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The Gollihur Music Blog

Musings On

We hear the term "muscle memory" (Wikipedia Article) when referring to learning finger positions on the glorious (and seemingly endless) fingerboard of the upright bass, or its more modest descendant, the fretless bass guitar. I've often tossed around that term, never really thinking about precisely what it meant, until it was brought into focus by a recent television program. Surprisingly, it wasn't a musically-oriented show - and it wasn't on PBS.

Actually, it was the poorly-named (but surprisingly informative) show "Dark Matters: Twisted But True" on the Science Channel. I think the producers chose the suggestive name and then hired John Noble, complete with creepy Fringe voice, to lure viewers who'd otherwise skip over "educational" programming. Because, let's be honest: calling it the "You're Going to Learn Something Interesting Show!" wouldn't bring much in the way of ratings.

This episode begins with the story of Nobel Prize nominee neurologist António Egas Moniz, who performed radical brain surgery on a patient with a serious seizure disorder. The operation (Spoiler Alert) is a partial success; his seizures cease, and while he can recall pre-surgery memories, he loses the ability to store new memories. In short, this leads to the conclusion that there are two distinctive long term memory types.

There's further, much more in-depth info at The Human Memory site, from which I'll be gently borrowing. Declarative, or explicit memory (knowing what) is that stuff we remember, like the names of people we met yesterday, and other things one might term "knowledge." Procedural, or unconscious muscle memory, is the "knowing how" memory that we hope blesses us (bass players) with accurate finger placement on the fingerboard. So in the case of a patient like Moniz's, while the patient's manual skill tests improve each day, he has to be reintroduced to his post-surgery doctors every day!

What's it all mean? Perhaps it explains why I can play the upright bass in tune but can't remember the name of the guitar player I met yesterday. While these musings may not have enhanced your procedural, practical bass playing memory, it is fun to discover that the phrase muscle memory actually has some science behind it.

--Bob


The Art of the Jam


Join in the fun of open mics, garage jams, sitting in, and more

Unless you're Michael Manring or another aspiring Bass Solo Artist, a key ingredient in improving your playing is to play with others... preferably with musicians that are better than you. Be confident -- you may be better than you think you are; prepare by jamming along with unfamiliar songs as well as the most common one. Finding -- and diving into -- Garage Jams, Open Mics and "Sitting In" opportunities can be a little daunting, at first. Mark, Chris, and I have collaborated on some thoughts to help you to get involved -- and be successful.

Finding other players willing to tolerate your learning curve can sometimes be tough, but it's worth the effort. Your local Craigslist ads and music store bulletin boards can be sources for posting Bass Player Available solicitations as well as finding Wanted signs. When writing or responding to these ads, be brief and to the point. It isn't necessary to post The History of Me As a Bass Player, just make your clear points and get out clean.

Jams (not one of my favorite words) come in various forms. It may be a group of friends (and potential new friends) blowing off steam soaked in beer, an informal collaboration of players who came to an open stage night, backing up open mic singer-songwriters, a semi-rehearsal where you're sitting in for the bass player who couldn't make it at the last minute, and more. All of these can be valuable, can add to your experience and repertoire, expand your skill set, and challenge and make you grow as a player, with the side benefit of exposing you to other musicians who may be impressed. Planting these seeds can yield band offers and gigs, as well as invites to other events.

Be open to other types of music. I'm not suggesting you wear your cowboy hat to a death metal jam, just don't make your focus too narrow. Playing country, classical, jazz, and rock has made me a better blues bass player, not to mention helped me to appreciate what's universally good and in common with all types of music.

Jams are Musical Conversations. Be gracious, don't be rude or controversial. It's not necessary to continually inform everyone that you're the smartest guy in the room.

Visit the Blog Page for the rest of this article!


The Art of the Jam (continued)

Yes, it can sometimes be boring for the bass player, but don't fall asleep. Besides, here's your opportunity to contribute and grow as a player; play a variation on that repetitive pattern over the next twelve bars. Lay back a little, play some accents, engage the drummer (if he's the listening type) and get funky if appropriate. He's probably bored, too.

Know your role. We're the bass player - accept that our role is usually one of support. In most acoustic situations we're not only thumping low, we're the percussion section -- the glue that keeps all those guitar players tapping their foot to the rhythm we keep. Be solid and dependable, and play your part. If they happen to throw you a solo, that's the time for showing off.

Be tolerant and supportive. If it's an open mic and you're backing up the Unknown Sole Musician Playing Bad Originals and Poorly Executed Covers (Using Incorrect Chords), expect and be prepared to cover their butt. Many players have learned by playing alone, where a steady rhythm (and the apparently "unreasonable" requirement of a consistent number of beats in each measure) are not required. Listen for their interpretation of timing and aim for the beginning of each measure; don't try to be the Time Cop. If the venue regularly hosts these events, they know to have a member of their staff available to sweep up the dropped beats at the end of the performance (grin).

Know some songs, and bring some if appropriate. Be prepared to make suggestions, especially if you can do the lead vocal. Many impromptu "jams" end up being an annoying 2-hour long exercise in "blues in E." Boring for everyone, to be sure (except maybe that lead guitar player) but especially for the bassist. Have some charts in your bag complete with lyrics, if it's not too much trouble - oftentimes the "disorganized" jams can benefit from the gentle hand of "suggestive leadership."

If you don't know the song, don't do your imitation of a deer in the headlights. There comes a time in one's life when you have to truly fake it, and conquering the fear of being thrown into a situation fraught with The Unknown can be an excellent learning experience -- as well as a helluvalot of fun. Various flavors of Jam are out there, but in this case we're talking of those that involve players and songs you may not know; often we're the sole bass holding down the bottom end for the Too Many Guitars Orchestra. Most songs follow a predictable pattern, use The Force and fake it.

Lay out/back if you're unsure. While most originals will follow a familiar pattern of three or four chords, this is not always the case. Covers can also follow unfamiliar paths, especially if the player has substituted the chords within their own small knowledge base, or worse, gotten the chords from a tab site on the net. (BTW: It's not up to us to educate the room by playing the "proper" bass note loudly, or by rolling our eyes every time it goes by.) If you're floundering a bit for any of these reasons, there is a maxim I've observed for many years, as a musician and in life in general: If you're going to make a mistake, don't make it loud. Play confidently, but be prepared to musically mumble until you figure out the bridge.

Don't play too loud, don't dominate -- that's why guitars (or banjos) were invented. The key word is accompany, or support.

Two Basses is usually one too many. If another bass player shows up at an acoustic jam... What do you do? I can only tell you what I did in two specific instances. In the first, I reverted to high school tuba roles -- "You go high and I'll go low, and we'll switch when we get tired of playing those two strings." In the other instance I asked the other player to play my bass so I could hear how well the new Corelli strings I put on it projected. I honestly wanted to know, but in a pinch, it sure is a way to build alliance rather than a rivalry, and can introduce taking turns. On the other hand, most situations call for only one bass player at a time, so...

Don't be afraid to sit out a few songs and take turns. Be the "audience" and offer encouragement to all the other players (where appropriate). There will be other chances to play these sorts of jams, especially if you're gracious about sharing the bass chair (you'll be invited back!) so you don't have to be playing every minute of every song as if this were your last gig. Besides, it's a nice chance to grab a beverage, chill out, and watch someone else sweat over the changes for a while. But disappearing, or just appearing disinterested, while you're not the one with the bass in your hands, will come off as disrespectful and kind of rude.

Be social! Don't just show up, play, and leave. These sorts of gatherings can be an excellent networking opportunity - you can meet other musicians who may have other, money-making bands; if you make friends with some of them, it can be an avenue by which you'll start getting calls when their bassist is out of town, or double-booked, etc.

Even you were an amateur at one time. Playing with someone who's a bit "green" can be taxing and unrewarding, but exhibiting tolerance and adding structure can help them grow, as well as help you learn the useful skill of musical manipulation.

Are you enjoying yourself? It's taken me a long time to accept the fact that not every musical encounter, whether it's a performance, rehearsal, or jam, can be a fun time. My new rule of thumb is if I am enjoying 51% or more of the experience, it's a winner. Adopting the perspective of that attitude will open you to a lot more opportunities and enjoyment.

Be friendly - to everyone. The piano player might seem to you to have an attitude problem tonight, but unless he picks a fight with you, don't pick one with him. If you've been solid all night, he may remember that when another musical friend of his is looking for a bassist for a gig or session. Likewise, don't talk to others at the jam about his snotty behavior - circles of musicians are often tighter than they appear, and your comments will get back to him. It is a social event, after all.

Finally, think on your feet. This list of tips comes off like a set of "rules" - but as in life, in the jam sometimes rules differ depending on the situation. Just remember, above all: be flexible, be nice, and have fun - and the rest should just fall in line. Just keep on livin' the low life!

--Bob

PS: Another aspect of "The Jam" can be Sitting in. Chris lends some road experience with the following comments:

Whenever I'm in a new city I try to catch a jam session of some sort, be it bluegrass, jazz, old time music, blues, you name it. Being a bass player, at multi instrumentalist jam sessions; it's always a bit tougher for us to just jump up and go; after all, there's not enough room on the bandstand for two bass players, regardless of the musical style. Here are some "sitting in" pointers:
  • Some sessions will have a sign up sheet for musicians waiting to play, so look for one when you arrive. But many have nothing, even though it may be billed as an open jam.
  • Usually, getting up on stage is as easy as hunting down the bass player on a set break and just asking. Don't mind them being a bit grumpy about there being another bassist there; deep down they're usually happy, because for the first time that night they'll get to sit back and enjoy a beer. At an old time session on Asheville last year I asked the bass player if I could sit in for a couple tunes; she said nothing, handed me her bass, and walked away. I was up there for a full set! Bass players have a tendency to be nice people, especially to other bassists... we're a rare breed, so we need to stick together!
  • That being said, remember not to overstay your welcome. Always make some eye contact with the other bass player to make sure you're not stepping on his/her toes; some people will let you play five tunes, and some want their bass back after one. Don't be offended, other people want to play also.
  • When you're up there playing, (and for that matter, always!) remember your role; you're a bass player, not a trumpet, not a mandolin. Hold down that groove and don't look back.
  • Jam sessions are great places to get your feet wet with music you are unfamiliar with. If you have some confidence you'll be fine; 90% of the songs in this world are four chords, especially in the pop and roots realms. Listening is your best skill as a bass player, and the more you throw yourself into unfamiliar situations, the more acclimated your ear will become to hearing changes on the fly.
  • Be respectful of other players, do your best, play with confidence, but most importantly have fun; it's just music after all.


Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series we talked about basic amp controls and specific methods for learning their effects. In Part 2, we went over the all important topic of "Gain Staging," and discussed some of the tools relevant to that. This final article, Part 3 covers the additional features that amps and external preamps may have that affect your sound, including parametric EQ's, Notch Filters, and more.

As always, I encourage you to spend time with each one to analyze what they can do for you. The better we learn our amps, the more instinctive it will become to reach for the right knob to tweak when the need arises.

semi-parametric
          equalizer example; Genz Benz 9.2A (Semi-) Parametric Equalizer (EQ) is form of tone control, like the "Bass/Mid/Treble" knobs covered in Part 1, but it can be a much more precise tool than a conventional tone control or even a graphic equalizer. As illustrated in a piano image from part 1 of this series, an amplifier's regular Bass tone control, for example, affects a wide swath of notes, or frequencies. A Semi-Parametric Equalizer adds a knob (or multi-position switch) to choose the center frequency of the group of notes affected. You -- not the amp designers -- decide which notes are boosted or cut, as to better sculpt your tone.

parametric equalizer
          example; DTAR EquinoxA full Parametric Equalizer adds a third knob, which is used to adjust the bandwidth (sometimes called "Q"). This lets you choose how many notes on each side of that center frequency are affected by the control - from a big wide "scoop" to a small slice. As with other tone controls, I'd suggest learning what these do by listening -- but you can always reference actual bass note frequencies at our FAQ on FREQUENCIES: What are the frequencies of bass notes? I love these equalizers for the incredible flexibility they bring. They're great for correcting flaws, such as frequencies that are louder in some performance spaces, as well as more precisely enhancing midrange presence and detail without sounding like you're playing through a telephone.

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Learn How To Play Your Amp!! (Part 3, continued)

Notch Filter: A Notch Filter is similar to a Semi-Parametric Equalizer, but it's usually a tool that is mostly used to "cut" the response of a very narrow band, like a single note. While the parametric EQ is designed specifically to alter your tone, the notch filter allows you instead to fix problems without making a dramatic change in your tone. So, if your bass "favors" a particular frequency with extra response, or there is a specific frequency that excites your bass into feedback, you can dial in a reduction on just that frequency (note) to tame its response -- without screwing up the neighboring notes and your overall tone. There are some units that have more than one filter, so if you identify more than one problem frequency, you can address them as well. Most units will also allow you to boost that narrow band to help out with a note or range of notes that are weak. In most cases a Parametric Equalizer can be utilized as a Notch Filter, by simply specifying a very narrow bandwidth of frequency, and cutting it.

High Pass Filter - aka Low (Bass, Sub-Bass) Cut Filter, Subsonic Filter, Depth Control - The counter-intuitively named "High Pass" Filter is so-called because it lets high frequencies pass and, like the black knight, stops undesirables (in this case, boomy and muddy low frequencies) from passing, starting at the frequency where you adjust the knob or slider. This feature is a popular and very useful one, particularly for upright bass players, as it can get rid of low frequency rumble, and surprisingly, even subsonic sounds beneath the range of notes your bass can play. While we know a low E is 41.2Hz and a low B is 30Hz, it's best to set this control by ear, because it isn't a sharp cutoff but gradual reduction at the frequency you select. Using this control properly can reduce "mud" and power-robbing, bass vibrating lows that make your sound flabby... and encourage feedback. That satisfying thickness on stage may mean your audience is just hearing rumble, and while that rich maple syrup tastes good, it's no fun to swim in it. Whether you need to use one -- and where you'd set it -- will depend on your instrument and pickup, as well as the stage and setup (like whether you're stuck in a corner).
Want to know more? Check out our FAQ about High-Pass Filters.

Enhance, Shape, Contour are a sample of labels you'll find on some amp knobs, most of which change the tonal character of your signal by boosting high and low frequencies and cutting midrange. In my experience they seldom help the sound of upright bass -- which in my opinion needs those midrange frequencies to help define its character in a live performance mix -- and they often impart an "electric bass" or otherwise generic tone. Switches or buttons like Deep, Bright, etc. will also apply a specific tone shape, which can sometimes be kind of radical for upright. Learn these tools by setting all of the amp's tone controls at neutral, and try each of them using the techniques discussed in Part 1 of this series.


These last few common amp features are not specifically involved in tone, but it's good to know what they do:

Phase Switch: When a signal is "in phase", a note you play pushes air from your bass into the room, and the vibration of your amp's speaker also pushes air out into the room. A Phase Switch (also called an "Phase Reverse", "Invert Switch," etc.) reverses the signal's phase, so when you play a note the speaker is "sucked in." Reversing phase may or may not result in a big change to your sound. But since it it is opposite from your bass' vibrations, it doesn't make your bass vibrate more, because it more or less pushes air "in" while your bass is pushing out. In practical use, the use of reverse phase may help you gain a little more volume before feedback, but don't expect a miracle. Another use for a phase switch is when one is using two pickups, or a microphone with a pickup. Different devices can be inadvertently wired in or out of phase, and if the phase is not the same it will usually rob you of bass response. Noise-cancelling headphones use this principle by reproducing what they hear (on built-in microphones) in reverse phase, thus cancelling the sound in your headset. If you suspect this condition, switch the phase on one channel and listen to the result. The Euphonic Audio Doubler has a Phase Knob, which changes phase gradually from one extreme to the other, for more precise adjustments.

Effects Loops are a feature for inserting various devices, typically pedals, into your bass signal. They come in two flavors, series and parallel. Series interrupts the entire bass signal and sends it through the device, so none of the original, unaffected bass sound remains. Parallel gives you a signal to affect but places it alongside the original signal. Usually you'll have a control that lets you choose how much of the affected signal to mix in with your original bass sound. If you don't know which you have, plug an unused cable into the Send jack while you're playing; if you can no longer hear your amplified bass from the speaker, it is a series effects loop. Many players choose to put their effects boxes, or sometimes tuners, between the instrument and amplifier input, where it acts as a series loop might. It's best to experiment to see which method works best for your specific purposes.

Direct Out, or DI is usually a XLR jack that is designed for sending your bass signal to a PA system or recording board. There can be various controls and switches associated with this, such as the ability to send the raw, unprocessed signal (often labeled Pre-EQ) or sending it after it is filtered by your tone settings (Post-EQ). If you tend to fiddle with your on-stage tone and volume settings it will be best to send the Pre-EQ signal to the board, because your sound engineer may throw a rock at you because they will have to make adjustments at the board to compensate for your changes. For help with these settings if you are in a performance or recording session requiring the use of the Direct Out jack, talk with the person running the system — always make friends with these people because they can make you sound really good... or really bad.





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