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Back to bassics

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My bass arrived last Thursday in a giant box as tall as me. (Never underestimate the power of overpackaging.) Nestled inside, among wads of thick brown recycled paper, lay a roughly triangular box familiar to anyone who’s ordered a guitar, and inside that, wrapped in a foam bag, was my new black 5-string Music Man Stringray clone, by OLP (owned by Ernie Ball, who also owns Music Man and licensed these instruments, which are similar, but lack in some of the finer things that make the originals so expensive.)

While our cat Oscar revelled in another new toy by diving in and out of the box and hiding among the discarded paper packing wads, I examined my new instrument. Suddenly my head filled with comments like, “You think you’re going to play this?” Your brain feels confident when looking at pictures or just picturing yourself confidently plucking away at notes, but cold feet develop quickly when confronted with the real thing. It’s always bigger, heavier, harder than you imagined it would be, and your hands hold it gingerly, as if you’re not quite sure it’s safe to even touch, let alone play. The fingers you imagined flying up and down the fret board now quiver self-consciously over the strings, not quite sure where to go next. It all looks so easy in your head.

It’s been years since I tried to play an instrument, and even then I wasn’t much more than a step up from “awful.” My love of music extends deeper than simply a reaction to sound – I love the people who play, I love how they play, and I love what they play their music on. It extends to the point where I want to know how it is they make that beautiful noise. I need to feel my fingers on those strings, doing the things they do, in order to fully understand what I’m listening to. The moment I tried playing my dad’s guitar as a teenager, I immediately gained a greater grasp of what it meant to be a musician. It wasn’t just about making a hit song, it wasn’t just about getting the girls – or, I knew, it shouldn’t be; it was about making a statement, and it was about making art from sound. It was about feeling it.

Over the years, I’ve attempted to play guitar, bass, and even such oddities as Chapman Stick and Warr Guitar (two “touchstyle” type instruments.) But I’ve never made a real effort to play – only “attempts.” A die-hard DIYer, I set out to teach myself, never realizing that the greatest thing a teacher gives you is not the instruction, but the motivation and, most importantly, the accountability you need to keep going when times get tough – because they will. This time, however, I’ve vowed that I will find an instructor, someone who really wants to help me learn, even at the ripe old age of 30. I’ve come to realize that, when it comes to learning, you always do it yourself – you just need a helping hand to get you going along the right path.

(Keep up with my new adventure here and on my site, as I plan on regularly following up on my progress!)

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About Tom Johnson

  • Eric Olsen

    Rock out you mad crazy bottom freak and have fun! My 16-year-old son plays bass, and he’s gotten pretty good in two years, especially in the last few months.

  • the best thing you can do to really leap forward is to play with other people.

    lessons are great but can only take you so far.

    from what i’ve read of your music writing it seems as though you’ve got ‘big ears’. that’ll help a ton.

  • Thanks, guys. At the moment, I’m not quite ready to face playing for others – I’m just happy to get my fingers back on some strings. I’m sure what’ll come out is pure noise, but at least it’s fun noise, right? Nothin’ wrong with that! Hell, some people make entire careers out of noise . . . hmm! I might be onto something here!

  • Eric Olsen

    Here is my considered opinion: get reasonably acquainted with the instrument, as in learn some basic scales, get a feel for the 1-4-5 blues progression that is the basis of, um, 450,000 songs or so, but very early on pick one song, just one simple song, and play it over and over until you can play it right and make it sound like the record. This will accomplish many things that are all good. Let me know when you have done this grasshopper – I will give you further instruction.