Professional bassists aren’t going to be able to hold a bass guitar in their hands every minute of the day, but I can assure you that they’re still learning and expanding their skills without holding one.
How, you might ask? I’ll teach you!
There are a few different ways you can learn how to practice bass guitar without a bass and they break down into the following categories:
- Music Theory
- Ear Training
- Finger and Rhythm Exercises
- Creative Visualization
- Practice Piano
You will still of course need to find time to play on a real bass guitar when you can. Learning these techniques are only supplemental to playing the actual instrument, but proper utilization of just a few of these skills can speed up your learning process dramatically.
You’ll be better equipped to play with other musicians, improvise, write your own music, and break down other bassists grooves in your head.
Besides what I list below, it can always be a great idea to sign up for a website that provides online bass courses like these.
Scales are probably something you’re familiar with, but there is so much more that goes into music theory that it can take a lifetime to master. Luckily you can learn most of it without having to hold a guitar at all.
You don’t NEED to know music theory at all in order to play bass, but it will put you miles ahead of others if you take the time to learn it.
It’s like speaking but only being able to use 50 different words versus having access to the entire English language. You’ll have a broader range of options when playing and you’ll be able to make better judgments as to what should come next and what goes together well. It’s also essential knowledge if you want to be able to improvise or solo.
So what is music theory?
Music theory is many things. It’s the relationship between different notes and keys. It’s the explanation of why certain notes go together well and others don’t. It’s rhythm. It’s melody.
If you sat down and tried to learn bass on your own from scratch without any context it would take a very long time to even understand the basics. Luckily there are formulas within music theory that have been worked out since the beginning of the creation of music - things like scales, chords, and common progressions.
People started noticing that certain things sounded good, so they made a note of it. After enough of these notes were written down, they began to form relations between them and that’s what music theory basically is.
Basic music theory boils down to the following:
- Circle of Fifths
There’s much more than that, but those are the things that most people focus on in the beginning. If you can learn just a small part of each section it will transform your playing more than you can imagine.
Diving in and learning these can be quite a task since it’s hard to know where to begin, and everybody approaches them differently when teaching.
Other than YouTube, I would highly recommend using JamPlay to learn music theory. They have hours upon hours of video lessons on this kind of stuff in addition to interactive bass guitar neck diagrams for learning scales and jam tracks for practicing along with.
JamPlay has a free membership so go and sign up here!
If you decide to get a full membership you can use the code "0713E7D01A" to get 25% off your first month, or use "4B926862C0" to get 10% off all bass products on the site.
There’s an amazing video by Scott Devine about ear training for the bass without having to use a guitar. I’ll link to it down below, but in case you don’t have the time to watch it I’ll try to sum it up:
The basic idea is that when in the car listening to the radio, hearing tunes on TV, or listening to music on your computer, you should be constantly trying to figure out how to play a part on bass in your head. Then after you think you’ve worked it out, grab a bass later on and try out your theory and see how it goes.
It will be difficult in the beginning, but this trial and error is what professional bassists use every day and it will help you improvise and be able to play with other musicians easily.
To get started you’ll need to have a solid grasp on at least one major scale and the intervals inside of it. Once you can pick out, say, the 4th interval easily when hearing it in relation to the root note, move on and make sure you can do the same for the 3rd, the 5th, and so on.
Next time you are in the car listening to the radio, pick out a small section of the song and see if you can pick out the intervals and the melody and imagine holding a bass and trying to play it. Try it out on a real bass the next chance you get and see how close you can get!
This is also great to do for TV show theme songs and commercial melodies while sitting on the couch - with or without your bass in hand.
Ear training really is one of the top tips to becoming a better bassist.
Check out the full video explanation of this awesome method below:
Finger and Rhythm Exercises
This one is simple and can be done anywhere.
With your right hand laying flat on a table or on your leg lift up your thumb and put it back down. Next lift up your index finger and put it down, followed again by your thumb, then middle finger, then thumb, then ring finger, then thumb, then pinky. Next you will start with your index finger first and go through all the other fingers while doing index finger in between. Then you will lead with your middle finger and so on.
Make sure not to move any other fingers at all when you lift up a finger. Try to keep the movement as isolated as possible.
This is a great way to develop finger independence and it’s a good way of making sure you hit all finger combinations. It will be hard at first, but it’ll get easier with practice.
This is great not so much for finger strength, but more for developing stamina for playing bass for long periods of time. It can also be used virtually anywhere including in the car or sitting on the couch.
Guitarists have had great results with this when it comes to helping strengthen their pinky and ring fingers on their fretting hand.
As a bass player, being able to stay on time and play right on the beat is an essential foundation. You can play all the funky licks you want, but if you are rushing ahead of the tempo or falling behind you aren’t going to be of much use in any musical situation.
One way to get good at staying on rhythm is to clap along to a metronome. It doesn’t just have to be on the beat though. Try mixing it up by playing on and &’s and the e’s and create your own unique rhythms. Certain styles of music (like reggae for example) have many songs that play on the &’s and 1’s of a beat.
The key here is consistency and being able to stay on tempo at all times. After you nail the basics, dive into things like triplets, sixteenth notes, and odd time signatures to give yourself a greater library to pull from.
Creative visualization is the process of recreating the images, sounds, and feelings of an activity in your head.
And the best part? It’s been proven to actually help in further developing certain skills. It's a great low-effort way to learn how to practice bass guitar without a bass.
Australian Psychologist Alan Richardson ran a little experiment. He had 3 groups of basketball players and wanted to run a test on making free throws. The first group was told to practice 20 minutes every day. The second group was told to visualize shooting and making free throws each day. And the third group was not allowed to practice or visualize.
The results showed that the group allowed to visualize came very close to the group allowed to practice.
It should be noted that visualization alone will not make you a better bassist, but paired alongside actual practice will boost your skills tremendously.
The process of visualization is fairly simple. First make sure you are in a quiet space. Imagine the bass guitar - the shape, the color, and the strings. Next imagine yourself holding it and feeling the touch of every piece. Even down to how warm or cool it is to the touch. Now all you have to do it imagine yourself playing it. Visualize each finger pressing down on the fret.
If you can do this for even just a few minutes a day it will help tremendously. This paired with ear training discussed earlier is a great tool for any musician.
Learning how to play basic piano goes hand-in-hand with music theory. It’s easier to visualize scales, chords, and intervals on a piano due to the layout and black vs. white keys. This will speed up your learning process and you’ll gain new insight into expanding your creativity and repertoire.
Learning piano will also help develop your hand/finger coordination. You’ll need to really stretch to hit some keys will is also essential when playing bass.
I'd recommend just getting a cheap, small, portable piano to keep around the house like the Casio SA76 mini. It's great for messing around with melody ideas and getting your music theory down.
On top of that, it’s just plain fun! Knowing how to play a second instrument will give you an extra way to express yourself musically and learn new song parts. You can even record piano and bass together and start writing your own music!
If you have a MIDI keyboard you can even use some of the great bass software plugins out there to virtually play bass!