Ted’s essays

cheatin’ dog beginning bass player

Bassman Ted's maiden voyageCHEATIN BASSGDAEI have spent three Thursdays in a row plunking on my new bass in the neighborhood bluegrass jam. I am playing rather well by feel and everybody is politely welcoming, but it rather obviously is going to take me a long, long time to achieve the simplest, basic level of comfortable competence.

Particularly the way I was headed.

Missy picked up a loaner autoharp, and is researching, reading and studying it with a fervor. Her song charts, chord charts and key charts caught my attention.

Hey, I think I could use those…
but in a really simplified form…
cut down to the very tiny bit of knowledge a entry-level bluegrass bass player MUST play. Nevermind the optional. I gotta make it extremely simple to bash its way into my crusty old brain.

So I did.

I now have a nice set of cheatin’-dog beginner bass tools to get my muscle memory and mental pathways on board with this game.

For starters, I put a temporary piece of masking tape across the finger board at the place I can play on the string I’ve moved up to, OR move to the next higher string and play it open (no left hand). This helps me get used to when I should be switching from one string to the next and back again.

Plus it gives an old trombone player a point of reference much like knowing that the bell of the horn lies between 3rd and 4th position.

My next trick was to put the string names, their open note labels on the bridge. It will get into my memory soon enough, but gol-dang I have to leave some of those precious few brain cells for actual THINKING rather than constantly re- re- re-learning what the root notes are.

Placing my little blue Snark tuner on the bridge where I can see it as I play helps a lot in finding the right note on that pitch-approximating 3-foot-long fingerboard. My hands and ears will get trained soon enough, but not if I don’t hold them to some standard – not to mention the comfort it will give my fellow musicians to have their bass player frequently in tune on the right note.

Today’s big breakthrough is that chart on the left shoulder of the bass … smack dab in front of my face. Those are the keys nearly all bluegrass tunes come in, the three chords that make up tunes in that key and the two notes the bass MUST play in each of those chords. I boiled the essential information down to its simplest possible form.

While that all strikes real musicians as so elementary as to preclude taking notes, it is a HUGE HELP to me right now.

Just fiddling with it a little, I already better understand my role with the bass. Knowing what notes I’m supposed to try for, rather than just roaming around by gut feel is a great leap forward.

Better still, I can now practice within different keys. As I started trying my new chart, I explored different ways to make the two notes with one fingering position, discovering some smooth ways rather than the impossible contortions or awkward movements that occurred to me initially.

Oh yeah!

I’m gunna get this.