Monday, July 6, 2009

Don't slip on the wet spot by the bass player

When I was a wee lad I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. I had visions of searing guitar solos before packed houses of adoring fans. My parents got me a decent, cheap acoustic guitar and found me a music teacher. I hated it.

The teacher was an elderly woman who smoked like a chimney. She also had eyesight issues, and would often light the filter end of her cigarette ... which surprised me by actually smelling worse than her normal cigarette smell. She was a piano teacher by trade, but we lived in a small rural area, so she taught all instruments. I don't think she liked the guitar ... or children.

I did stick at it for a while, but my rock star dreams were dashed by three-string chords and endless run-throughs of The Chimes of Westminster and Yankee Doodle Dandy (I had the full anglo-american range of boring tunes available to me).

For many a year I ignored musical instruments ... although I could always pick up a guitar and play Old MacDonald if pressed. That was seared into my neurons.

Then, a year and a half ago, my wife indulged my latent rock star dreams by getting me a bass guitar for my birthday. I like the bass. The strings are a good distant apart from each other, which suits my stubby fingers. I've always played air bass to a large numbers of songs. And I like the complete lack of expectation people have of bass players. If a bass player can stand upright, not drool too much, and keep a reasonable rhythm, well that seems to be enough to satisfy most people.

I've bypassed the fear I have of a music teacher by trying to teach myself as much as possible, and then asking friends who play guitar and know more about music that I do to help fill in the wide gaps in my development. The web is a vast, confusing source of advice and lessons. I'm working my way through at the moment, as it promises to tell me how to understand what the root of a chord is.

I have noticed a sort of hierarchy of music lessons. If you want to play a rock or blues tune then there's usually a tab out there for you. Tab is a cheats form of music notation that reduces everything to ... put a finger here and hit the string to make a noise. Here's an example, the bass line to Once in a Lifetime ...


The tab doesn't give you much in the way of timing ... it is just assumed you know the song and can work it out. I raced home from seeing David Byrne in concert earlier this year (Byrne doing Eno related numbers ... I was in heaven) and looked this up. Was it really as simple as it had seemed? I spent large parts of that concert staring at the bass player (left-handed, and very talented).

Anyway ... my point is that if you want to try to play bass to a rock/pop/heavy metal/blues song there's an easy cheat out there in cyberspace for you. If you want to play jazz bass lines, and I really do, then it gets a little trickier. There are a few tabs out there ... but jazz is an improvisational style, and so it does not lend itself to cheats as well.

Instead, when you try to get the web to help you play jazz it throws theory at you ...
1st note of the walking line should be the root (for now) of the chord, the second and third note should be parts of the chord, or chromatic neighbor tones that lead to the 4th note, which leads into the 1st note of the next chord- repeat.
This may make sense to some people ... but I just revert to standard bass player behavior and drool with a slackened jaw. Du ... eeeeh (drip) !

So it's back to virtual school for me ... I'm not going to be beaten by jargon. Heck, I read Foucault and Derrida when I was at university ... this can't be that bad. Can it? Hmm, maybe I'm approaching this from the wrong angle ... minimalism might be the way to go ... one note ... wait ten seconds ... repeat. Once again post-modernism shows us the way. But the way to where? How do I get back? It's dark, cold and I'm alone. Nooooooooo!

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