What’s the most important thing a bass player can learn?

There’s a lot of debate out there as to what The Most Important Thing is concerning what a bass player should know above all else, and opinions vary wildly on this subject.

Some say the most important thing is to know your scales, while others say you should know what’s known as “perfect pitch” (and if you’re not blessed with that, don’t feed bad because most aren’t). And yet others say it’s about knowing as many songs as possible to expand your bass playing knowledge.

Well, all of that means nothing if you don’t learn the one thing that holds that all together:


A bass player who can’t play in time is fairly worthless, similarly to how a drummer who can’t play in time is fairly worthless. And no, I’m not saying you have to master all the time signatures, but if you can’t keep a standard 120bpm (one beat every half-second) in 4/4, start using a metronome and learn it.

Side note: Here’s a free online metronome, so you have no excuse. 🙂

Sometimes learning songs to learn timing is not a good idea

The best (worst?) example I can give of this is Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young:

“What’s wrong with Cinnamon Girl?”, you may ask.

Nothing at all, except the song speeds up as it progresses. You’ve probably heard this song a million times and didn’t know that. Skip back and forth from the beginning of the song to the middle or end of the song and you’ll notice the speed is significantly different.

What happens is that when you learn this song via the original studio recording, you get used to the fact that the timing doesn’t remain constant – and that can create bad timing habits.

Then, of course there are other studio-recorded songs that keep the timing in check all the way through. Anything by Stevie Wonder usually has very good, consistent timing to it, such as Higher Ground:

Fun fact: Most bands who “recorded live in the studio” where the whole band plays together when recording almost always go off-time, while those who layer tracks are almost always in-time.

What’s the toughest timing to learn?

For most players, it’s the swing beat.

For example, the age-old classic Take 5 is not difficult because of the 5/4 timing, but the fact it’s a very unorthodox jazz swing all the way through:

For you music theory buffs out there, believe me, Take 5 has a lot going on. Namely, a combination of a waltz and two-step. Very interesting stuff. If you can get the timing to Take 5 down, that’s a big accomplishment.

No, you don’t have to take on Take 5 to be Master Of All Timing. But learning how to play to swing beat can increase your timing proficiency.

In other words, if you’re stuck in a rut where you’ve said to yourself, “What can I learn that will really help me improve as a player?”, learn timing.

If you’ve got 4/4 down with standard “boxed” beats, try a shuffle.

Once your timings are in check, then you can move on to more interesting modes, such as, say, Dorian minor. 🙂

25 thoughts on “What’s the most important thing a bass player can learn?

  1. I would agree that timing is the most important. When a bassist with good timing and a drummer with good timing get together, the options to learn more, and push yourself are increased. If you are struggling with the drummer, or your own timing issues, you just cannot get past that and on to having fun. Making your timing second nature is the goal.

  2. Timing is always important. But I think the key is to learn it’s not all about you, don’t over play and understand the style your supposed to be playing. The exact opposite of a guitar player!

  3. Firstly. be sure to learn every note on every string at each fret location–I was surprised to come across people who play, but are clueless when I tell them it’s in the key of A and they can’t find it and don’t know where to begin.

  4. When I was first playing in a band during the late ’70s, more than anything in the world, I wanted a Ricky 4001 – just like my hero Geddy Lee. I saved up for months before making the trip down to L&M in Toronto to pick up my dream bass. I proudly went to my band’s practice, gently pulled it out of its plush hardshell case (to the oohs and aaahs of my bandmates) and reverently plugged it in to my amp. We launched into our brave attempt at “Closer To The Heart” and I experienced the greatest dissapointment of my young life. We finished the song and a hush decended on the practise room, before our drummer gave voice to the thing we were all thnking… “Is something wrong with that bass? It sounds just like your Horner.” I realized that you could give Geddy a cereal box with a rubber band strung across it, and he would still sound like Geddy Lee – and I would still suck… If it isn’t in your fingers / pick / thumb, or whatever else you use to get the strings vibrating, all the gear in the world is just polishing the turd…

    • I totally get where you’re coming from – Geddy was what started it for me too! Rush was my first concert in 1977. I love the Ric 4001 and to this day I still play them. While I have discovered a handful of other bases that I also like (such as my USA made San Dimas Jackson from the 80s) the rick shape and neck are very comfortable to me, But I hate that sound so I’ve put EMGs with the preamp In my 81 4003 so I get the best of both worlds. But I’ve also noticed the other thing you mentioned – no matter what bass or I play through I Always sound like me. I have a certain attack after all these years of playing – it always comes through. I think I once heard a quote from EVH on guitar that was the same thing – he always sounds the same even when he plays somebody else’s guitar!!

  5. Timing, scales are fundamentals, the most important is to play the bass like you want to. Want to do the keyboard treble , as your bass line go for it. You want to run arpeggio’s faster than your guitarist go for it. Don’t be afraid to play out side the box, play chords, use octaves, add flats and sharps.. Don’t pigeon hole your playing because others say this is how it is. Screw them …

  6. yep, its all about playing WITH the drummer, never hit a note with the snare, and copy the rythm on the ride, WATCH the drummer so you see his hand on the way to the drum, so you know in advance when he will hit, you two will be dead-nuts tight. Not only will the dancers cream over the rythm section, the whole band will sound awsome (singer and lead will still take the credit). I was into my 3rd decade of playing when I figured this out and you just got it for free, Rock out with your headstock out young bucks… CHuck Hinton

  7. The one thing that has helped me most is learning the “number system ” …when you understand it, you can transpose to any key with little effort.

  8. Santana, especially early Santana like Abraxas used tempo as a tool to add a build in excitement. Each musical section is a bit faster than the previous one. Once you’re ready for it, it’s fun.

  9. Learning how to play songs, as opposed to playing bass on songs is the most important thing. In other words, playing the right part for the song, not necessarily the coolest part. Timing and tuning are equally important, but not as important as the part. Who cares if a lousy part is in tune and in perfect time?

  10. I think there are many important things but in my opinion, one of the main things is what “NOT” to play.

  11. the bottom line is keep it in pocket central. work with the bassdrum,snare and hi hat.play for the song ,not your self. remember you are the time keeper in the band the drummer is the director. if you dont have groove the rest of the band will suffer.

  12. What nobody else is mentioned here and I feel is one of the most important things I’ve ever learned as a bassist is muting. Since we generally only play one string at a time – even if you’re moving around very quickly from string to string, muting the other three (or four or five or however many you have) is vitally important to keep your sound clean and not have a bunch of extraneous noise coming through, Especially if you’re like me and you only play with one other stringed instrument In your band, such as a guitar.

  13. I’m between lessons, so just a quick note: It’s not timing, it’s not tuning, it’s not locking up with the drummer, it’s not the notes you play or the ones you leave out, it’s not knowing scales or chords or other aspects of theory, it’s not knowledge of the fingerboard, it’s not developing your ear, it’s not knowing a bunch of songs and styles, it’s ALL OF THE ABOVE AND MORE! In many ways it doesn’t matter how you approach music as long as you figure out how to live there, how to play there, how to breathe there. I’m a teacher so of course I have an approach that uses empirical knowledge, but in the end it’s all about the individual’s connection to other musicians and to music. To be a player means to commit yourself whether that entails spending four years at a conservatory or locking yourself in your room and playing along to recordings over and over and over again until you get it. So all of you who posted here are right!

  14. Most im[portant bass lesson: SUPPORT THE LEAD. This goes back to basso continuo where the gamba was expected to improvise acommpaniment with nothing more than a triad or even a root as a guide in the score. The lead part shaped what you played more than the key, the progression and time signature.

  15. I may be THE bass player, but I’m committed to being in a co-op effort with the percussionist(s) as THE rhythm section: WE maintain the timing and the groove, providing the framework that allows the lead instruments and vocalist(s) to take the audience on a journey and still find their way home . . .

  16. If you and the drummer aren’t “married” the rest of the band is divorced, in other words it will not work!!!

  17. Most important? Knowing when to play .. and maybe even more importantly, when NOT to play. It’s all about groove.

    All that stuff about scales, knowing songs, and that … that’s applicable to ALL INSTRUMENTS and ALL MUSIC. What is specifically important about THE BASS is knowing when to play, and when not to play.

  18. For seasoned players, I believe the most important thing a bass player can learn is modesty. Yes, it’s a personality trait – not an ability. You’ve got to remember – you will never reach your learning limit. There’s always more to learn and there are always people that will be better than you. If you know you are not the best, than it should push you to learn. If you think you are the best, than what reason do you have to learn? If you tell me you are great at something, I will not believe you simply because you told me. But if you say you’re decent and then show me how you play and you’re great, I’ll respect you way more than if you told me you were great and were great. Respect for fellow musicians goes a long way. I wouldn’t want to play with anyone that thinks they’re the greatest player around.
    For beginners, there are 3 simple things that you must learn before playing with a band before all other things.
    1. Know each note on each fret on each string.
    2. Know the major and minor scales. (you dont walk up to a C in an A major chord, you don’t walk up to a f# in a d major chord, ect. because they’re not in key)
    3. Learn how to play with a metronome perfectly. If you can play with a metronome perfectly on time without missing a note, there’s no doubt you can play with a band perfectly on time.

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