Before going further, there won't be anything really of interest to anyone but me. It is an entertaining indulgence to recollect this, and writing it down helps organize my memories. What follows is the story of how I ended up playing bass, followed by some recommendations for anyone else who might be starting out on the instrument.

The Bass, Act 1: 1973 - 1979

One day during the 4th grade, instead of having gym class, all the kids were assembled and the orchestra teacher gave a talk. He demonstrated the instruments being taught: violin, viola, and cello. Sign up forms were handed out for mom or dad to sign. Certainly he must have said signing up was optional, I don't recall it. Of the three, the cello seemed most interesting; mom signed the form, and my fate was set.

About two weeks later gym class was again canceled, and this time the band teacher gave a presentation on all the instruments: drums, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, flutes, and probably other things. Had this presentation been given first, I might have ended up playing some other instrument.

I played cello from 4th grade through freshman year of high school. Although I did OK in the pecking order during grade school, my heart really wasn't in it, and practiced reluctantly. In high school, only the kids who really wanted to be there were left, and my lack of interested really showed. I was the last chair of 8 cellos, and the days where every person had to play solo in front of everyone else were hugely embarrassing to me. Momentum had brought me that far but was no longer enough, so I quit after freshman year.

The memory of playing the last note of the last song of the last concert that year is still vivid, as at the time I made a point of remembering it. I was glad it was done, but sad about the wasted six year investment, sad that my mother was disappointed. At 15, my musical career was seemingly over. Even now, 40 years later, two or three times a year there is a dream where I am handed a cello and need to play on stage immediately. Half the time it is a tension-filled disaster, and half the time I play really well and it is thrilling.

The Bass, Act 2: 1983 - 1987, whimpering to 2008-ish

High school is when I had a few dollars and started collecting records and finding my own musical interests, instead of just listening to the records my older siblings had on hand. Perhaps it was my natural inclination, or maybe due to my time playing cello, I found I was mostly listening to the bass part of songs. Chris Squire of Yes was a favorite, as was Bruce Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

Over 1983 Thanksgiving weekend from junior year of college, the family went out to a restaurant for dinner. While waiting for food, my father posed the the question: if you didn't need to consider money, what do you think you'd like to try and do? Although I was pretty excited to be a programmer or electrical engineer (my degree), in fairness to the hypothetical I had to come up with something, so I said: I dunno -- maybe play bass. A month later, at Christmas, there was the usual assortment of new socks, shirts, underwear, a couple books. After all the wrapping was off, my father said: tomorrow the music store is open; let's go buy a bass. That was highly unusual, to say the least.

That first bass was a $200 Fender Squire, and a $50 15W crate amp. I have no complaints about that bass, and I played it until about 1991. Being an electrical engineering student, I quickly built a little circuit which took input from my bass and from the record player and (after the appropriate compensation filter) mixed them together. This was just before CDs appeared on the scene, so learning a song meant picking up the needle, placing it at just the right place to get the phrase I was trying to learn, playing along, and repeated it dozens of times until the whole thing was memorized.

The first song I learned was Keep On Working from Pete Townsend's solo album of the time, Empty Glass.

I found that songs by The Police were great to learn, for a couple of reasons:

Although cello and bass are both written in bass clef, and although I had been a pretty decent sight reader when I played cello, I strictly played by ear on bass. One reason is I didn't have much sheet music to work from, but even more importantly, cello strings are tuned a fifth apart, while bass is tuned a fourth apart. Even though it had been at least five years, when looking at sheet music, my reflects still wanted to play "G", "D", and "A" as the top three open strings, while on bass the top three are "A", "D", and "G".

I never played with other people, just records, and then later CDs. I learned many songs by Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, The Police, Robert Cray, and even some challenging Yes songs. But I fell into a trap of just playing the same songs I knew over and over, instead of doing the hard work of learning more songs. Then I was in a relationship, and bass collected dust. Then another, and another leading to marriage, and kids. Eventually, with some reluctance, I sold it all for peanuts.

The Bass, Act 3: 2016 - now

As my daughter was finishing high school, she obtained her driving license, and I was spending much less time carting her around. What was I going to do with this free time? And the meager social life I had was mostly in activities related to the school, which would soon disappear. That is when the itch to play returned. I asked my wife for permission, and she (of course) granted it: for my 52nd birthday I bought a bass and an amp, both off craigslist.

Rather than repeating the mistakes of Act 2, this time I'm determined to do better. This time I'm (re)learning to sight read, learning some music theory, practicing with intent, and playing with human beings. Being in a gigging group is an anti-goal; I just want to make some music with other people of similar low ambition, and to get better.

After playing along to records and learning from some youtube channels and getting some facility back, I first checked the musicians category on craigslist. Perhaps it is just Austin, but it was very very hard to find someone who was looking for what I was looking for: playing just for fun with no desire to escalate into a performing band. Instead I found what I was looking for in the fall of 2018 on, specifically Let's Start a Beginners Band. This infrequently meeting group gets anywhere from 10 to 25 people together; each person says their name, their instrument, and what their interests are. That is followed by a mingle where like-minded people exchange contact information. And that is how I found myself in my first band.

But it wasn't smooth sailing. Everyone was absolutely nice and I had no problems with anyone personally. The problem was that we had agreed to meet every two weeks, but it ended up being every four, five, or six weeks. At first I learned a lot about playing with real people instead of CDs, but that plateaued quickly, and playing so infrequently meant no progress. After about 9 months of that, the group dissolved.

About that time I started taking a weekly hour-long private lesson. At my request, the lessons aren't very structured. Every week is an ad-hoc discussion of some questions I have, or requests for tips on dealing with specific problems. He goes along with this gamely, though I imagine it is frustrating for him. The one constant is that every week he or I picks a new song to learn, and the next week we play it together (him on guitar, me on bass), usually to a backing track. That progress can be followed here. The songs aren't polished to perfection. The recordings are almost always the first/only take, and I botch some of it. But the point isn't to have a radio-ready song; it is the practice that was motivated by learning a new song.

The guitar player from that ill-fated band and I kept in touch and started playing 1:1 at my house every couple of weeks. Then we connected with a keyboard player. A few weeks later we found a drummer on craigslist, and a few weeks later he found a singer. This group meets much more regularly and there is more focus and expectation to come prepared to rehearsal, and the results are dramatically better. Another factor is that the drummer is an old hand who is better than the rest of us beginners, and his solid drumming helps hold everything together. As of January, 2020, when I'm writing this, I'm learning a lot again.

Learning Resources

General Advice

Notation vs Tablature

There is a long-standing debate on whether learning standard musical notation or tab(lature) is better. Certainly I'm not the final word on the subject, but I have thoughts on the matter.

small example of standard notation and the corresponding tab notation

The top line is standard notation, where each symbol indicates a note value and a note duration, and often other information. The bottom line is the corresponding tablature representation. The four lines represent the four strings of a bass, and the number indicates which fret to press on that string and in what order.

It is absolutely possible to learn to play and even be in a band without learning standard notation, without learning tab for that matter. Learning tab is appealing to the beginning bassist, but eventually it can be limiting.

Pro's of tablature:

Con's of tablature:


Favorite Books

To be honest, I've read less than 1% of the available bass books, and no doubt there are great books that I'm unaware of. All the same, here are a couple books that I have used and highly recommend (and others are equally enthusiastic about them too).

Favorite Youtubers

There are tremendous resources available on youtube. It is all too easy to watch hour after hour of instructional videos and think you are learning, but in fact are just killing time. The most important thing is to pick up you instrument and play. So be wise in watching only things where you actually learn something and aren't just killing time with edutainment.

Favorite Software

Ultimate Guitar is both a website and an app. It is a repository of a lot of tabs and lyric. Even if there isn't a bass part, often it helps to get the chord changes from the guitar tabs section.

Reaper is a DAW (digital audio workstation). With it you can record, edit, add effects, and produce studio-quality results. There are many DAWs, but for $60 it hits a sweet spot: very capable without being very expensive. It is updated frequently, and there are a lot of youtube videos explaining how to use it. Don't be overwhelmed by all the possibilities; just learn the basics and add when you get stuck, google "how to do XYZ in reaper" and you'll expand your skills as needed without wasting time learning stuff you'll forget before you ever need to use it.

Audacity is a free, open-source program for editing audio files. People on a shoestring budget have used it to record, edit, and mix entire albums, but nobody with $60 would prefer it over Reaper. What it is good for is getting simple stuff done with a minimum of hassle.

Musescore is a free and open source music notation program. It is already pretty good, and it is rapidly getting better. It is also a website where people can share scores they've created, and you can even play the scores via a web browser without having to install anything. Programs like Sibelius have long been the professional standard, but they cost on the order of $500.

Amazing Slow Downer has a pretty clunky and outdated looking user interface, but it gets the job done. It isn't free: $50 (OSX, windows), $15 (ipad), $10 (android). What it does is allows you to take an audio recording and change the pitch without changing the tempo, change the tempo without changing the pitch, or to do both independent of each other. It also allows setting loop points. When learning a new song, the very best way to learn it is to learn just one short phrase at a time, playing it slowly until it master, then a little bit faster until mastered at that speed, a little bit faster again, etc, until you can play the phrase at full speed. Then learn the next phrase. Eventually you'll be able to play the entire song at speed.

For a long time AudioStretch was available only for ios and osx, but now there is an android version, but no windows version. I have used it only a little, via an android emulator under windows, but it is pretty dang good. It is less expensive than ASD, is cheaper than ASD, looks much nicer, and in some ways is easier to use. It is missing some of the EQ options, but the other UI improvements more than make up for it.

There are many other such programs out there. In fact you can do it inside audacity and reaper too, but the Amazing Slow Downer and AudioStretch are just more convenient.

Drum Genius 2.0 is an app that contains hundreds of different drum loop patterns, organized by style. Pick a drum pattern and try to play something along with it. Sure, at first you might think, "but I don't know what to play." Keep at it and it will become easier. It is also a lot of fun when you find something that works.

A-Tuner Lite is a free app for android that does a great job of helping tune your instrument. There are many such apps, but this one works well for me and doesn't nag about upgrading.

Metronomerous is a free metronome app for android. There are many such apps, and I've tried only a handful, but I stopped when I found this one.

Favorite Bass Musicians

In alphabetical order, these are some bassists that I have found to be especially compelling. This list would change depending what day or year you ask me, and I could easily make it twice or three times as long.