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Q: Is it a bad idea to begin learning bass on a 5 or even 6 string instrument?
A: I think a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one, but i'm going to say 'no, 5 and 6 string basses are just fine, even for beginners'. i think more important the number of strings you have is whether or not you're willing to spend the time to learn the fingerboard and the underlying logic to it. if all the guitars in the store had only 5 strings and then suddenly 6 string guitars started coming out, i have a feeling there'd be a lot of people calling the 'new' ones excessive or 'unnecessary'. the thing is though, musical instruments evolve like other kinds of technologies - they're constantly changing to meet certain desires. so go find a bass that fits what you're dreaming about in your sleep. if you're only gonna play ramones stuff then maybe you go and get a fender p-bass and sling that thing real low. but if you know you just have to be the first woman to play stravinsky's firebird suite on your bass (solo, with no overdubbing, no less), then yah, maybe that 6 string isn't such a bad idea. the penalty for buying the wrong bass is usually not death.
Q: What if I can't find a bass that I really like in my local guitar (and bass) store?
A: shopping is fun (to me, anyway). go and play as many basses as you can. i mean, be respectful - don't go and trash all the new pretty basses at the local store! but do play them. take your time. plug them in, put them on a strap.
if you live somewhere with a very limited selection, then this can be difficult or impossible. if this is the case, you might want to try mail ordering one. make sure you mail order a bass that you can be reasonably sure that it's a good quality one (reviews can help here) - gambling on a cheap bass that you never heard of through the mail can be a disappointing experience. and if you're ordering a used bass, remember that the condition of the bass you order can be very different from what you imagine. lots of people use the phrase 'mint condition' to describe basses that are...let's just say 'not mint'. don't be shy to ask for pictures - close ups included. if the person isn't respectful to you in correspondence, that's okay, don't take it personally. and there's lots more basses out there, so just move on. all in all, ordering used basses can be great, but certainly there is a little bit of risk involved. i certainly don't advise people against buying used basses. a great place to browse used gear is BassGear.com.
there's also the option to build your own bass (i'm serious). if you have someone who can help you/do it for you - maybe someone who's had experience with putting together guitars *cough* it's quite possible. and with the wide range of quality components and parts out there, you could really build an excellent bass for a reasonable amount of money these days. i usually recommend this to someone who's been playing at least a couple of years though - it's much easier to decide what you want (and don't want) when you've got a firmer idea of what's been working for you.
and of course girls, if you really get stuck looking for a bass, email me and i'll help you find one - inexpensive or whatever. in the meantime, i'll keep adding Q&As to these pages as i find the time...ok? check back sometimes...oh yes, for a different perspective on the same subject...
Q: I'm fourteen-years-old and I'm trying to convince my mother to let me play the bass guitar. She thinks its just a phase that I'm going through, so I was hoping that if I found out a little more about bass guitars, it would make her a believer. ...Will I need to learn how to read sheet music?? What exactly are tabs?? Do most people teach themselves to play or take lessons?? Is it really hard to learn?? If I were going to play, should I have already started??...Any advice on convincing my mom to let me play??... -Candi
A: Hi Candi. I'm really glad you wrote me with this question. I think it's different for girls and guys when it comes to stuff like this. When some of my girlpals told their mom or parents that they wanted to learn how to play electric guitar or bass, most often they'd get asked 'Why do you want to do something like that?'. When my guy friends asked (if they even thought to ask!) their parents didn't even blink. I think a lot of it has to do with the power of the stereotypes we have about rock music being an activity for boys, and not for girls...and especially not for 'good girls'! And don't parents want their kids to be good?
Persuading your mom to change her mind about something like this can be complicated. It could be that your mom has a misunderstanding about what playing the bass will be like - for example, lots of people associate playing the bass with the whole negative 'sex, drugs, and rock and roll' stereotype - stuff like teenage rebellion (playing your bass too much and not doing your homework, or disobeying authority in general), taking drugs (there's lots of stereotypes about musicians taking drugs - some true but most not), et cetera. I've been playing the bass for almost 20 years and personally I haven't found those stereotypes to closely reflect reality. In fact, I've always managed to do well in school, keep up with my family responsibilities and practice hard. And I've never taken drugs, gotten into scrapes with the law, or slept around either (I have a nasty temper and a 'dirty' mouth but I remember having those way before I started playing bass!). Most of the people I've hung around with to play music were basically nice responsible people, just like at school or in my family. The important thing is that you have to decide what kind of company you're going to keep. If you think you don't need bad influences in your life, then you'll have to choose your friends carefully. There are many situations in which people will want to take advantage of others (young women included!), So you have to be careful, just like how you need to be mindful of what you're getting into all the time.
On the other hand, if you were thinking of playing the bass as just an excuse to start ignoring your studies or responsibilities, then I agree with your mom. Don't do it! There's no good reason for living an unbalanced life. You know, your mom could also be right about this being 'just a phase'. But then it may not - it's also possible that this could be the start of a lifelong passion for music and learning, as it has become for me. You're certainly not 'too old' to start at age 14 - I think 14 is a great time to start! Actually I think starting at 41 or 114 are also good too, but 14 is even better. I don't think anything as rich and deep as playing the bass is ever easy. Everything is challenging if you're a perfectionist. But that's where the fun is - getting good is exciting! If you love the sound of your instrument (which is actually the sound of your own voice), I promise you'll never feel like practicing is torturous.
One of the best ways to seriously approach playing the bass is to take lessons from a good teacher. In my opinion, this includes learning to read music. Learning to read music is a big advantage in many ways. It's true that many famous bass players may not know how to read music, but I can't think of a single reason why it'd actually be better not to know how to read music. Think of how hard it would have been for Shakespeare had he not known how to read or write. Sure, he could have communicated in other ways (with his mouth, waving his hands around, etc.) But how much harder would it have been for him to learn about new ideas from other people through reading, or to share his ideas had he not known how to write? Learn how to read music - it's not terribly hard to do, and it'll open an unbelievable history of new ideas up to you that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to learn. Tabs (tablature) is another way of representing music in written form - numbers (what fret) and lines (which string) are used to tell you what note you should play. Tabs are useful, especially to figure out problems of fingering, fingerboard location or other technical issues, but I don't think of it as a substitute for reading standard musical notation.
You also asked about taking lessons. I usually recommend that beginners take lessons if 1) they can afford it and 2) if they can find a good teacher. Finding a good music teacher takes some effort but it's worth it. If your school has a band, orchestra or chorus, you can try asking the music teachers there if they have any suggestions. If you live near a college or university, you can also ask the musical director there as well (lots of school bands have an electric bass player nowadays). Or you could visit your local music stores - sometimes they have music teachers there too. And finally, here's another way you could do it: you could take lessons on upright bass and 'apply' the knowledge you learn on upright to the electric. Some people don't think this is a good way to do it, but personally I think this is a terrific way to go about it. I can think of several totally amazing bass players that got their start on upright. In fact, I think that part of the reason why they're so amazing on electric bass is because they started on upright. It could be that if your mom thinks of the bass as 'not a serious instrument' - would she may be more open to you playing something like upright bass?
I was lucky because my mother encouraged me to learn to play a musical instrument. It was less important to her that I wanted to play the bass (rather than, say, the flute or the violin) because she knew that knowing how to play the bass would allow me to play all kinds of music. She didn't want me to be musically illiterate. Even though my mom never listened to rock and roll stuff, I sure did. But learning to play the bass has also allowed me to learn to appreciate gospel, country, jazz, classical, blues, Hawaiian, folk, funk, and lots of other kinds of music. This is one of the great things about learning to play bass - not only will you be able to play along with your rage against the machine CD, but you'll also be introduced to lots of different kinds of music that maybe you don't have an appreciation for right now. It would be great if that also included music that maybe your mom listens to - you'd be surprised how rich (and how difficult) all kinds of music is once you actually start playing it. If you could show your mother that you're actually learning something by playing the bass, most parents become supportive. But of course this means that you'll have to have an open mind when approaching playing the bass too. To me, this kind of learning is part of the growing up process. Okay, now I'm really sounding like the (boring) high school teacher that I am. Sorry.
This has become quite a longish letter. Maybe you could print this letter out and ask her if she'd be willing to sit down with you and talk about some of this stuff. Balancing a new hobby that requires a lot of study and discipline means that you'll have to be very responsible about making sure that you don't neglect the other important things in your life - chores, schoolwork, and other family responsibilities that you may have. Usually when people don't agree about something, there's a lot of thoughts that are left unspoken, and this can sometimes lead to hard feelings. It's really good to sit down with the other person and talk things out. Sometimes one or both of the people are not willing to truly talk and there's little that can be done in these cases. But if you're both patient, listen carefully, and approach each other with an attitude of openness, you usually can reach some sort of compromise. It's obvious to me from the questions in your letter that you're very thoughtful and intelligent, so I have a feeling that things'll turn out real good.
Anyway, please try talking more with your mother about some of the things that you've been thinking about. I'd be real interested in how things eventually turn out for you. Please keep in touch! Best wishes! ~mimi
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