You need to practice. There's just no getting around it; it's a fact of life. But when you finally get home at the end of a long day, it can be a tough choice deciding between running yourself into the ground working on what you love, or actually unwinding. Thankfully, there can be some middle ground. Check out these five effective bass exercises that are still simple enough to do while you watch TV.
1. The sustain crawl
Every bandleader likes a nice, seamless, legato bassline, but as you know, this isn't as easy as great bassists make it sound. The control needed in your fingers to make a performance sound perfectly serene takes years upon years to build up. There are many exercises that involve finger control, but one of the best also involves building finger independence.
Start with your fingers spread out and pressed down one finger per fret on the E string. I personally recommended starting towards the top of your fretboard and moving this exercise down the neck, say 12th, 13th, 14th, and your pinky on the 15th fret. Pluck your E string, which should sound the high G# your pinky is fretting. Without letting up that pinky, move your index finger from the E sting to the A string where it will fret an A on the 12th fret, then pluck that note. At this time, the other three fingers should still be pressed down on their original frets. Next take the middle finger from the E to the A string in the same manner as the index finger, keeping the other three fingers still. Repeat this process for the ring finger, and then finally move the pinky up. Repeat this process moving all the fingers from the A to the D string, and finally the D to the G.
After making it all the way from the E to the G string, take all your fingers and shift them down one fret. Then walk them one by one, in the same fashion from the G to the D, then the A, and the E. Then move down a fret. As you repeat the process, you'll slowly get the hang of shifting strings, but the frets will become larger and more challenging to press down on. This exercise is a no-brainer, but it builds great muscle control – perfect for when your brain is fried from a long day, but you still want to feel productive.
2. Every finger combination
Pretty straightforward, this exercise focuses completely on the different finger combinations. Play any note with your index finger then play the note one fret up with your middle finger. Go back to the index finger, then go up to the third. Play every possible interval from your index finger, then play every possible combination from your middle finger, and then finally your ring finger will just be your ring up to your pinky. If your fingers were numbered one through four, index to pinky, the pattern would be 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-3, 2-4, 3-4. This makes a nice even 12 notes, so even though it will sound totally atonal, you should be able to put some rhythm behind it eventually.
Start off plucking the notes, but once you need a new challenge, try the exercise with only hammer-ons and pull-offs for a real challenge.
Sweet, sweet scales – you can never get enough of them. Whether it's an Eb Mixolydian b9 #11 or a C major triad, you know deep down you love running scales. Even after a long day, you can rock back and forth, up and down a one- or two-octave scale and feel its calming and constructive properties take hold in your playing.
One great way to practice is to arpeggiate one-octave seventh chords, starting from a different scale degree in the same scale each time. Try practicing all the different tonalities, like minor, minor b5, dominant, or major seventh, as seen in the above notation. If you're a novice bass player, this may be a bit demanding of your thinking capacity, so you may want to save this one for a commercial break until you get more comfortable with it.
Driving a stickshift may or may not be your thing, but when you're in the woodshed, the important thing is shifting left hand positions. To exercise this, go straight up the scale chromatically on one string playing with finger one, then two, three, four, and then quickly scooting your first finger up to the next note. Repeat this process until you're at the top of the fretboard, and then do it descending. You can also go one, two, three, shift, or even one, two, one, two, etc.
Shifting left hand positions is a huge part of being able to play cleanly and accurately, and often gets overlooked in practice. This exercise doesn't have to take up a ton of thought space, but it will absolutely help you play difficult passages with ease and fluidity.
5. Perfect eighth notes
The ultimate killer: the absolute pull-your-hair-out intangibility of laying down perfect eighth notes on a bass. The dynamics, the timing, the tone, the attack – there are so many factors that if wavered even just a bit will ruin the effect. All you can do is sit down and start chuggin'.
When you first start, try to really focus and find a comfortable tempo and dynamic for you. Then try to think less and just rely on feeling. Let the groove become your homeostasis. This exercise can be the equivalent of joining a Buddhist monastery, so don't be surprised when you end up with more work than you bargained for from such a simple exercise. Flip on the tube, try to relax, and see what your eighth notes need.
All tab notations by Max Monahan.
Max Monahan is a bassist and a writer living in Los Angeles. He spends his time working for an audio licensing website and shredding sweet bass riffs.