One of the planet’s most popular blogs, Zen Habits is all about making small, focused changes that add up to big results over time. The site’s author, Leo Babauta wrote a “30 day challenge” post on his site that absolutely resonated with me.
The challenge was to do something challenging every day for a month so that it becomes a habit. Like most things I encounter in life, I tried to apply this to my guitar.
I’ve always been impressed when I hear someone play some awesome walking bass parts on the guitar, especially an acoustic blues part. Similar to the contrary motion turnaround that I love so much, walking bass lines really bend my mind and twist my fingers. For many reasons, I have a hard time learning these parts.
Finally, I’m ready to rectify that.
Since I struggle with walking bass lines, I decided to challenge myself to work on this technique every day for 30 days. I hope to not only improve my playing in this area, but also form the habit of intentional practice.
Mr. Babauta, I accept your challenge.
Walking Bass Lines
My goal is to learn how to comfortably play great walking bass lines. Something difficult for me. If you read anything on goal setting, you will find common advice to have a clearly defined goal.
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there – Lewis Carroll
So here’s what I’m after:
I want to play acoustic fingerstyle blues with melody, rhythm and a dynamic, moving bass line played at the same time. There, I think that’s as plainly as I can say it.
So now that I have a defined goal, I have to plan my attack. That’s step one…day one.
I gave some thought to my challenge and decided to find a simple melody that I was already familiar with to begin my study. After a minute or two on YouTube I came across a video from Sawlon performing a great walking bass fingerstyle arrangement of the children’s song, Old McDonald. This was perfect!
It might sound a little corny to start with a children’s song, but I wanted to start with a tune that was both simple and familiar. Check out the video, but make no mistake about it, this simple children’s tune isn’t so simple when you add this walking bass part.
I took this deceivingly complicated piece one bar at a time. I must have replayed Sawlon’s video
20 200 times till the bass line stuck in my head. Obviously, I know the melody by heart.
I fired up my trusty metronome on Metronome Online to a modest 72 bmp and attempted to play the first bar perfectly. Yeah, didn’t happen.
I struggled, but kept at it for 30 – 45 minutes straight. By the end of the session, I could muddle through the arrangement.
For the first day, I was happy to just get the arrangement down but in the interest of full disclosure, I butchered this piece. There is quite a bit of work to do.
On my second day of this 30 day challenge, my parents came to visit and brought some awesome steaks. Naturally, I fired up the grill and had a great time visiting. As for Old McDonald?
Yeah, the grill pretty much won my attention for the evening. I played for a couple of minutes here and there while the folks were around, but no serious practicing happened.
I’m sharing this part with you not just to tell you about an amazing steak (and it was amazing) but really to point out just how much discipline is needed to keep moving forward in this challenge.
This won’t be easy.
For my third day of the challenge I knew I had to devote some time to the task since I pretty much fell off the wagon on day two. Day two and I’m already losing the challenge. Ha!
So to get back on track, I practiced Old McDonald over and over again and gradually bumped up the tempo quite a bit. At the end of this session, I was able to play the first bar up to speed with about 50% accuracy. Obviously, this isn’t where I want to be, but it was definitely an improvement over my first two days.
Things are finally starting to come together. I can comfortably play the opening two bars of Sawlon’s tricky arrangement. Even though bars one and two are identical, it’s tough just to loop this thing back around and stay in time. So I practiced playing both bars up to speed until I could flawlessly repeat the piece for several minutes on end.
After a good warm up, I practiced Old McDonald to reinforce what I have learned. I feel that I have conquered it and may have had my first breakthrough.
I was stumbling around some guitar websites and found a quote from Steve Vai that really resonated with me.
Make and exercise out of everything you can’t do. – Steve Vai
Armed with this sage advice from an undisputed virtuoso, I tore across the Internet looking for walking bass exercises. To my surprise I didn’t find any. I’m sure they’re out there, but so far….nada!
To put Mr. Vai’s words into action, I decided to work on coming up with my own exercise. This wasn’t exactly easy, but I spent some time working out a few finger moves that I have noted to be particularly difficult.
Another failure day. I didn’t stick with the plan today at all. I picked up the guitar and completely ignored my challenge. After a long week, I needed to just play and not think. So that’s what I did.
It felt good.
What I’ve Learned…
Already in my quest for walking bass lines, I learned a couple of things about playing guitar and a few things about myself.
First, Sawlon is a genious!
Second, simple parts can be made incredibly interesting with the right arrangement. Also, though I wanted to sprint out of the gate toward the end result, I was reminded yet again that practicing slowly and perfectly is the best way to master a part.
I also learned just how tough staying on track is going to be. However, I think I’m finding some balance here. On day 7, I was absolutely tired of working at guitar instead of just playing. So, I’ll build in some play time into next week’s schedule. It has given me a good break which re-inspired my quest.
Now, on to week two!