Dexterity Exercises for Bass Guitar

Spider exercises, chops building exercises, left & right hand gymnastics, tablature, finger combination drills, technique builders, rubber band assisted finger exercises and grip strengthening exercises all belong in one place- the TRASH!  That’s right- anything you practice that does not include musical content and/or context which isn’t engaging the mind as you practice is useless and will not improve your bass guitar playing skills one iota.  Oh, I can already hear some of you saying, “What about all of those warm up exercises that I practice?”  Let’s first discuss the problem before I prescribe the solution.

“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” – Socrates

Thinking vs. Self Expression

Contrary to popular belief, there is a huge divide between the dynamics of performance and practice.  Practice is a life-long pursuit that will enable long term progress and improvement as a bass guitar player.  Performance relates to our “self expression”, which literally means: “Expression of one’s own personality, feelings or ideas, as through speech or art.”  With that said, it makes perfect sense to categorize practice as the science and performance as the art behind the curtain of our overall musicianship.  As Ghandi so aptly put: “Live life as you were going to die tomorrow, but learn as you were going to live forever.”  The way that I interpret this is: “Play with passion as though tonight is going to be your last gig, but practice with focused concentration as though you will never stop learning.” 


Now that we are all on the same page- establishing that effective practice involves the act of thinking or engaging the mind, while performance involves a disengagement of thinking in order to express one’s art, it interests me as to why so many music students (this is based on over 30 years of teaching)progress backwards within this succinct equation.  Think about it- most people do not like to practice, so they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out ways of practicing that shuts the mind down resulting in a non-thinking approach.  Practicing while watching TV is a perfect example of how people do this.  Another example is – what the student interprets as – technique building exercises that do not include any musical content or context within the exercises themselves or in some cases are even executed completely away from the bass guitar using gimmicky gizmos and gadgets promising virtuoso technique.  So, where they might be getting a modicum of benefit in regard to simple motor movement of the fingers, they are pretty much wasting their precious practice time related to any concrete long term improvement in their bass playing skills.  Conversely, by the time these same people end up on the bandstand, they are suddenly forced to adopt a “thinking approach” because they didn’t engage their mind while practicing beforehand in order to learn and internalise the musical content and context effectively and functionally.  When placed in this precarious position, they immediately start to sub-vocalise, “What’s that scale over that chord…and oh, what are the chord tones in this position.”  Bang, it’s too late; the moment is gone because within a performance context the music moves forward in real-time.  Without the skills already established through your practice that is out of time (which involves engaging the mind) you will run into trouble when placed in a scenario that requires you to draw upon those musical skills in order to compliment the music artistically. 

Musical Content is the Solution    

A much better mouse trap for long term improvement is to allocate your precious practice time to material which includes musical content and context comprising of melody, rhythm and harmony.  Find a good teacher who teaches music as their primary source of bass guitar instruction.  Learn to read music, ear training, generic chord progressions, improvisation, transcription, flesh out chord tones for all chords in every inversion, all keys, in every position of your fretboard and remember to do so “out-of-time” when you are learning something new so you will be able to correct any mistakes that you are making along the way. 

Please remember that the practice room is where you should become a “mistake breaker” not a “mistake maker.”

Warm up exercises did you say?  You don’t need them period!  If you are practicing material regularly that includes musical content and context, you will not need to become co-dependant on any “warm up” exercises that mysteriously and suddenly enable you to play to your fullest capacity.  This is a myth that dominates the bass guitar discussion forums and bass guitar magazines.  The goal is to train yourself to be ready to play anytime, anywhere and with anyone; but of course this is based on the supposition of regular practice and practicing material that focuses on musical content as a primary objective.     

Let me leave you with one final thought that will help you to capture the essence of what I am saying:

All technical problems that you are experiencing on the bass guitar are easily solved by focusing on exercises that include musical content and context above all else.

Please leave your comments below- I look forward to answering your questions!



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