The Number 1 Enemy of Creativity, Timing and Tone


I used to believe that peak creativity is just happening to us in rare, lucky moments and that the best we can do is pray to the muses. Over time I realized that there are a lot of things I could do to foster creativity and to have more of these lucky moments. This gives me much more confidence in my ability to come up with good ideas in various contexts (like creating a bassline, building a solo, writing a song, contributing to arranging a song in a band situation). In this and future blog posts I will explore some aspects of creativity and how we help it flow.

Stop Fighting against yourself!

I don’t know whether it was the new pedals that I had just received, or whether it was the creative phase OoN – The Bass bassoon duo of Ariane Cap and Paul Hanson was going through, but I found myself in one of those effortless stretches of creativity when ideas just flow. I also found myself in the middle of the night (at 1.00 AM!) in my favorite local theater with a videographer and a sound man. (Okay, these two and access to the theater did take a bit of planning, but the scene is set for you and here is the result of this session:)

Now, let me tell you that it is not always like that – that ideas flow easily.

At times, especially with a deadline or other pressure looming, creativity might not come easily at all; any composing may feel like a painful duty, a hollow or pretentious task and my internal voices may go wild. The bass may feel like it is huge and heavy in my hands and I can’t breathe.

At other times, without beckoning, the ideas start flowing.

I have never been able to find the magic button or secret sauce that makes it so that the music comes effortlessly. But I have found a few things that may come really close to magic bullets.

What predictably helps with most worthwhile pursuits is to

  • Create a routine and stick to it.
  • Show up whether motivation shows up or not.
  • Create without judging at first.
  • Ignore the inner voices and focus on the task (PORA works for composing very well!)

There is just a small catch…

So, what’s the catch?

All the above have in common is that they

  • Take a bit of practice.
  • And a bit of time.
  • And they require a certain level of trust.

In other words, if you practice them then they are there for you in deadline driven situations or stressful moments on stage. If you put the focused work in beforehand, you have a strong baseline to fall back on!

All that said…

There are no guarantees. The more you sometimes try to hold on to ideas, creativity or the groove, the more it may elude you. What to do?

The Number 1 Enemy of Creativity, Timing and Tone

Whether you are composing or playing a bass line – the biggest enemy of any activity that requires letting go and trusting – is tension (both mental and physical tension).

That’s why I always recommend practicing without tension (again I am referring you to the PORA method if you habitually notice tension in your playing).

The Take-Away

Less tension makes it much easier to get into a flow state.

How to do it

  • Give my PORA method a go.
  • Take our course, Music Theory for the Bass Player – The Course. Each unit contains an extensive technique section that has helped hundreds of students improve their technique, let go of tension and experience what playing is like without fighting with the instrument, but rather to play freely and effortlessly. Here is a short sampler from the course:

Watch for next week’s post on more on tension free  playing that gets your creativity going!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Kinked or crooked fingers? Here is relief!

kinked straw crooked kinked fingers

When I wrote my book, Music  Theory for the Bass Player, me and my editors went back and forth (and forth and back!) about using the description of “kinked fingers” in the Technique Chapter! My editors wanted me to use the word “crooked” instead. It’s a subtle distinction between the two, but the word crooked just didn’t quite do it for me. 

What “kinked” describes is a bend that stops the flow of energy.

Not talking about a straw with a link here, just a straight straw that has an unintended bend in it.

This is a “kinked” straw:

kinked straw crooked

A kink is a sharp bend. It slows or completely stops the flow of your soft drink!

A similar phenomenon often occurs with bass players’ fingers

Whether it is the left, fretting hand…

crooked kinked fingers

Photo from Music Theory for the Bass Player ©CapCat Music Publishing

or the right, plucking hand…

crooked kinked fingers

Photo from Music Theory for the Bass Player ©CapCat Music Publishing

Why the kink is not ideal

Just like the kink in the straw impedes the flow of fluid, the kink in the fingers impedes the flow of energy.

Essentially, it means you lose control of the third finger joint.

And when that happens, you lose:

  • precision
  • groove
  • touch
  • feel

It is also often a symptom of tension in the hand.

Reason for the kink

Typically the reason we are kinking in the first place is over gripping.

The reason for over-gripping is trying to overcompensate.

When playing bass we are asking small muscles in the hand to do things they usually don’t do, so the bigger ones are trying to be “helpful” to pick up the slack. It is not helpful, though. It cramps the hand and further weakens the muscles that we do need to isolate and train.

How to change the habit

Use my PORA Method to change ingrained habits quickly and effectively. Here is a quick guide to the method. You will get amazing and surprising results with this method if you follow steps precisely! Just make “round fingers” one of your PORA items (along with two or three others) and watch the habit change without effort.

Less tension means more flow of energy

With good technique, you stop fighting the instrument and start playing with more precision and effortlessness.


So, what do you think, should it be “crooked” or “kinked”?

And yes there is a joke in there somewhere with that word. Stop it and go practice now!

Q: Can you add two more pictures of the fretting hand and plucking hand using the proper technique?

For detailed information, many more pictures (including how to do it correctly) and an entire chapter on proper hand positioning please see my book, Music Theory for the Bass Playerkinked fingers - right way

All pictures from Music Theory for the Bass Player ©CapCat Music Publishing

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Triplets in Walking Bass Lines

triplet triplets swing walking bass

Working on Walking Bass?

Creating an interesting walking bass line over changes is one part art, one part science (music theory) and a whole lot of feel .

Well, how can we turn this somewhat cryptic recipe into a useful recommendation for walking chord changes to give your own lines an instant lift?

Walking bass lines live by:

  1. Tonal material that
    1. outlines the chords and
    2. creates a counter melody
  2. Great swing feel
  3. Awesome phrasing
  4. A solid pulse with cool variations

Let’s briefly take a look at each of these:

  1. A lot of time is typically spent worrying about the first item, choosing the right notes. It is easy to teach – typically involves quite a bit of theory (chord analysis, arpeggiation, scalar patterns, approach notes) and (hopefully) recommendations on how to create certain effects by using the range of the bass and creating a contrapuntal melody while supporting what is happening in the rest of the band.
  2. Great swing feel, however, is equally (if not more!) important than the correct roots, thirds and fifths. Here is an episode that talks a bit about that.
  3. Phrasing – good phrasing can make or break any playing. Be it walking bass, rock, pop, funk, you name it. Good technique is the foundation for ensuring your tone sounds even and you have control over your note length.
  4. And then: Rhythm! Once you have worked on your swinging quarter notes and have a great pulse going legato style as well as portato style, and have added skips (or, as we call them, “burps”!) you can expand your palette of rhythmic variations to include triplets! A solid pulse with cool variations – I have an episode of Talking Technique for you today on tackling triplets. Drops, triple burps, whatever you wanna call them, check out how they can triple (ha!) a line’s effect.
    Always use with taste and keep in mind that the systematic exercises that I recommend are designed to help you build your palette. Practicing in the rehearsal room doing triplets on an assigned regimen of beats will give you freedom and flexibility so that on the bandstand you can place them creatively and effortlessly when they fit.

PDF is here

Here is the episode on Talking Technique.

Music Theory for the Bass Player – the course – dedicates two “Styles Labs” to walking bass lines. Applying the theory we learned throughout the course in grooves makes it all easy to remember and applicable and helps you get more freedom and confidence on the fretboard.  Music Theory for the Bass Player.

This instructional material is excellent; well thought out and methodical and clearly presented.

David C, Course Ninja

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

Strings by Dean Markley

Bass by Marleaux Bass Guitars

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