. You've now worked through the full dynamic range on that one note.

Now try taking a simple pattern, or maybe a scale, and try playing it as softly and then as loudly as possible ( using purely your hands - don't just turn the amp up!). Now try repeating the pattern - starting off playing as softly you can and slowly increasing the volume up to full volume and then slowly back down again.

In doing this, we're not only training our hands ( both in terms of picking technique and in being conscious of how hard we're fretting) but also our ears and brain as they recognise the different dynamic possibilities.

If someone plays at the same dynamic all the time, your ear soon tunes them out but if there is a good range of loud and soft it really makes their playing much more interesting and musical. Try it on your next solo - drop the volume level right down and slowly build it up ( or maybe have sudden unexpected accents before dropping back down). Or try taking a repeated pattern and playing with the dynamics - maybe fade it right down and back up will keeping the same pattern going.

As always, the aim is to play something musically interesting and have the music be the deciding factor in what you do, not your ability on the instrument.

Comments welcomed :-)

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Accenting exercise

In this blog, we're going to look at a chromatic exercise which is great for getting your fingers and brain in gear. The idea of this exercise is to allow you to accent a passage as the music dictates, not as your hands would rather accent it.

To begin with, we're going to use a very simple one finger per fret pattern. I've place it at the 9th fret on the G string which should be pretty comfortable for most players. If you do find it a bit of a stretch, ensure that your thumb is behind the neck, parallel with either your first or second finger. If it's uncomfortable to hold all four fingers down, you can pivot on your thumb so that your hand is almost like a see saw - as the fourth finger comes down, the first lifts slightly.

If this is new to you, it may feel weird for a while but it will become more comfortable with time.Ideally, we're looking to try and hold all four down, but don't hurt yourself.

Play it a couple of times and listen to whether or not your accenting any notes. Chances are the first note may be slightly more accented than the others? This is totally natural, but I want you to aim for every note to be of uniform volume and length. Play through it slowly and really try and focus on getting every note even.

OK, now that we've got all the notes of uniform volume, we can look at adding accents where we want them. In the next exercise we systematically accent each note in turn...

Try making the accents really extreme, as well as barely accenting them. The aim is to make your ear and brain conscious the accents and to be able to add them as you wish.

Try just looping one bar and really focus on where the first beat is - it's really easy for your brain to trick you into hearing the accent as "one" after a few repetitions.

Once you're happy with that pattern, reverse the notes and go through the same process...

So, that's one position and one string. As an extra exercise, try both over two or more strings. This adds more of a challenge as the first note on the new string will often come out a little accented if left to its own devices.

The final challenge for this lesson is to add in some position shifts. We're going to play a chromatic scale up the G string. How you finger this doesn't matter too much, whether you play one finger pre fret or use a more Simandl/upright bass fingering of first, second and fourth fingers. Start on the open string, work up to the 12th fret and back down.

As with the previous exercises, aim to get all the notes even in terms of tone, volume and duration. This is easier said than done as the natural instinct is to accent the first note after each shift, and possibly to cut the note before the shift short as you get ready to move. Again, do it slowly and really pay attention to the notes.

Once you're happy with that, we're going to start accenting. First try accenting in groups of 4. This will mean accents on the open string, 4th fret and 8th fret going up and 12th fret, 8th fret and 4th fret on the way back down. Using either fingering, not all of these will be on the first note after a shoft so pay close attention to the sound of the notes.

The final idea for this lesson is to do the same but this time accent in groups of 3. Now the accents will be on the open string, 3rd fret, 6th fret and 9th fret on the way up and then 12th, 9th, 6th and 3rd on the way back down.

And that's the basic germ of the idea. The possibilities are endless - try it across strings, move the accents or try different groupings (groups of 5 are fun as you'll change direction mid-grouping!). Try it on patterns and scales you already know.

Ultimately, it comes back to the idea of freeing your hands up to play what the music needs, not what they automatically might want to.

Comments welcome as always.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The Great Technique Myth

Hi and welcome to the Bassbook blog. Here I'll be discussing musical ideas, concepts and exercises which will help you a better player, a better musician, or maybe just get you thinking.

For this debut blog, I thought we'd have a look at the myth and mystic of "technique" and whether developing your skills is really such a bad thing.....

Go on any internet musicians forum and you'll find the discussion of technique being discussed
for many pages. It's often seen as a dirty word,as if having a lot of technique turns you into a robot that just plays millions of mechanical notes with no emotion or sense of melody. In fact, there is an almost romantic notion that the non-technical will produce better, more honest music.

Technique is defined as "a procedure used to accomplish a specific activity" and when applied to our instrument it is exactly that - the procedure that allows us to play the music we want to play.

At the moment I'm sitting here with my laptop typing this. Using what? Yes, my typing technique. A technique which is, if I'm honest, not that great. As a result I make mistakes and have to correct things, and can't express the ideas in my head as fluidly as I'd like. If my typing technique was more precise I would be able to express my ideas more quickly and more accurately. Whether I decide to write a love poem or a technical manual full of long words, my typing will be up to the job.

And that is exactly how I see bass technique development – a way of allowing us to express the
ideas in our heads easily and effortlessly. If we then decide to play a slow ballad or a non stop flurry of notes at 400 beats per minute is down to our own sense of musicality, it has NOTHING to do with the ability in your hands. Our technical prowess is simply a way of realising the sounds in our heads.

Just remember that, no matter how much technique we have, we are trying to create music,not win the Bass Olympics.

Comments welcomed :-)