Tim Boomer is the author of The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, and has played in many bands since the 1960s. He’s also a computer expert and web designer, whose sites include the Bassist’s Bible site, jazz/funk bassist Paul Jackson’s site, and Tim’s band’s site, Offbeats. Tim has a Bassist’s Bible Youtube channel on which he’s posted numerous instructional videos showing how to play a variety of musical styles on bass.
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S&P: How long have you been playing bass?
TB: I have been playing bass since 1969. That makes me an official old guy.
I had been playing flute with my electric guitarist friend and noticed that every time he turned up I could not hear my flute. My dad would have killed me if I had it drilled for an electric pickup (I knew some musicians who did this), so I was in a quandary. We were sitting on the rooftop of his mom’s house one evening and he said “Hey, did you know that the lower four strings of a guitar are exactly the same as the ones on a bass?” He then showed me how to play the Who’s “Boris the Spider” and within about 20 minutes I became a bassist.
S&P: What was your first instrument?
TB: I had a job in a music store, and when I had enough money to get a bass I had a choice: Phil Lesh had recently traded in one of his Fender P-basses in and it really looked cool. I think I might have had to pay about two hundred dollars for it. On the other hand, they had a new Hagstrom 8-string bass (which doubled the bass strings with guitar-like strings an octave up) for only $150 and I had seen Noel Redding posed in an ad for one, so I bought it thinking I would be so damn cool playing such a unique instrument (and maybe Jimi Hendrix would find out and want me as his bassist). It was a nice axe — very straight neck, easy to play — though I took the annoying extra strings off right away. In retrospect I should have gotten Phil’s bass. I doubt seriously if Noel ever played one of the Hagstroms. He played a P-Bass (or a Jazz bass) just like Phil did at the time. I could have had a piece of history worth umpteen gajillion jealous stares.
S&P: Why bass? Why do you love it?
I love the way bass makes people move. My 18-month-old grandson saw me play for the first time recently; as I was working through some grooves he looked from me to my amp and realized that I was the one making those sounds coming from across the room, and he immediately starting jumping up and down, raising his arms and moving rhythmically in circles. It’s in his DNA, even if he is my step-grandson.
I also love the sheer power of electric bass. When I saw Phil Lesh back in the early 70’s play full chords through a huge amp stack, I could feel that power in my gut from 60 feet away in Winterland.. John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, and Jack Cassidy had a different, more cerebral affect, playing counterpoint to the ecstatic guitar lines their band mates were coming up with. There is just so much energy there for me.
S&P: Have you ever played other instruments? If so, which ones? What did
you enjoy about them? And why do you like playing bass better?
TB: I have. Though my dad introduced me to guitar, that lasted about 2 minutes as I couldn’t wrap my head around that 5th string which is so WRONG. I played flute as a child in a classical setting and picked up bass when I realized that I knew a zillion guitarists and drummers and exactly zero bassists. I saw it as an opportunity to have people to play with.
I play guitar, keys, drums, percussion, flute, samples and loops, musical spoons, cereal boxes — pretty much anything that comes my way. I use other instruments primarily in composition, though occasionally I get to jam with friends on less familiar instruments. Joe Zawinul — the genius keyboard player for Weather Report — reportedly had two Arp 2600 synthesizers and wired them as mirror images of each other. The unfamiliar setup helped him break out of established patterns and muscle memory. By playing drums or guitar I change my bass style. It also works when I sing, as it is amazingly hard to sing while playing syncopated lines, and it’s also really hard to sing harmony lines while you’re playing roots; that can really twist you melodically.
S&P: Is it helpful to a bassist to be able to read music? How so?
TB: Reading saves time. I literally spent 4 hours a day for a month preparing for an audition for my Who band, Who Too. Three of the songs were easy and I could rattle them off without thinking. The fourth, “The Real Me,” was agony. I had to play the first 24 bars then the first 32 bars then the first 64 bars, each day getting a little farther into the tune. I had hoped for even a TAB version of that song. None existed that was accurate. A month later, at the audition they told me I’d played perhaps 80% of the song note for note. At the end of 7 years with that band, I could play it in my sleep (and sometimes do). It would have been so much better to read through the parts I was having trouble with. I could have done that in two days.
It also makes things much more accurate. I know many musicians who say “We are doing this in our arrangement.” What they mean is that they have no idea how to play the original song. I think you miss a lot of the subtlety that way. If you learn it as the band originally played it, you can make more intelligent choices when you re-arrange a track. Being literate, able to read music, helps tremendously.
S&P: What kind of gear would you advise someone taking up bass to buy?
TB: I would say spend your money on a decent bass rather than on a loud amp. You will make progress quicker, stick with it, and see the rewards of your efforts if you are not playing on an instrument that sounds bad, messes up your hands, and is impossible to play. You can always get a better amp later. (And listening to yourself play badly very very loudly is not good for either your own ego or for your neighbors.)
S&P: Is it a good idea to take lessons?
TB: You can learn a lot faster if you take lessons. That said, it depends on the player. It does not take a lot of effort to play rudimentary bass (is that the definition of a punk bassist?), but you may develop bad habits in the way you hold your instrument, and it is easy to get stuck just playing roots and fifths–you begin to fall asleep while playing, or start dreaming of the future because you are bored. If you just want to play casually, this could be enough for you. It’s still fun and you get to look cool.
On the other hand, if you are serious, a teacher can show you how to expand your knowledge. It is like going to an ice cream store to find all these notes that you were afraid of above the 5th fret — wow! — and new efficient shapes you can put your hands in that make playing so much faster and easier.
You can learn a lot from Youtube and from books, but ultimately a good teacher can cut down on the ten thousand hours it takes to really get good.
S&P: What mistakes did you make while learning to play bass? What would you do differently now if you were taking it up?
TB: I rejected all the classical knowledge I had. Not a good thing. I did not learn how to read in bass clef until much later in life. I did not understand more than basic rhythmic notation. It would have been far easier to learn material had I utilized the knowledge that I already had, but in the 60’s many folks shunned traditional methods. I feel differently now.
Though I could play using advanced techniques shortly after I started — such as anticipation or syncopation — I could not analyze WHY they worked and could not duplicate them except by “hacking” them and playing for hours and hours to commit them to muscle memory. I might find a great groove and because I couldn’t figure out how to write it down (or record it) it was lost forever the next time I tried to play it.
I also did not pay attention to my hands. For example, I still seem to let my left pinky finger point up to the sky instead of keeping it ready to play hovering above the neck.
A good teacher would have helped me with both of those mistakes.
S&P: You’ve played in a lot of bands. What are the most important things you can do to get a band together? And what are the most important things you can do to keep one together once it’s up and running
TB: Why would you want to be in a band?
You can sound great in your bedroom by yourself, but out here on the highway ….Bands are where the rubber meets the road.
To get a band together quickly and keep it together you need to be prepared. You need to put the work in, by yourself, on all the parts of the material that you suck at, until you no longer suck. Wanking away for hours soloing with Clapton playing Spoonful at the Fillmore will only get you so far. You need to learn how to play the tunes in your sleep and then when the rehearsal happens focus on the dynamics, and listening, and improvising through material that you know like the back of your hand. You don’t want to play the same old mistakes in public while you are drinking beer.
You need to be really civil and nice to your bandmates. Do not cause fights. Do not be the high maintenance “talent” that people hate to play with. Be the guy who is a bit humble, even though you can burn through the material, and help your bandmates learn it. Show up to gigs and to rehearsals on time, prepared, sober, and with big ears. Love your bandmates and love to play with them. Act like it is the most fun you can ever have on a job, that you really want to keep this job, and be promoted to lead bass player. Support your bandmates. A good sense of humor is also really helpful.
If they’re decent human beings, hang with your bandmates and socialize with them. If not, at least treat them professionally and don’t cause problems.
Never assume you are irreplaceable, even if you own the PA, get the gigs, and are the sexy front person. If your mates do not like you, the moment the band becomes successful they will fire you or force you out even if it means the band self-destructs in the process.
S&P: What are some of the things you learned while writing “The Bassist’s Bible”?
TB: I really had to up my game and become the best musician I could be in order to to write the book. I had to learn bass clef again. I had to humble myself again and again, and not just fake a style but openly admit that I really had no idea of how to play it, what the history or tradition was, or what tone to use. I had to learn to love styles that I previously hated and learn to respect other musicians’ judgment about why these “horrible” styles are so cool. Cool is how you play anything. I also had to learn HOW to play some styles authentically — not, say, Country with a Punk twist, but pure Country.
Lastly, I thought I was a disciplined, patient person, but nine years –which is how long it took me to write the book–is a long time doing anything. Spending that long on a project teaches you how to keep going, line after line, groove after groove, never giving up. As Mick Berry [co-author of The Drummer’s Bible] told me, ” the reason to write a book is to complete it.”
S&P: What are your current music projects?
TB: Good question. I have been woodshedding with my band Offbeats — another long term, almost three decade project. We are tightening up vocals and learning covers to add to the sets, which will help folks understand what influenced our originals.
I finally got a drum kit and am learning how to separate my hands and feet independently, after decades of counting time with one foot. The subtleties of drumming are really helping me to understand how to phrase within a rhythm section. When my dad first asked me what I wanted to play and I said “drums,” he said “no”. Trumpet? “no”. Flute “Yes.” So I am finally learning the first instrument I took an interest in.
I am playing a lot more jazz now, working through standards and trying to incorporate fretless electric into the process. I am also just about to get my first ever standup bass.
I have also been doing a lot of music promo — working the business side of things, converting the four music web sites I have to later tech, sifting through this huge amount of content — over 25 years of video from performances, studio sessions, and rehearsals to sort through and find gems to put online. Blogging, working with SEO and marketing to make it easier for folks to find our band, my book, and see my own skills so I can find more music projects.
All of this is setting me up to go out into the world again. After my recent cloistered life of writing, teaching, and promoting, I have better tools and skills, so I want to share them on stage and get into some new projects that will stretch me.
S&P: What are some tips you’d have for people taking up bass?
TB: Bass is an awesome way to get into music, as you can really get to be a decent bassist quickly if you do it right. You can play one string at a time. One note at a time. Look cool and watch girls simultaneously. Of course you can also shoe-gaze, play pyrotechnically and use most of the techniques guitarists are famous for, but you can also just groove and be happy knowing it is YOU that makes them move and groove.
Find people to play with who are just starting out, like you are. There is nothing like knowing that you are getting together on a Saturday to make a bunch of big noise in a garage to inspire you to practice. Playing badly at volume with your friends giving you the stink eye really makes you want to play better and put in the time during the week.
And once you know how to play, keep on learning. Learn something new about the vast musical world we inhabit. My own basic rock/funk/jazz/ska sensibilities have now been expanded incredibly, allowing me to play the same music with new influences that enrich my playing and keep it interesting for me, my bandmates, and our fans.
S&P: Bassists and drummers often talk about being “in the pocket.” Can you explain what this means?
TB: No. If you can explain that, you probably don’t know. I saw a lot of things in the 60’s too and I have no idea what happened there.
The real answer is a bit etherial. By listening carefully to each other, the bassist and drummer allow each other to compliment the groove, rather than just playing ‘parts’ and you really begin to feel the music playing you. That is not an exaggeration. You can tell if a note is not necessary or if you need to add something. You and your drummer are playing as if you are one person, in the same way that people dance together well or sing impeccable harmony as if in one voice. The groove itself is more important than any individual and your ego and differences dissolve in the process. It is so compelling that you have no choice but to simplify down to the essentials. So much has been written about this, and though I could break it down, it really is a lot more than just technique as you really live in the moment and keep that alive bar after bar, chorus after chorus, groove after groove.