My unplanned path to music theory via electric bass guitar

By Tony Huber

Gretchen's electric bass guitarI have been playing musical instruments fairly seriously for over thirty years now. I’ve played the bluegrass and folk genres primarily, so my need for music theory was fairly limited. I played either by tab or by ear, and simply did not need music theory at that time. Then, almost three years ago, the pastor and music director at our church asked me if I would be willing to learn playing bass to help the church band. Soon after my enthusiastic “yes,” I hit one of my favorite local music shops and bought myself an electric bass guitar – the first among several, as it would turn out – and a practice amp.

Thus began my bass guitar journey!

With some momentum and excitement going for me, I accelerated my quest to learn bass and started looking online for some quality local bass guitar instruction. I quickly ran across a very appealing offer for a 14-day free test drive from Scott Bass Lessons. (At the time of this writing, the offer still stands.)  I signed up and went for it, devouring the lessons in short order.

Here are some examples of what I learned (and this is only half the list)…

  • Learn how to play walking bass lines… In 10 minutes!
  • The top 10 “must-know” bass hacks
  • The top 2 slap bass mistakes… Every bassist makes
  • The ultimate timing test (are you game?!)
  • The modes revealed (finally understand how to use the modes!)
  • The top 10 bass soloing mistakes
  • The top 6 secret tools I use to get a great bass tone

Some of the lessons were based (no pun intended) on the music theory required for jazz – a genre I’ve never really been involved with either as listener or player.

B-flat majorI quickly found that these lessons and courses delved into music theory on a much deeper level than I what was accustomed to. I started thinking of the circle of fifths as a learning tool, and that helped me gain a much greater and deeper understanding of the fretboard. I found myself moving through the circle of fifths using different bass chord patterns. Thanks to the lessons, I can now play bass in the key of Bb (B-flat major) without too much trouble. Before the Scott bass lessons, it would have taken me some time just to find a Bb note, much less play it!

About a year ago, I got together with a local antique dealer who also happens to be a songwriter, and we decided to expand our occasional “music night” at his local downtown-Dickson antique shop to a more official, regular weekly event. Randy Tony's electric bass guitar - Tresbear Music in Dicksonand Kathy Bryan, owners of the Dickson antique store Yesterday’s Treasures Today, have been very supportive of local music, with a special emphasis on songwriters. The event – we call it Pen, Pick and Play – has grown to an email list of over thirty participants. Playing bass each week at Pen, Pick and Play has forced me to delve into a number of musical genres and a greater variety of keys which, in the past, I knew only vaguely or in theory. Again, my knowledge of music theory gets frequently pushed to the limit – and that has really helped me to learn!

So, in a completely unexpected turn of events, a new instrument – the electric bass guitar – has opened new musical avenues and expanded my knowledge of music theory way beyond what I would previously have hoped for!

I intend to take some of the theory concepts used with the bass guitar and apply them to the mandolin; it will be interesting to see if I can expand my mandolin fretboard knowledge and skills in a similar way.

Resources: The bass guitar – An unexpected path to music theory

What is music theory?