Sunday, 27 April 2014

A blast from the past

Hello! I've just realised that I've not posted anything here since October 2012 so thought it was about time I corrected that. The title of the post refers to two things - firstly the fact I've not posted anything in so long, and secondly because it relates to the fact I started working on this technique years ago but have recently revisited it.

I have always said that the weakest part of my playing is my picking, I've never been happy with my muting or my general ability really. In 2008, I was fortunate enough to attend a two day masterclass with the phenomenal Todd Johnson and one of the key things we studied was his right hand technique commonly known as "floating thumb". Rather than anchoring the thumb on the pick up, Todd's technique involves the thumb trailing with the picking hand, which allows it to mute the low strings as you play the higher ones. I worked on this for a while but over time resorted to my tried and tested (but not that great) picking technique.

If you're interested, there is a clip of myself and Todd from that masterclass here.

Recently I sat down to do some recording and became increasingly frustrated with my right hand muting, I kept getting sloppy little noises and it was driving me nuts so I decided enough was enough. I already do a lot of palm muting when picking with thumb and fingers, as well as using my hand in that position to play chords so decided to give it another go. The improvement it has made has been huge, and it means not having to change my hand position for palm muting or chordal playing. The nice thing with this technique is that the angle of your fingers doesn't change from string to string so the technique is much more consistent from the low to high strings.

The way it has developed isn't quite the same as Todd's, I tend to use the sides of my fingertips slightly more. Other great players who use this kind of technique include Steve Lawson, Janek Gwizdala and Gary Willis, who has a highly evolved three finger technique in addition to the floating thumb.

Here's a quick (and unplugged, so turn it up) video of this technique -

Take care and I'll try to post a little more frequently!

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Melodic Spider

Hi folks, hope you're all well.

Today I thought I'd share a little warm up idea I've been using recently. I'm sure we've all come across the "spider" exercises in same form or another, various combinations of all four fretting fingers which are generally chromatic in nature and not particularly melodic, or of much use other than as an exercise.

I was messing about with some of these ideas recently and realised, by playing the first two notes on the G string, and the then the third and fourth finger notes on the D string, I was playing a fragment of the half whole diminished scale!

The half whole diminished scale is made up of alternating half and whole steps (or one fret and two fret intervals), so starting on A you get:

A Bb C C# D# E F# G

Another joy of the diminished scale is that patterns repeat inside it in minor thirds so you can play a pattern, move it up three frets and play it again and still be in the same scale.

So that's where this exercise comes from, simple as that. On the PDF below you'll find four exercises, all based around the A half whole diminished scale and all using all four fretting fingers. Each exercise features two patterns , one ascending and one descending but try switching them round and seeing what you like the sound of. They all make very handy diminshed licks too!

Ex 1. This was the first exercise I came up with, prtty basic two notes per string up and down.

Ex 2. As handy as I find the first exercise for fretting warm up, because it has two notes per string it means that you always start each string with the same finger/pickstroke (assuming you're alternating two fingers or up and down strokes). Yes, you could just repeat the exercise starting on the other finger/stroke but I wanted an exercise I could quickly play and get maximum benefit so this exercise uses three notes on one string and two on the other to ensure that you are swapping back and fore on each beat.
I must credit Laurence Cottle for giving me the idea of using groups of five to work on picking (he is also a master of the diminished scale and a great source of associated ideas!).

Don't be put off by the quintuplets ( 5 notes to a beat) in this exercise.This is more for conveniently outlining the groups of 5 than anything else but if you do want to play it as written, take it slow and make sure the notes are evenly spaced within the beat. To get used to the feel of five even notes, try saying "hippopotamus" on each beat (any five syllable phrase will work though, I just like that one).

Ex3. Back to groups of four, but this time skipping from the A string to the G string.

Ex4. And finally here's some string skipping quintuplets! No home is complete without them.

So there we have it, a few diminished licks which are really handy quick warmups and, to my ears anyway, a little more interesting than the standard chromatic patterns.


Sunday, 1 July 2012

Customer Service - The Reality of Freelancing

Hi all.

I'm getting more prolific - only 6 months between posts this time!

Anyway, I thought I'd write a little something on freelancing as a musician after reading this excellent post on the reality of being a mixing enginneer by Björgvin Benediktsson - Why Your Mixes Don't Really Matter.

The first lines of Björgvin's blog are really relevant to the life of a freelancing musician:

"It's a funny thing, customer service.

It doesn’t revolve around you. It’s all about the customer."

Why? Well, because it's true basically. Now, before I continue, I should stress that this is really about being a musician being hired to play a specific role in someone's music. If you're playing your own music, you are the customer so please yourself ;)

I'm lucky that I get to play with a lot of different artists, in a lot of different genres and although I'm being hired to play because I'm able to play/read/hear whatever it is they require, they are hiring me to fulfill the role they need in their music, not to play everything I know and try and steal the spotlight. I have seen many musicians try to do this - squeeze in every lick and trick they know, and guess what? They don't get called again.

When you get a call for a session or a gig, never forget you are there to play the role that bandleader needs. It might be that they want someone for their fusion gig who can play extended solos and read complex charts, it might they need someone to play whole notes all night under their country ballads. Be conscious of their needs and expectations, and play what feels right for the situation. And don't be afraid to ask if you're unsure (although some bandleaders won't need asking if they don't like it!).

So what can you do? The simple one word answer is "LISTEN". On the gig, listen to what's going on around you. Pay close attention to dynamic changes and analyse your own volume/intensity compared to what everyone else is doing. Is the drummer dropping his volume in the choruses? Is the soloist going in a certain direction? Also, if you've got written charts it's always safe to assume they might not be 100% accurate. Sometimes the band may have changed something or someone might just make a mistake. If you're not listening to what's going on, you can easily find yourself in a different place in the song to the rest of the band when the singer misses a cue or the band decide to loop the intro 4 times not the 2 on your chart.

Listening counts before the gig too, if you're playing in a genre you don't know that well do some research. With the internet, this is easy now. No more record libraries, borrowing from friends, etc just go to YouTube or Spotify (or whatever THE online resource is by the time you read this) and listen to a few tracks. Pay attention not only to the notes but also the types of tones and instruments used. Even if it's all upright bass and you only play bass guitar, you'll at least know the timbre that will be expected so might consider a more muted/dark tone than you may normally use.

So, to sum up, I'll quote Björgvin again:

"A happy customer is a repeat customer. Think about that when you’re doing your next project."

Take care

Sunday, 8 January 2012

A twist on chromatic warm ups

Last post Dec 2010??? Oops! I knew it had been a while but not that long.

Anyway, as it's January and many people are still in their "must exercise more" phase after Christmas I thought I'd share a little warm up exercise I've been fiddling with.

Many players use the one finger per fret method to play chromatic exercises, either playing a full chromatic scale or repeating the same pattern on each string eg Frets 5,6,7,8 on each string. These are great for getting your hands moving but, because they use an even number of notes per string, they only use one way of crossing strings. By that I mean if you're a 2 finger fingerstyle player you'll be starting on the E string going 1212 (or 2121) and then playing the same pattern on every string. The same applies with up and down strokes if you're using a pick.

This is fine but means that you have to repeat it all again starting on the other finger/stroke. OK, you don't have to, but I discovered a long time ago that the reason I found some passages more difficult than others was because I was trying to cross strings with my "weak" finger. As a result, I aim to practice leading and crossing strings with either finger/stroke.

So, to cover both possibilities, we need an odd number of notes per string. We could use 3, but then we lose warming up all 4 digits as much so this exercise uses 5 notes per string

Now,unless you're fortunate enough to have a spare digit lying about, one finger per fret won't be enough, we need to make little shift. Now this is where this exercise has another benefit - which finger do we shift with?

Most of us will have a preference, whether it's to slide the first finger from the 5th to the 6th fret and then play one finger per fret or play all four fingers and shift up with the 4th finger.

Your challenge for this lesson is to repeat it 4 times and each time shift with a different finger.

So, first time you play the 5th fret with your first finger, move it up to the 6th and play one finger per fret. On the way back down, play the 9,8,7,6th frets with one finger per fret and then shift the first finger down to the 5th fret.

I find first and fourth finger shifts fairly natural but shifting with the middle and ring fingers feels really weird.

At all times, ensure you are alternating with your picking hand so you take full advantage of the odd numbers of notes per string (eg E string might be 12121, the A string is 21212 and so on).

Have fun and I'll try not to leave it a year before the next post!!

PS If the four fret stretch from 5th to 8th fret is too uncomfortable, feel free to move it higher up the neck. And as always, if it starts hurting take a break.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Under the influence

Hi all.

Have realised I haven't updated this blog for ages, so thought it was about time I did!

I thought I'd use this post to recommend a couple of books I'm working from at the moment, and to show you how they are influencing my playing (apologies if you saw the title and hoped it was a tutorial on getting through gigs when you've had one too many!)

The first book I want to mention is Stuart Clayton's Solo Arrangements for Electric Bass. 204 pages of solo bass goodness - a load of really great transcriptions, plus interviews, a really good history of solo bass and some technique and "in the style of" etudes. You can also download all the audio files for free from the Bassline Publishing site.

I got this book a couple of weeks back and have spent a lot of time with it, the material is fantastic. Stuart is a great teacher and writer, so the performance notes are really well written and well worth reading before tackling the arrangements.

As well, as working through the material though I think the key to any tutorial is how you can apply it to your own playing. After playing a couple of the etudes I found myself noodling about with some harmonic and tapping ideas, seeing how they might apply to different melodies and grooves. Before long I found myself playing "Silent Night" and before long it turned into a nice little arrangement which you can now find on Bandcamp:

I doubt I would have approached this arrangement in the same way without studying Stuart's book - thanks Stu!

The second book I want to talk about is Damian Erskine's Right Hand Drive which takes a detailed look at his picking technique as well as including most of (if not all) his previous "Bass Perspective" book. I have been fascinated by his percussive right hand picking for a while so it's really interesting to read how he uses drum-like rudiments to work through the different permutations of using his thumb and three fingers.

I have been playing with two fingers (and occasional thumb) for so long that it'll take a while to get comfortable with the technique, and I don't know at the moment if it'll ever fully replace my current method, but it sounds fantastic. I actually prefer the sound of constant 16th notes ( think "What Is Hip?" by Tower of Power) played by alternating thumb and first finger than with alternating first and second fingers, sounds punchier to me somehow.

To get comfortable with the idea of using my thumb and three fingers, I've been using one of my favourite rhythm exercises - moving from one note per beat to two, three, four and so on up to eight (32nd notes) and back down again. There's a chart of it, with the right hand fingerings that I'm using, here..

1=first finger
2=second finger
3=third finger

Even if you don't use this technique, this is a great exercise for rhythmic accuracy. To get the most out of it, use a metronome (or any other steady time source) and take it slooooowly. By the time you get to seven and eight notes per beat it can easily get unplayable if you start too fast. Plus, you want to ensure that the subdivisions are accurate and this can be tricky to hear accurately over a certain tempo.

Have fun with these ideas, and I really recommend checking Stuart And Damian out, both fantastic teachers and players.

Take care,

Monday, 30 November 2009

Christmas Songs For Solo Bass

Hi everyone.

Yes, that time of year is sneaking up on us at an alarming rate and soon the sound of relatives saying “play us something on that big guitar” will be ringing in our ears. With this in mind (and the fact that I’m a bit of a big kid where Christmas is concerned!) I thought I'd let you know (or remind you if you were around last year) that a collection of solo arrangements is available from and is now also available at ( If you haven't already checked out Learn The Low End, I highly recommend it - it's a fabulous site with a range of courses and lessons from some truly incredible players. I'm really honoured to be involved!)

NB If you order from Bassbook, I'm afraid I'm doing everything manually so there may be a slight delay in emailing the file to you (but it should be with you within 24 hours at the most). If you register with Learn The Low End it's all there waiting for you :-)

So what is it? Basically,you get the following in PDF format:

10 Christmas chordal arrangements for solo bass in notation and tablature

Auld Lang Syne, Away In a Manger, Ding Dong Merrily On High/Deck The Halls, In The Bleak Midwinter, Jingle Bells, Joy To The World, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, The First Noel

11 Christmas melodies specially transposed to “easy” keys ( ideal for less experienced players) in notation and tablature

As above, but “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and “Deck The Halls” are presented as seperate pieces

2 mini lessons

An introduction to natural harmonics and a lesson on the two handed tapping technique used for the arrangement of “Jingle Bells”

I also have a favour to ask of you – if you like the arrangements and use any of the bass forums or social sites, please tell people about it :-) Word of mouth is often the best advert an independent musician can get so any help is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your time and take care,


Monday, 21 September 2009

The Secret Guide to Sight Reading ( the bits they don't tell you)

Hi all. I was asked recently for tips on sight reading and started to think about the things you need to know other than how to read notation. I know a lot of players who can sit down and work their way through a piece of notated music, but wouldn't feel comfortable turning up to a gig and having a pad of charts placed in front of them,so started to think about what else is involved.

Here's what I came up with, based on my own experiences of sight reading on gigs, which will hopefully be of use to you...

Before starting a piece

Have a quick look at the whole thing and check
- The time signature (and any changes to the time signature or tempo)
- The key signature (and any key changes)
- If there are any repeats or Coda signs, make sure you know where they go. Nothing worse than scrabbling to find where the repeat is, especially if it was two pages ago!
- If the chart is really long, look if there's any way you can fold it into a book so you can flip the pages. Also look out for open strings or parts you can play with one hand while the other flips the page ( or even better - a few bars rest!)
- Have a look what the highest and lowest notes are. This'll help you decide what position to play it in. If you can find a position where you can grab the highest and lowest notes easily, do so.
- Check if there are any dynamic markings ( a lot of the bass charts I see don't include them) and follow them ( this also takes a bit of listening as different bands will decrease or increase volume at different rates)

If you need to look at the neck, eg if there are a lot of position shifts, set the music stand up slightly to your left (assuming you're right handed) so that you can see the neck and music without looking back and fore. It can be really easy to lose your place if you're glancing away. Similarly, if you have a conductor, try and set the stand so you can see them over the music without too much movement.

If you get presented with a tricky piece, break it down. Start by just playing the rhythm then add the notes in. Believe it or not, an audience will notice an out of time note long before they notice an out of tune one. If you're working it out ahead of time, don't use a metronome until you're comfortable with it, otherwise you may find you end up missing things "getting it at speed".

If you are given a line of 16th notes that are not playable at sight, play the first one, use muted notes for the middle ones, and play any accented notes and the last one. Yes, it's cheating and ideally you should play them all, but this really works on gigs if something terrifying is put in front of you :-)

After a while, you'll get used to how certain shapes and rhythms sound eg a note on one line and note on the next line is a third, etc or an eighth note followed by two 16th notes is the "Steve Harris gallop". This allows you to read much easier in the same way that you read words and sentences rather than individual letters.

Read regularly

Like all skills, if you don't maintain it you'll lose it. If I haven't done a reading gig for a bit, I usually get the Bach Cello Suites, or some James Jamerson transcriptions, out for an hour to get my eyes and hands in synch again. Otherwise, I will be really rusty.

Above all though, make sure it's musical. When I first heard a recording of me reading a walking line it was awful - every note was dead on the beat but had no swing whatsoever. It's important to remember WHY you're reading the chart - to make music.

Hope that helps, any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.