Oh my, they want me to solo: Super Simple and Effective Strategy!

solo groove groove solo

Called to solo and feel cold sweat coming on? Wrestling with a million thoughts in your mind and feeling like you have to now play a million notes to impress everyone with your chops, speed, loudness, and amazingness?

There is lots to say about soloing effectively (more on that coming). But if this is new to you (and even if it isn’t): don’t worry! Here is one simple and very effective way to not only get you through it, but to help you lay down a solo with confidence, one likely to get you applause and support from the audience and make this whole scary thing a great experience!

(And even if you are a solo veteran, this is an effective way to approach a solo, so keep reading, bass ninjas!)

The Strategy is: Keep doing what you are doing!

Wait, what, really? Just keep grooving?

Yes, really! Try it!

Super effective and pretty much fail-safe in many different styles:

  • If it’s a blues shuffle, carry on doing exactly what you are doing, grooving hard.
  • Walking? Keep walking!
  • Eighth note based groove? Hold steady!
  • Funky sixteenth note fest? Persevere in style!
  • Yummy reggae? Lay it down big, and fat!

It is great to hear the bass groove in all its glory without the usual melodies or solos on top. That alone is a switch in texture – and a welcome variation. The audience will take notice!

People appreciate hearing the bass line. Likely they will bop their heads, start clapping or shaking their booty just a tad more on the dance floor.

To make it work:

  • Let the audience know what is happening – we are shining a light on the guy or gal who has been laying it down for everyone else all night, and making everyone dance and feel good! So, step out in front a little, especially if you have been hidden behind the guitarist for a while.
  • Keep it steady! There is a danger to rush to keep up with your adrenaline. Keep your cool and focus on the kick drum and snare (or cymbal if Jazz) and take care to sync up your timing precisely. This will help with your rhythm. Forget about anything else – just kick and snare and how you match up!
  • Stay loose. Easier said than done, I know, because you probably feel like you are floating from the ceiling and your arms and fingers belong to someone else, or are in a knot entirely! Two tips for that:
    • SOS measure: think of your feet. Last you checked, they were on the floor.
      • The floor makes you feel gravity. And your shoes! Then your toes, which reminds you that your limbs belong to you and helps you reconnect with your fingers.
      • Take a breath. You’re okay.
    • This takes preparation (the right kind): every day for a few minutes, practice technique properly and teach yourself a relaxed posture so you have a safe and comfortable place to return to in stressful situations. Our Music Theory course’s Finger Kung Fu Exercises span 20 units and go from basic to quite tough and prepare you optimally for pretty much any situation. Using PORA, you can get rid of bad habits fast and play with more confidence. These intense moments highlight the importance of training yourself relaxed technique off stage: so that the solid base you worked on at home has your back when it counts.

The Next Level:

Okay, so you are beginning to feel more and more comfortable doing this, and you want to kick it up a notch or two. Great!

  • Variation 1: First chorus: play your groove in the same range you were in at the beginning of your solo (typically: low). Then, for chorus #2: go up an octave! Keep doing what you are doing and know that the new range will give your solo quite the lift and a bit of a dramatic edge.
    For a great ending (that also lets your band mates know that you are finishing up!) use the last bar or two of this chorus to walk your way back down to your “groove range”. Step back to your amp as you do that and/or give the singer a nod for her or him to come back in.
  • Variation 2: Groove away for the first chorus. Then, remember one of my favorite exercises that we feature and practice aplenty in our Music Theory course:
    Groove and Fill. There are many variations of this exercise but basically, the format is this:

    • Beats one and two: groove.
    • Beats three and four: fill.
      For a bass solo, it will work to extend this formula: one measure of groove followed by one measure of fill. Experiment.
    • This may mean you have to know what notes to use (pentatonic works great), but even if you use only the same notes that you used for grooving, it will create a great switch up. Play all eighth notes (or sixteenth notes, depending on the smallest subdivision) if you are feeling rhythmically timid (this will help you keep the beat). If you give “Groove and Fill” a good workout as part of your practice session, you have a solid tool for a pretty cool sounding solo under your belt that works in most situations!

Important Peptalk:

  • If it feels scary and you are terrified to death, remember that a wrong note never killed anyone. Keep the groove going.
  • Take on a confident stance – it is scientifically proven to help your emotional state by taking on a confident posture!
  • Remember: you are a performer! Looking like you have fun and are enjoying yourself is a big part of your job! Get into it! If you “believe”, so will your audience!
  • Think of it this way: The people in the audience and the musicians on stage all want you to do well – they are rooting for you (if nothing else because they want to confirm to themselves that they made a good decision by coming to this show).

The Take Away:

  • Groove solos can be very effective as an entire solo or as a solid foundation to build upon.
  • Play with confidence and dig deep into that pocket to let the groove shine.
  • You will feel much better about your solo because now you’ve got a plan! A plan means you are not chasing the groove, you are in command and driving it. Win!!

When a “Groove Solo” is your very best bet:

As a matter of fact – if you are playing and the dance floor is full – this is hands down the best strategy for soloing. If you go all fancy, play the altered scale in quintuplets and amazing polyrhythms, it’s likely you will clear out the dance floor. So, do a chorus of just groove, then step it up a bit with the tips above, but never let go of repetitive groovy goodness to let the dancers know where the downbeat is.

Got some groove solo stories? Put them in the comments. If you don’t have any soloing stories yet, try the above and let us know how it went!

To learn “Groove and Fill” and a Solid Playing Technique you can rely on under stress:

Video: Got Dexterity?

dexterity drills
dexterity drills
Click below for video

These Wicked Dexterity Drills are just what the Doctor ordered…

First published on notreble, this dexterity regimen effectively addresses several common issues:

  • coordination between the right and left hands
  • independence of all fingers, but especially the third and pinky fingers
  • more comfort with one-finger-per-fret
  • string crossing
  • speed training

Dexterity is all about coordination

It’s a great warm-up, a useful regular shedding drill and many of my students think it is just plain fun because it is such a wicked challenge. As always, the most important challenge is to see it as an opportunity to stay relaxed. If you start cramping up:

  • breathe
  • drop the left hand (gently hand it over to gravity, don’t throw it)
  • drop the right hand
  • feel the weight of your shoulders
  • relieve the thumb by allowing the right arm resting on the bass body to take a load off for the left.

Feel into your hands – where else could you let go? Be like Sherlock and look for muscles that might be working too hard and relax a bit more as you do these dexterity drills. Drills like these are the perfect opportunity to check on your technique – it is all about the fingers. Listen for clean tone and play them as if they were a beautiful piece of music.

This dexterity drill is a great addition to your practice routine – it is like one of those full-body toning workouts you do in the gym. Here is the PDF that goes with it.

Enjoy!

For technique drills that take you from basic to advanced levels check out my course – Music Theory for the Bass Player. Why a music theory course for bass? Because if you learn music theory on the fretboard and apply it effectively (I show you how), you go way beyond just copying songs – you learn how to create your own grooves and fills. And why technique drills? Because theory is all about shapes and shapes are best done with great fingering. It’s a super well thought out, well-researched 20 unit course!

Played on my Marleaux Five String Consat
Amps by TC
Cabs by Revsound
Strings by Dean Markley
Accessories by GruvGear
Audio by Wolftrackaudio.com

Gadgets for Technique Practice?

gadget

I got this question twice last week: Ari, what do you think of squeeze balls and grip devices and other gadgets to strengthen my fingers?

From my experience these items will not help you. I advise against them because to use them correctly, one needs to have a good plan, pay attention, be constantly aware to not overdo things and there is a danger of overstraining hands or fingers. With all these caveats, you might as well practice directly on your instrument.

If you are wrestling with the fretboard, if your fingers cannot be coerced into submission or you are trying so hard to stretch the distance between your fingers to reach that elusive low area of the bass, one-finger-per-fret fashion, they are definitely NOT your friend!

Almost always you need

  • less force – not more!
  • more coordination – not more crude strength based movements.
  • less brute force but more feeling (into your hands)!
  • less tension – not squeezing pushing or cajoling your fingers into submission!
  • less pushing yourself – more gentleness and focused intent

I won’t say we need less strength because we do need strength but we need it in the right muscles. Those muscles we need to train are the small, fine muscles, not the ones these gadgets train!

What we are asking our hand to do…

the grip movement – we are made for this!

grip

Notice how all fingers act in concert and the main purpose is – hold on. Carry stuff. Use tools.

What we are asking our fingers to do as instrumentalists is going very much against the nature of the build of our hands:

  • We ask the fingers to move separately! (middle and ring finger even share a tendon, so if you ever wondered why those guys have a particularly hard time cooperating, that is why!)
  • We ask for extremely precise movements – timing, phrasing, dynamics, etc all depend on micro-movements and a complex feedback loop between our fingers, ears, and minds.
  • We ask them to do unusual repetitive movements that require complex coordination between hands.
  • We may ask them to do the same movement for a very long time.

So the first instinct of the big muscles, then, is to help, to pick up the slack. But that is the worst you can do – you want more of the little guys and less of the big guys. I spend a lot of time with my students helping them find the points where they can let go.

Too much Force! Not enough Feel!

Usually, there is too much force and too much of a gripping motion going on and way too much of the idea that we need force anyways!

Now get me right, I love to dig in for a good groove with a drummer with deep pockets – yet while I do that I am super relaxed (at least that is the goal). Only then can the music flow!

I have developed a method to help with changing habits (the PORA method) and I am working on releasing a program that has helped my students immensely improve their technique. (Stay tuned for that).

These are devices that may be very effective for mountain climbers but for electric bassists, in my opinion, do more harm than good.

I don’t recommend

  • Any kind of finger weights that are supposed to make your fingers stronger. I got invited a while back to sponsor a company that creates these. I tested them and then quietly declined. I am sure they are great for mountain climbers and other applications. I only endorse what I believe in and I could feel the tension build up in my hand as I was using them. Exactly what you do not want!
  • These things: they may be great for mountain climbers and maybe during some stretches when playing upright, but use caution. I maintain you learn best what you need for the instrument on the instrument.
  • Any kind of brute-force treatment of the hand – brutal stretches or violent trigger point massages (unless you are a trigger massage therapist).

I do recommend

Particularly for finger strength (training those small muscles!)

Fun Fidget Gadgets

There are a few gadgets that I do like, but they are by no means mandatory or necessary! They are also not for everyone, so try one out if you are curious.

I like to fidget and tinker with things in my hand while I talk, especially things that will make me feel my hand more intently and that require nimbleness and balancing skill. I can do these movements completely relaxed and they are not about force but about coordination.

Here are three examples that I like (aside from doodling):

The above two gadgets are ancient and have long traditions of calming nerves and stimulating creativity.

There is also this guy that I like to fiddle with:

Go on Amazon and look for “fidget toys for adults” and the sky is the limit. If you like things that stimulate your creativity then I recommend items that consist of small magnetic parts, magnetic cube puzzles or spring toys.

The Take Away

Tensing up all the way to the neck and shoulders is something you want to do less of. not practice with a gadget. Bass playing is not about brute force, it is about coordination, sensitivity and allowing the music to flow by letting go of tension.

A lack of strength is typically not the problem. Rather it often is too much brute force. You may feel like your hand gets tired, but that is because all the big muscles are working overtime. Focus more on the letting go, the economy of movement, the relaxing and the music flowing through you. If you tense up, drop your hand gently for a moment and sense into your muscles to feel them let go.

In our Course Music Theory for the Bass Player, we practice technique in every unit, from easy to more challenging, with constant reminders of what to look out for.

How to Send Tension Packing… And Play More Relaxed

tension relaxed

Last week I was talking about the importance of sending tension packing so creativity and flow can move your way instead.

Here are a few general tips and checkpoints for relaxed and effective playing technique

  • Work on your technique regularly so over-gripping and overworking become a thing of the past.
  • Let the big muscles get out of the way and let the smaller, finer muscles do the work.
  • Learn to place your thumb correctly so you don’t grip the neck like you’d grip a broom handle (AKA “The Pistol Grip“).
  • Coordinate between right and left hands so they pluck and fret at the exact same time.
  • Coordinate individual fingers in each hand (like alternate picking and permutations)?
  • Listen for how tension affects tone. Pay special attention to whether you sometimes choke the notes.
  • Use consistent and stress-free fingering.
  • Always use a strap, have a relaxed and upright posture (not slumped over) and keep your shoulders down.
  • Use as little movement as possible.
  • Listen for good timing. Tension affects timing. Relax.
  • Breathe.
  • Drop the hand like it’s a wet sock at the slightest feeling of tension. (Tension is like an avalanche – without interrupting it, it will only build and gain momentum. Best to disengage for a second and remind the body what relaxed feels like, hence dropping the hand to reset). – This is an extremely powerful exercise. Make sure to let gravity take your hand, don’t place it down into dropped position, instead, gently hand it over to gravity.
  • Listen to what is happening (get out of your own head).
  • Think of your hand as soft and limber.
  • There are many targeted exercises that can be done to improve a relaxed hand, speed, timing and tone. If you “just play songs” pay attention to what you are doing, but also practice technique in a targeted fashion. While there is a myriad of exercises I recommend and created, a good start are permutation exercises. I teach them many different ways, here is one example.
  • No perfection required. Just your best intention and effort.

If this list seems overwhelming, remember the PORA technique: pick up to three or four details you want to work on and rotate your attention, just following the step by step guide. My Music Theory book describes what good relaxed technique looks, feels and sounds like. And here is a handy one-sheet to post on your wall.

Remember this

If it looks tense, it likely is tense and will sound tense. The same is true of the opposite: if it looks relaxed the music can flow. And if you look like you are having a great time (rather than appearing to be fighting with the instrument) the audience and fellow musicians will pick up on it.

Here are a few more advanced technique exercises from our Music Theory course. Step by step exercises over the course of 20 units lead you there… and they can even sound pretty and double as theory and note finding exercises!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course