Hello, and welcome to my first article for Bass Musician Magazine! I’m excited to be a part of this new online publication, and I hope that you will leave here with a new concept or approach that might help you on your quest to become the best bass-playing musician you can be!
For my first submission, I thought I’d address one of the topics that I get asked about frequently at my bass clinics: How to increase speed and dexterity. Whether you have been playing for 30 days or 30 years, chances are that you wouldn’t mind acquiring some more technical headroom in order to perform more fluidly and effortlessly on stage or in the studio. Although I could write many volumes on the subject of further developing technique, I thought I’d share just one of the most effective and simple ways I have found to break through speed barriers on the instrument in this installment. I hope this simple approach will help you as much as it has helped me in the past.
Before I get into the specifics here, first I must offer a short disclaimer… The methods and mechanics of exercises like these are purely technique-driven, and are designed only for the purpose of helping you with the synchronization between your 2 hands if you are interested in being able to play with more speed and dexterity. By continuing on, you accept the responsibility of making the MUSIC your priority on the gig and in the studio, and recognize that you are to practice these exercises for technique’s sake only… You vow to leave your rehearsed shapes and patterns in the practice shed, and allow the inspiration and spontaneity of the musical moment be your sole guide in choosing how you will express yourself on your instrument in performance settings… You hereby pledge allegiance to the groove, of the united strings, and to the bass, with musical liberty and justice for all. OK, ok. Enough ranting, already. Now I’m going just a little TOO far… 😉
A lot of us have turned to the metronome, drum machine, or some other external clock source for help with increasing our speed and cleanliness on the fingerboard. By starting with very slow tempos, and playing exercises that challenge our dexterity, we can slowly work up to speed progressively and incrementally, until the point at which we hit our ‘breaking point’, or ‘maximum tempo’ for the exercise. This is where things start to fall apart technically, and we lose our ability to play the exercise or phrase with any consistency anymore. For example, using this popular approach, you might take a one octave major scale, and play through it at an eighth note pace starting at 60 bpm, and then raise the metronome setting at 10 bpm increments until you reach the point at which you can no longer play the scale with perfect accuracy.
This is a viable and widely used method, but in my experience I have found that even this approach has its limitations when trying to break through your current tempo-oriented boundaries. This is because our mind and hands actually get conditioned to the repetitive process of a progressive tempo increase over time, and we actually find that the ‘wall of our maximum tempo’ feels impossible to break through, no matter how many times in a week we revisit it by working our way up the ‘metronomic’ ladder.
I’ve spent a lot of time and study trying to figure out how our brains work with respect to our bass-playing potential and limitations. What I have found is that often our methods of conditioning will establish predictable limitations. This is partly because we mentally carry the expectation that our limit is fast approaching as we work through the increasing speeds of the exercises we practice. In fact, we often develop a sense of anxiety while we are practicing in this way, in anticipation of reaching what we expect to be our breaking point as we watch the tempo settings on our metronome or drum machine; subsequently, we end up mentally preparing for our breaking point as it draws near with every passing increase in tempo. Although it might sound rather silly or unorthodox, I have found tremendously greater success in trying to ‘trick’ my mind into performing at a more proficient level than I would have obtained by staying completely conscious of each incremental increase using the aforementioned approach.
Ok…. I hear each of you sighing and scratching your heads. This tangent I’ve gone off on has by now started to sound like gibberish, I’m sure… So, in an effort to actually illustrate what the heck I’m rambling about let me give you an example of how you might ‘trick’ your mind or ‘shock’ your system into reaching the next level of dexterity on the bass!
ike many of you, I spent a lot of time in the past working with a metronome and doing as many combinations of exercises as i could that were devoted to speed and dexterity, slowly building tempo with each iteration along the way. However, one of the best ways I have found to increase your speed and cleanliness at a much faster rate, is to do what I call ‘doubling’ exercises… The idea is that you play an exercise or phrase at a particular tempo that is safe and comfortable 3 times in a row, and then without stopping, play the 4th repetition at double the tempo. After that, without stopping go back to the original tempo and start all over again. You keep cycling like this without interruption for several minutes, and only if you can play it perfectly, then jump the metronome or drum machine tempo upwards and then start over again.
As you can see, this is a very simple concept. In Exercise 1, we would play the G major scale ascending and descending using eighth notes for bars 1 through 6, and then suddenly jump into sixteenth notes for bar 7. This temporary doubling in speed is where the exercise takes you out of your comfort zone, but for a short enough period that you can still maintain your control over the shape. To continue with the exercise, I would recommend a strategy of playing through the currently selected tempo 5 times without any mistakes or sloppiness before upping the beats per minute to the next level. (I would recommend tempo increases somewhere between 5 and 10 bpm for each successive iteration of the exercise.)
Here’s another example in which we utilize a triplet feel, instead. In Exercise 2 we are just using a six note scale fragment taken from the G major scale. Note that in this exercise, our metronome would be set to the dotted quarter note, instead, at 50 bpm:
Once again, the pattern kicks into double speed after 3 repetitions, and then starts over again. Notice also that for this particular exercise, we are utilizing a 3 note per string approach, which changes the overall feel of our hand position. (Obviously, you could use any combination of different fingering positions that would help you in achieving your goals when working on things like this.)
The reason this approach is so effective is because it ‘shocks’ your system into playing twice as fast momentarily under focused concentration and attention to detail. Because you are only playing a single repetition at double speed, you do not become overwhelmed with the faster tempo, and thereby have a much higher success rate with respect to your conditioning. It is kind of like doing weight training, alternating between using lighter weights with longer repetitions, and heavier weights with shorter repetitions. This will get your speed ‘up to speed’ very quickly, and also help you to break through the barriers that might be holding you back from stepping up to that next tempo beyond your current maximum. It’s also like working 2 different tempos at the same time, so your mind and hands are not locked into just one phase of muscle memory as you step up the ladder.
Obviously, the sky is the limit with respect to what you use for exercise content… Exercises 1 and 2 simply use fragments from a G major scale pattern in a single position, but you could (and should) just as easily select from arpeggio forms, scale fragments, hybrid scale/chord tone combinations, or melodic phrases to create your speed workout routines. Strive to work on shapes that you are unfamiliar with, so that you are regularly taken outside of your technical comfort zone. This particular article is more dedicated to presenting you with the concept than actual content, because I really want you to use your own creativity and assessment in determining what the best application of this will be. Ultimately, it is always best to start with content that isn’t too overwhelming, so that you maintain your confidence and see your progress increase consistently over time.
To further develop your endurance, you can increase the number of double speed reps accordingly. For example, try doing 3 reps at normal speed followed by 2 reps at double speed, etc., etc. This is my favorite approach for increasing the level of difficulty for this type of technique-based work. I hope this concept will help you in your pursuit of technical excellence. Until next time, keep it bassy!