The problems that beginners have with playing the bass are the same problems more experienced players have with singing-while-playing the bass. They are trying to play the cool sounding stuff without actually learning anything about music. There is no shortcut.
You have to understand that I’m playing chords, and how those chords go together. I always get people asking me to just “show them where to put their hands.” They don’t want to know how I got to that point musically; they just want to know the lick or what the trick is. Now, I could give that information to them; I could make them into a monkey… and that’s all they’d be, a trained bass-playing monkey. But then they would have no idea how to take what I gave them and put it in another context.
BMM: That would seem to explain the popularity of the YouTube lickmeister lessons and the teenage guitar store shredders.
Horan: Yeah. When I tell them there is no magic trick other than hard work, they get this disappointed look on their face and say, “You suck.” This is somebody who is intimidated by the idea of using their brains to remember something about music; he just wants to do the acrobatics. He’s just looking for someone to give him a secret to putting it all together. It’s just not there; you have to learn to ride the bike before you can race. There’s no substitute.
BMM: What about the non-monkey who wants to learn to sing while playing solo bass?
Horan: If you know about harmony and chords, then we can start talking. Once you’re there, then it’s a case of getting totally comfortable while playing a song so you can actually concentrate on something else. And that’s more of an involved process than people think.
The first thing I have students do is close their eyes when they play. That’s it. And most of them freak out. The idea is that if you change just one little thing in somebody’s world, you realize how much you’ve been concentrating on it. You bring up somebody’s level of awareness that way; if something as minor as closing your eyes when you play rocks your world, you’re concentrating a lot more than you think you are on your playing.
Once you can master closing your eyes and playing, the next thing is to put your attention on other things while you’re playing. I’ll have someone play a solo bass-type riff; something rappity-tappity. I’ll ask them to keep playing and look out the window, then down at the floor. Most of the time, without me saying anything, they’ll notice a hiccup in their timing when their attention shifts. If they don’t, I’ll turn on the metronome. Then they realize their timing is going all over the place when they look around. Once you’re aware of that, then your body starts controlling it for you. The idea is to make yourself your own policeman of what you’re doing.
Once you do that, you can build your muscle memory, and from there…well it’s similar to what many professional musicians believe: You can’t really play it unless you can play it on stage. There’s a difference between playing something in your room and looking at the fingerboard the whole time, and being on a stage; putting on a show, moving around and singing…let alone entertaining an audience. And most people don’t have the patience for it. For most bass players, it’s a novelty. They think it would be cool to be able to do that, but when they finally see what’s involved, they move on to something else.
BMM: So, repetition, repetition, repetition. Just play until the point of going on autopilot with the instrument?
Horan: Well…yes and no. On the one hand, performing relies almost entirely on muscle memory. On the other hand, when coming up with music, you want to avoid just relying on your muscle memory. So yes; before you can sing and play, you need to have your bass part ingrained in your muscle memory so you can concentrate on your voice. But to write original music and use your own judgment, or to improvise on the fly and to actually link one idea to another; to compose at any speed, that’s better when it’s completely independent of muscle memory. On the one hand you need to do it by rote, but you also need the creative side to not do it by rote. It just comes from doing it every night.
You need to think of it as building your musical vocabulary. If you come across a new word you’ve never seen before, you’ll sound it out slowly. Then you’ll use it in a sentence a few times and then you can finally say it without really thinking about it. The same sort of thing applies; it’s the difference between thinking of every single individual motion in a lick, or just remembering that lick as one piece information you don’t think about when you play.
BMM: And once you’ve ingrained that with the bass, you start with the vocals?
Horan: Yep. Start by singing syllables instead of words.
Horan: Yes, syllables. Something has to give until you can put the whole thing together!
BMM: Any last words of wisdom for aspiring bass musicians?
Horan: Figure out why you’re playing the bass. Some people play for the wrong reasons. As a private teacher, I see lots kids who are afraid of letting down an overbearing parent, and people of all ages who pick the bass because it’s “easier than guitar.” They’re both doomed.
But if someone tells me their reason for playing is that they want to do what I do? (smiles) I give them a U2 record. Play that with your eyes closed; if you’re still having fun in a week, come back and we’ll talk!
Visit online at www.myspace.com/sethhoran