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Worship Bassist’s Toolkit with Steve Gregory – Fretboard Knowledge

My father is, among many things, an amazing craftsman.  His specialty and passion is woodworking, which requires not only a great deal of skill, but also that the right tools for the job be on hand.  The progress of each project on which he works is dependent upon his tools being available, maintained, and ready for use.  From the broadest cuts to the finest details, there are specific tools to be employed.  Further, these tools are not interchangeable – a hammer will not help when a saw is needed, for example. In order to create his artwork, my father has to have the appropriate tools.

In much the same way, the worship musician’s ability to create art and worship is dependent upon our toolset being available, maintained, and ready for use.  While the base gig bag tools are necessary (tuner, cable, etc.), I want to explore another toolkit we need.  These tools include the theoretical, harmonic, and knowledge-based skills that allow us to create artful worship.  To begin, this month we will explore fretboard knowledge.

To reuse the analogy above, let’s imagine a beautiful new saw.  This saw has the latest adjustable blade, the best precision guides, and is made of the finest materials.  This machine has all of the necessary options to create beautiful and intricate cuts; however, would you expect that someone would be able use the tool to create art if they “mostly knew” how to use it? What if they only knew how to use some parts of the saw?  What if they were really familiar with one area of the tool, but lacking in knowledge of other areas?

I think it is easy to see that the person in this example is going to have many, many challenges in their quest to produce art.  Unfortunately, many bassists are prevented from creating artful worship because of their lack of fretboard knowledge.  The bass may have all of the bells and whistles known to man, but if you are unable to use the instrument, what’s the use?

This issue rears its ugly head in many different ways.  Some bassists are extremely familiar with frets 1-5, but frets 6-11 are a land of mystery (safety is found again at the octave repeat at fret 12).  Other bassists climb strings horizontally, leading to awkward shifts and hand positions.  Still others “mostly know” their fretboard, but struggle and strain when pushed to play in an uncomfortable area of the neck.  In each situation, the player is prevented from being truly free to worship, because of the attention and stress that has to be exerted.  This inability to attend to worship is detraction at best and distraction at worst.

To remedy this issue (and to release us to freely worship and create our art), it is important to attack the problem in our practice sessions.  To begin, let’s take a single note (without regard for octaves) and find every instance of that note on the neck.  The following maps out the all of the “A’s” on a four string bass, assuming a 20-fret neck:

E String:  Frets 5, 17

A String:  Open, Fret 12

D String:  Frets 7, 19

G String:  Frets 2, 14

If you are using an instrument with more frets or strings, make sure you find all of the notes in your extended range.  Do the same discovery exercise for every note and make sure you say the note name as you play it.   Rather than work chromatically through the neck, use a pattern that shifts around the neck.  I suggest moving through 5ths – C, G, D, A, E, B, F#/Gb, C#/Db, G#/Ab, D#/Eb, A#/Bb, F.  After running this cycle, you have covered all of the notes on the bass!

Now that we’ve found the notes, it is time to shake up our brains a little to push our limits.  To do this, invent some “games” you can play with yourself so that you are forced to look at the neck in different ways.  For example, you could:

  • Start with the highest note on the G string and descend, instead of starting on the lowest available note on the E string and ascending.
  • Play the lowest note available on the E string, then it’s octave found 2 strings away.  Move to the next available note on the E string, play the octave 2 strings away.  Repeat for A string.
  • Reverse the octave pattern, starting on the highest note available on the G string.
  • Play as many of the notes available within frets 1-5, then 6-11, 12-17, etc.

The possibilities are truly up to you.  Challenge yourself!  Force yourself to really explore the neck and be determined to master it!  If you find yourself getting into a pattern rut, make flash cards with a different note on each card.  Shuffle the deck and work through the notes that way.

When you are ready for additional challenge, you can add time to the equation.  Using a metronome, set a click and find the next note in your pattern on each click.  Have fun, challenge yourself, and realize that you are working to release yourself to play incredible worship!

Taking the concept to the next level, we can expand to play a multi-note pattern in as many ways as possible.  For example, let’s look at the ascending arpeggio pattern G-B-D.  Here are the ways you can play this pattern (again, disregarding octaves, but maintaining the ascending pattern):

Click to Download G-B-D

Again, there are endless ways to challenge yourself just as you did above.  Stretch your abilities, learn the fretboard!

Having fretboard knowledge available, maintained, and ready for use is crucial for the worship bassist.  This knowledge frees to you to worship completely and to create your art.  Challenge yourself, have fun, and make sure you let me know how you are doing!

Until next time, I hope that your bass playing is blessed and that you can bless others through your bass playing!

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Skip Taylor

    September 4, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I really enjoy hearing player points of view and tips. Keep it coming…

  2. Steve Gregory

    Steve Gregory

    September 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Skip, thanks for reading! I truly appreciate it!!

  3. Skip Taylor

    September 7, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge. You know it is funny how these days we seem afraid of worship and praise. Even in the workplace it seems to be taboo to reference faith. Yet most players admit the essence of what we do – as bass players come from outside of us – our souls and spirit. I am bless to have a connection that speaks through me and my bass.

    When praise go’s up – bass comes down….

  4. Tim Upshaw

    April 10, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    Steve- Thank you for you worship column. I continually re-read it to pick up nuggets of wisdom for playing Worship and Gospel music.

    As you may know, many bassists that play Urban Gospel music will detune their basses to a low Bb or lower to achieve that extra low range. About a year ago, I decided to give detuning a try and detuned my 5-string bass to Bb. It was strange at first because I had to get used to the half-step difference in the finger positions while playing songs that I was familiar with, with standard tuning. Now, I can see why Gospel bassist detune, especially to Bb…. Because many Gospel songs are written in Bb or Eb, so when you hit that open Bb or Eb at the climax of the song, it really has an effect. I think I will stay with this tuning.

    My Dilemma: We all play by ear at our church, so there is very little sheet music. So, when my Music Director calls out notes on the fly during a song, I have trouble trying to remember where the notes are now in the new tuning, shifting notes up a half step. Even with the sheet music, I have to go through the exercise of shifting the notes. Should I just relearn the fretboard with the Bb tuning now to make things smoother? I’m not sure what to do…….

  5. Steve Gregory

    stevegregorybass

    April 11, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for reading and I’m humbled to know that the columns have been valuable to you. I’ll have more columns focusing on the worship world very soon.

    Before looking at the fret board issue, let me say how impressive it is that you’ve taken the initiative to detune. Realizing how valuable the Bb or Eb can be to add emphasis to your environment is an excellent insight! Being worship bass *musicians* is our goal…seems like you are living that out!

    Onto the fret board, with detuning. I’m assuming that you have detuned all of your strings and it appears you are using (at least) a 5 string. So, I’m working on the model that you are tuned Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb (low to high).

    I would work on two things: note recall and note “geography”. For the first, note recall, the exercises in the column are absolutely valuable. You are learning a new neck, even though it is just a half step off. Being able to recall notes, at will, requires some degree of memorizing the new layout. Try the exercises in the column in the new tuning. You can also try this: get 12 index cards and write a note on each. Shuffle, turn face down, and flip the first one over. Find that note everywhere you can on the neck. Don’t worry too much about speed, just find the notes. I’ve also found that saying the note names as you play them creates a very nice mind-hand link. When you say the note, accept that the fretted note is what you say it is. Don’t try to confuse things with “This is an Eb, but it used to be an E, but I’ve detuned, so it’s a half-step different….”. Play the note, say, “Eb”, move to the next one!

    The second way to tackle this is to use the relationships of note “geography”. Try this: play the E on the 6th fret of the Bb string with your middle finger. Close your eyes and don’t picture where your fingers really are on the neck, just picture that your middle finger is on an E. Play the note and then play the major 3rd, G#. If your middle finger is on E, you know the third is on the next string, under your index finger. Now play the 5th, B. This is under your pinky (still on same string as G#). What’s the point? You know, from learning and playing, where notes are in relation to each other. It doesn’t matter where E is on the board, G# and B will still use the same “geography” from E. This proves that you can play figures and find notes once you get going, as long as you get your brain out of the way (or fully in the way, depending on how you look at it!). As a side note, I’ve used this technique when reading a chart and having to transpose on the fly. I get my fingers into the starting position they need to be in to make the correct notes sound, but then play the chart not worrying about where my hand actually is, but what finger movements I would have to do to play the chart – tricking myself, basically. In a pinch, it does the trick!

    I’d love to hear how this works for you. I can always be reached here, on Twitter (@sgregorybass), or on via the “contact” link on my site (www.stevegregorybass.com). Let me know how things are going and if there’s anything I can do to help you!

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