One of the most complex things to decide in relation with this topic is to decide whether the bass is mainly a rhythmic or harmonic instrument. This is an absolutely crucial matter for a bass teacher in order to clarify how he is going to approach the teaching/learning process of the instrument with his students. It would not make sense if the teacher thinks that the bass is let’s say “white”, and he teaches everything about it as if it were “black”, if you know what I mean.
Historically speaking, when Paul Tutmarc invented the Electric Bass around 1934 (some say it was Les Paul, but this would be matter for a different article), he created “the thing” in order to solve some of the problems that were inherent to the Double Bass, for example, its lack of portability, and the size/volume ratio. This is how the electric bass started to gain its terrain in the Double Bassists field. Remember, the Double Bass originated in the classical field, and this means that its concept, or its “reason to be” mainly centered on the harmonic world instead of the rhythmic world. Its main role was to collaborate with the roots for the myriad of chords that a classical piece can contain. Of course this started to change from the beginning of the 20th century when Jazz appeared strongly on the scene, but this change of concept was not completely developed. As I see it, and this is only my humble opinion, that situation led us to two main streams for an assumption of what the instrument was about. On one side, the Old School that thought (and still does) that the Electric Bass is primarily an harmonic instrument, and on the other side, the New School that has no doubt that the Electric Bass is mainly a rhythmic instrument by definition, that can also play cool notes (if the player allows this to happen).
When I arrived in the States in 1995, I was hired as the bass professor for the California Music Studio of Los Angeles for more than 4 years. The first thing that caught my attention was realizing my approach to the teaching/learning process of the instrument was “not” wrong, as many people from my small Latin-American country (Chile) felt. (One of the reasons I left).
From day one, (1988) I assumed that the Electric Bass was a rhythmic instrument in the first place, and that I could do whatever I wanted with it, the only condition being not “stammering” with my rhythm. Said another way, the point was not to loose the groove, no matter what. This was a concept everybody in my country thought was a bit crazy, but getting to know the right people in the US reaffirmed my thoughts and my beliefs.
I always tell this short story to my personal students, generally in the first class, and I do the same on my clinics.
Imagine two different bass players that go to an audition to get in a band. The first one has a $10.000 14 string bass, amazing technique (he even uses his left hand “pinky”), monster slap chops, ultra speed, stunning tapping, this guy in fact knows all the harmony, scales and chords that a human being could know… I forgot to say that he also is a master sight reader and that he has perfect pitch. This first guy has only a “tiny little” problem, because, well, nobody’s perfect, he has no groove at all, and by that I mean that he can’t keep up with the tempo, or create a foundation for the band.
On the other hand the second bass player has a $200 dollar bass with only two strings left (E and A), and he had an accident when he was a kid and sadly he has only one finger on each hand. Besides that, this guy doesn’t know really any music theory or chords or scales, in fact he doesn’t know the name of any of the notes on the instrument, and of course he can’t read music. To make things worse, this guy has a poor musical ear. But this second guy has one only ability and that is his amazing groove and impressive sense of time keeping and rhythmic awareness. The only thing you have to do is to tell him the root and the “available notes” he has to press with his sole left hand finger on the fingerboard and you are all set.
The question that remains is: Which bass player will you choose if this is an absolute emergency.
For me there’s no doubt about the decision, and this will be to choose the second bass player, because even though this example is an exaggeration, I’ve been in circumstances that have got really close to this, and I feel, think and believe that there’s nothing more important than a bass player with a solid groove.
What to do then? How do we begin teaching the instrument?
The answer is quite simple: Start with a focus on the rhythm, and forget about notes, scales, chords, key signatures, advanced techniques, speed, super expensive and multi string basses and everything else. Make the student understand and experience what time and feel are, so he won’t confuse it with tempo, or the beat. Teach him how he can enjoy subdividing the time and getting the special and specific feel of each subdivision. Help him with his muscular and mental coordination in order to develop a sense of groove, and to put his life and soul into this specific issue. In the beginning, keep the technical and harmonic information at a minimum, and focus almost 100% on the rhythm. Whatever time it takes, it will be completely worth it, trust me on that.
When I got back to Latin-America in 2000, not much had changed regarding this matter. The Electric Bass was still viewed as a harmonic instrument in the first place, like many people in the US (old school mainly) still do. It has been a struggle to convince people about this concept, in fact I’ve been writing a series of three bass books, and it’s no coincidence I started by naming the first one “Applied Rhythm for the Electric Bass Vol. I” (it’s only in Spanish for now, and was released in 2008). The following books related to technique and harmony, and will be released in 2010 and 2011. This is my way to formalize my thoughts about how I see the instrument.
A good question that surfaces is: Are there any great bass players out there that think along the same lines as myself? Well, a couple months ago a student lent me a Victor Wooten clinic from 2008 that focuses on groove that is called Groove Workshop. The only thing that I’m going to say about it is that even though Victor is not the same style of player as myself, I was very moved when I saw it, because I felt that this video validated the approach I’ve been following for the last 20 years. Victor is an amazing bassist, and also a great teacher, and after watching this particular video, I felt that I could speak through his words. I recommend this DVD a thousand percent to any bass player who wants to really understand what the Electric Bass is really all about.
Those examples, and the outcome I got after a very deep analysis confirms to me again that the bass is first and foremost “a rhythmic instrument”, and that this should define the concept and execution of a Teaching/Learning approach.
Hope you enjoyed the article, and watch for my next one: “Tips for the Modern Bass player”.