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Playing songs by ear on bass

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Figuring out bass lines by ear can be an incredible daunting task. Unless you are listening to the new Marcus Miller album, the bass probably isn’t mixed on top of the music. It can be very hard hard to really hear what going on in the low end. This article gives you 9 tips that hopefully make transcribing a lot less painstaking.

Use another speaker

Sometimes the easiest solution for transcribing a bass line, is just switching to a different speaker. When I’m listening to music through my JBL Bluetooth speaker, I always notice how much bass guitar I can hear. These speakers are designed to sound more bass heavy. At times thiscan be pretty annoying (like when you place the speaker in a small room). However, at times like these it can be very convenient.

Note that not every bassline gets easier to figure out with a bass-heavy speaker though. If the recording is already pretty boomy, the added bass is probably overkill.

You can also try switching to headphones. In a lot of situation they will give you the clarity you need.

Slow down the recording

Another trick a lot of bass players use, is to slow down the recording. While back in the day bass players had to change the speed of their record player, nowadays you can just use software for it. One way to do this is using an app like “the Amazing Slow Downer“. I however prefer to use the recording software I have. Changing the tempo of a recording is a built-in feature that comes with Logic, Cubase, and basically any other DAW. Slowing down the recording can change Thundercat bass fills from something scary to a relaxing walk in the park.

Tip: Youtube also allows you to playback videos at slower speed. Click here to figure out how.

Pitch the recording an octave

Although all notes on your bass are inside the hearing range of humans, they aren’t the easiest frequencies to hear. Also, other notes that are easier to hear, can distract us from really tuning in to these lower frequencies.

Meaning, as soon as the rest of the band starts playing, our beloved bass sounds gets pushed to the back. One trick you can use to counter this, is pitch the recording you are transcribing up by an octave. This will bring the bass up to the spectrum we find easier to hear. I use my recording software for this, but there is also software like “Transcribe!” who have this feature.

Use equalizing

Equalizing is the term used for boosting or cutting certain frequencies in music. In my recording software I use the equalizer to boost the frequencies I want to hear and cut the frequencies I prefer not to. Depending on the recording, these frequencies are a little bit different. With a little bit of experimenting however, you will surely figure it out.

Sing the bass line

Most of us have the tendency to pick up their bass and instantly try to play along with the recording. The best thing to do first however, is really listening and singing along to the bass line. If it’s a complex bass line, try to sing along with the root note of every chord first. This is the foundation the bass player used to create his lines. Get this down and it’s much easier to figure out the exact lines because you have more context.

Figure out the key of the song

Talking about context, figuring out the key to the song will help you enormously when figuring out the bass part. Why? Because this narrows down what chords fit in the song, thus what you can expect the bass player to play. As you’ve probably already noticed , there are a lot of common scales and shapes in music. Knowing and also recognizing them will save you a lot of time.

Learn to recognize chord progressions

More importantly than hearing bass notes, is recognizing progressions.. When you are in a live situation and have to figure out chords on the fly, there is usually nobody playing the root notes for you. It’s up to you to figure them out.

You can train this by using software like at or by listening to song from your favorite singer songwriter who doesn’t have a bass player.

This skill will come in handy when there is no bass guitar on a recording and someone still wants you to play. Or when you have to last minute figure the chord progression of a song out through a telephone speaker.

First learn the changes

As I mentioned before, first figure out what the changes are/chord progression is to the song you are transcribing. Everything the bass player on the recording does is derived from these chords. Knowing the chords will bring context and add logic to the bass player’s choices.

Find another recording of the song

Sometimes it’s hard to transcribe a bass line just because you have a horrible recording of it. Try to find an alternative version of the song. Preferably something that isn’t recorded with a mobile phone that was around before the internet was invented. Also, YouTube or Facebook can really destroy audio quality. Either because something is uploaded the wrong way or was uplaoded a long time ago. Check Spotify, Apple Music or any other music service that provides music in a quality format.

Pro tip: When you use a different recording, be sure to check the key and form of the song are the same. You don’t want to find out the song has a bridge when you’re already on stage.

Slow and steady wins the race

These are all techniques and tricks I use on a daily basis. When you start out transcribing parts, it will feel like you will never be able to do it. The trick however is to keep going. First transcribe one bar, then two bars, etc. Before you know it, you’ve figured out the first section of the song! Slowly keep working, finishing section after section but don’t rush it. If you put in a little bit of hard work every day, you will see progress before you know it. Remember you ears are just another muscle that needs to be trained.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy: Complete Bass Player: Why you should stop using tabs

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.

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