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Learn the Skills, Not the Lick by Jonathan Moody

The last week of working in the theatre has been interesting. During the “warm up” time before the show, the college students in the pit have been showing off their chops by ripping through famous players’ licks, all the while being goaded on by their peers. I’ll admit, it’s kind of fun to see these guys interested and passionate about their music. On the other hand, it reminds me of myself back in college, and the lesson I learned from Stanley Clark. Well, kind of.

Back in college I had been listening to Clarke’s self-titled album for a while and wanted to transcribe something from it; I settled on “Lopsy Lu” (the slap bass line was easily my favorite). The transcription process was challenging, but in the end I had it. I played along with the CD and it just wasn’t working; it felt flat. Sure, I could nail Clarke’s line note for note, but unless I was playing that song in a group, where was the need? Plus, I didn’t feel that I had learned anything other than how to rip off a Stanley Clarke line.

Upon the advice of an old teacher, I slowed it down and started diving into what Clarke was doing, where the chord tones fell, his right hand technique, how it sat in the overall arrangement, etc.. Once I sat down and started working on the technique and theory behind that seminal line, I started to understand what was really going on with that bass line. It became more than just a “Hey guys, look what I can do!” moment, but a masterclass with Clarke himself.

After a couple of weeks of analyzing it and picking it apart, I played along with the CD again and this time, I really nailed it. The feel was there! More importantly, I noticed during band practices during the months ahead that the time vested in analyzing the line was paying off in how I was approaching bass lines myself. I was incorporating some of the things I had learned into my own technique and not just “ripping off licks” from Clarke.

The lesson was learned. Don’t be so focused on the lick that you lose sight of the technique and theory used to create it. I spent a lot of time transcribing bass lines from famous players and until that moment, didn’t learn anything except how to transcribe bass lines. Revisiting those transcriptions opened up an entirely new experience and led to a lot of musical growth and enjoyment.

So, take a moment next time as you’re working up some new lick or line and really think about the technique that was used behind it, instead of just blazing through it. You might be surprised as to how much more you pick up.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Steve Gregory

    Steve Gregory

    October 20, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Jonathan,

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more with your point that transcription has 2 levels: the first is the transcription, the second is the deep look beyond the notes. I was blessed to have a mentor that taught this as an essential principle. There are master classes hiding everywhere, just beyond the transcription!

    Steve

  2. Pingback: BMM: Learn the Skills, Not the Licks » Jon Moody, freelance bassist and ukulele player, staff writer for Bass Musician Magazine

  3. Matt Peterson

    March 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    I found this blog at the perfect time! I’m feeling stuck and having a hard time moving from a cover artist to a real bassist. This feels like a great place to start. For what it’s worth on an internet forum, thank you!

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