Learning Upright Bass: A Long-Term Journey

July 4, 2017  ·  bass, double bass, upright bass, jazz, jazz theory, music theory, swing

Ricky Elrod standing with an upright bass

Those who know me well know that I have a vast number of interests and hobbies. These include, of course, programming and type theory, open source community development, and other technical things, but also things like swing dancing, blues dancing, linguistics, photography, chess, and music, which I'll be talking about here.

When I was growing up, I took piano lessons off-and-on for about four years. However, I never really took it seriously. I learned a bit here and there, but I didn't practice like I should have, and didn't put time into it. I wish I had. Nevertheless, some stuff stuck, and I've picked a lot up on my own over the years. If you give me a major or minor key to improvise in, I can roughly do it. At least, people tell me it sounds good.

Swing and blues dancing has helped me to recognize patterns in music that I never knew were there before. This includes things like global song structure (AABA, ABAC, 12-bar blues, etc.) to chord progressions (1-4-5, 2-5-1, etc.). I am able to apply these to my music knowledge which helps.

Over the years, I've taught myself the basics of several instruments. Like I mentioned above, I have fairly consistently (since high school) fumbled around on piano and picked up a bit. I have an upright piano in my living room which was given to me by a friend who was moving. In high school, I also taught myself the basics of guitar (mainly basic chords). I have an acoustic guitar, and a cheap, off-brand electric guitar. I prefer the acoustic sound. I also have an electric drum set, and I am fairly comfortable on it. I can swing on it, and play more rock and blues styles. Drums are perhaps the instrument that I'm most comfortable with right now, although I've never played an actual (non-electric) kit. (Actually, that's a lie. When I was a kid, I actually had a real, beautiful drum set. However, I knew nothing about music, and when my mom and I moved to Ohio back in 2004, we didn't take it with us, because I never played it.)

More recently, I've gotten into bass. Another friend, who moved to Germany a few years back, gave me a good deal on an electric bass that he was unable to take with him. This was my foray into the world of bass playing at all. I started to teach myself scales and listen closely to Motown and blues basslines to try to emulate the greats like James Jamerson.

However, as I have grown as a dancer and got to see more and more live swing bands, every time, I had been infatuated by the sound of the upright bass. It just adds something so important and fundamental to the rhythm and sound of the music. For the past year or so, I had been saying "I want an upright bass," but kept getting scared away by how much they cost... Then I decided to rent one.

A few months ago, I went over to the local music store and asked about renting an upright bass. They gave me a call the next day and said it was ready. I took it home, pulled it out of the case, and realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I tried to make it make any kind of noise and was failing and hurting my fingers like crazy. I had really only seen them played pizzicato (plucked) due to seeing them in swing bands, so I honestly wasn't even aware that they could be bowed. When I pulled a (German) bow out of the case, I was surprised. I tried to play with it, and made sounds so horrifying that my dog ran into the other room crying.

But I wasn't discouraged. I wanted (and want) to be a good jazz bass player. So I started posting around and talking to friends. A friend listed a number of bassists that he knew, and I reached out to several of them about taking lessons. Finally I got a response from Matt Jackson, a YSU Dana School of Music student, who specializes in jazz double bass. A week later, I started taking lessons and have been doing so ever since.

Because of my childhood piano lessons, I had a general idea of how reading music worked, but I wasn't able to sightread to save my life. Even less-so with the bass clef. So that was one of the first things we worked on. Matt gave me a number of exercises to do, both on and off the bass, to improve my music theory knowledge. I've been taking lessons for about two months now, and I am now at the point where I can (at semi-slow speed) sightread simple bass clef lines.

We are spending a lot of time on foundations, which I am completely happy with. It is my understanding (and common sense) that good foundations are absolutely necessary for being a good bass player of any kind, especially jazz. I have a tendency to try to jump ahead, and sometimes it's good to have a teacher say "Hey, we should keep fundamentals in mind as we go forward."

So far, within about 2.5 months of renting the bass, I've gone from literally not knowing how to make it make a sound, to being able to play a number of scales, sightread simple sheet music, and play around with songs I listen to, trying to improvise a line that works. My jazz improvization is entirely horrible, and is something that I absolutely want to start working on. I want to have an insanely strong understanding of jazz theory.

That said, while right now I want to play jazz bass, who knows what the future holds. I want to be able to play upright bass any way that it can be played. So, I have been working really hard at learning good bowing technique as I go forward, as well. I still get screeches sometimes, but I usually don't scare the dog out of the room anymore.

That's the thing though: The cool thing is that every time I practice, I actually feel myself improving. With most of my other hobbies and things I've taught myself, I know mentally that I'm improving, but I can't really see myself improve. With learning bass, each time I practice, I actually notice a difference in my own playing, and that is such a cool feeling.

At some point down the road, I will likely post some recordings of me playing to various songs/backing tracks.

I know that getting to be "good" at an instrument is a never-ending process and takes years upon years of commitment. However, with the motivation that I have right now, I feel ready to make that commitment, and I hope that the progress that I'm seeing in my own practice continues for a long time as I continue to take lessons.

Alongside the lessons, I've been watching plenty of YouTube videos about bass and jazz theory. I've also bought some lessons from the awesome Geoff Chalmers at Discover Double Bass. All of these resources, including the lessons, have been invaluable to my learning process.

Let me end on this note (no pun intended): If you're learning an instrument (or really, anything that requires a lot of time, dedication, and commitment), do what works for you. I think it's important that you have to want to learn and commit. Find a routine that works for you. Even if it's only practicing 30 minutes a day (or skipping days). Don't force yourself, because it will cause it to become less fun in general. There have been practice sessions where I kept playing really badly and got outright frustrated. As soon as that happened, I put the instrument away and said, "I'll pick it up again tomorrow with fresh eyes, because I want to keep my practices fun." I think doing that is really important, especially in the early stages.

I'll be posting more about my double bass journey going forward.