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Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 2

So you thought about what I said last month. You went and got yourself a beginner electric bass to start off practicing bluegrass bass. Good for you! If you got the bass at a really cheap price because it was all that you could afford, and are ready to buy a small amp, let’s hold off on that for a while. I would hate to see you buy an amp that turns out to be not what you needed. Save your money and get a good 20-watt bass amp made by a reputable company.

So what do you do in the meantime? Well, you could buy one of those headphone amps. Since you want to practice a bit on your own before trying out with a group. However, many of these headphone amps are about as much in cost as a small regular amp, so consider that. I wouldn’t spend more than $20.00 on one of these, since the money that you save can be put into the regular amp. If you check on eBay, there are a few out there by NUX and Lisheng that can do the job. The Lisheng LH-380 comes with a built-in speaker, but I would advise not using it at all and go straight for the headphones. The speaker is cheap and will blow out at the first plucked note. NOTE: Make sure that you are using over-the-ear headphones (you can probably get a decent pair at a Five Below stores) and not earbuds. Earbuds will not handle the low frequencies of a bass guitar. Also, make sure that your volume control on the bass is not maxed out at 10. In order to cut out distortion, bring it down to 8 or 9, then adjust the volume on your headphone amp.

If you want to save that money for the amp, there is a way to play your bass and hear it at no cost at all. While playing the bass, take the headstock (where the string tuning gears are) and lean it gently up against a wall or large piece of hardwood furniture (like a large chair or bed frame). Voila! You just boosted the sound of the bass to twice as much. The low frequencies of the bass can reverberate better than high frequencies. This is sort of like when a low-flying airplane rattles your house or when some schmuck driver has his bass speakers loud enough to vibrate his whole car. It won’t be THAT loud, but you will be able to hear it much better than the bass alone. And this amplifications didn’t cost you a cent!

Now let’s talk about your first lessons. I won’t talk about getting a teacher here. If you feel that is the route you want to go, then make sure you let him/her know that you are looking to learn bluegrass bass. Otherwise, you may be paying for lessons into jazz and rock that you may not want.

As for books, Mel Bay (the patron saint of beginning musicians) puts out a number of quality choices. Probably the most popular book is Electric Bass Method Volume 1 by Roger Filiberto (ISBN 1-6097-4843-3). While the photos may look dated, the information is still relevant, and it shows the very basics of playing bass as well as introduces the player to a number of genres and the basics of music theory. There are a number of other books from Mel Bay (www.melbay.com) as well as Hal Leonard (www.halleonard.com). You can probably find these at Guitar Center or any local musical instrument store. There are also bass guitar books in the Dummies and Idiot’s Guide series, but these usually lean more towards learning rock and beginner jazz styles.

The same goes for videos. Mel Bay and Hal Leonard both put out some quality beginner bass guitar vids (most of these are online, although you still may find some DVDs available). There are also some good videos from Watch & Learn Inc. as well as Alfred Books. Just make sure that you are getting one that teaches the basics and not going into Rock or Jazz (you really do not need to work on slapping and popping at this time). For the cheapest route, there are always a bunch of beginner bass videos on YouTube. Go ahead and search until you find one that you actually like and can learn from.

Once you have the basics and a little theory under your belt, you probably want to be a little more skilled at being a bluegrass bass player. Unfortunately, almost all books and videos dedicated to bluegrass bass deal with the upright bass. However, there are a few books and videos out there that deal with country music bass guitar that can be of use. One of the best is The Lost Art of Country Bass by Keith Rosier from Hal Leonard (ISBN 9780793569922). The thing to remember is that playing bluegrass bass is not so much knowing technique of the instrument, but to know the song itself. A bluegrass band relies on the bassist to move the song in the right direction and at the right pace/tempo. Once you have the idea of root/fifth movements and walk-ups, you need to know about the Nashville Numbering System, Circle of Fifths, and the chord structures for the most popular bluegrass songs. Don’t worry, this comes with time. You won’t get there right away, but you WILL get there with the right amount of patience and determination.

The best teacher is your ear. When you have the basics down, start playing along with bluegrass records. Listen to where the bass is going, what key the song is in, and get used to the tempo. Those recordings by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and Reno & Smiley are the best teachers you could ask for when it comes to learning bluegrass music.

I will get more into getting a good bass guitar amplifier in a future blog. In the meantime, chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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