Every now and then I hear bass players advocate the practice of learning music by note rather than by pattern. This is usually pontificated in the same tone that players use in dismissing tablature as a form of written music. I think this usually comes from some kind of paranoia that teaching these concepts will lead a developing bass player down the road of ignorance in using patterns and tab as a substitute rather than as a supplement to ‘the norms of academic music development’ and perish the thought that the crumbs on that road might lead back to their heretical teaching habits.
Now let me make something clear from the start. I am a professional sight reading musician that knows both every note of my instrument and the note/pitch makeup of any scale, arpeggio or line I have ever learned or played. I DO NOT advocate the principle of teaching tablature before or in place of standard western staved notation and I DO NOT advocate the teaching of music simply by finger pattern.
However, I DO consider both of these methods completely valid as a way of viewing various aspects of music and the fretboard and I would go as far as to say that learning patterns on any instrument is both important and (here’s the bone of contention) inevitable.
The Good Ol’ Box Shape
First of all, let me address moveable scale patterns. Many musicians would contest that every scale should be learned as separate combination of notes rather than as a moveable fretboard shape. This would mean that I might start by learning the C major scale as a succession of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B and then I might move on through the cycle of 5ths learning G Major and F Major by note while including and learning the accidentals of the key signature. Of course you need to do this. But I would contest that the most important part of learning a scale or mode is the intervallic makeup and general construction. I would elevate this concept above the simple alphabetic consequence of what is actually a pattern. Any scale is made up of a certain combination of tones and semitones or, from a slightly different perspective, a combination of intervals. A major scale is made up of the pattern: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. The reason equal temperament is so useful in the music of the last few hundred years is that we can move this pattern around to start from any note and compose in different keys and modalities.
Learning by Interval
The intervallic construction of tonic, major second, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, major 7th is even more useful as a combination of patterns because each interval contains an audible and emotional reference that is paramount in learning and developing our musical skills and character. Yes, I might know that the interval made from the distance between the notes Ab and F is a major 6th but I’ve had to make an extra mental step in transposing the note names to an intervallic character that provides me with the musical material I require. If all I ever learned is note names then this process would still be present no matter how fast I become at learning each individual interval by note. By learning the intervals by fretboard pattern the characteristic ‘look’ of the interval is instantly recognisable and I can actually see the fretboard in turns of emotive shapes rather than cold, basic letters.
Learning a scale by pattern instantly helps the student see the intervallic construction which in turn becomes much easier to work from in turns of melodic ideas. If you were to think only in terms of note names and you had to play an ascending scalar sequence in groups of 4, you would have to keep track of the note names you are using as your formula (in the key of C: C, D, E, F, D, E, F, G, E, F, G, A etc.) whereas knowing the scale as a simple digital pattern makes for a much quicker and easier route to the musical idea we want to project. In a practical sense, note names are labels we have attached to a physical, sound creating, object. You don’t need the label to see the physical pattern and, in turn, the pattern is the thing we use as our emotive, aural reference point.
Whether we like it or not
This leads me to the inevitability I mentioned. I refuse to believe that any musician works from note names exclusively. I think if they did then they would be quite ignorant to the other mental processes that naturally occur and possibly mentally stunted. We as humans see patterns in absolutely everything. In fact we proactively seek them out and illogically find them in unrelated data. But this is because the search for connection is deep routed in our brains and is vital to quick development. Without our ability to see patterns and make connections between related things our memories would be pretty useless.
I’ve had arguments with musicians that shun the use of patterns but then I see them playing a lick in at high speed in an improvised solo and the idea that the line is being thought of in terms of individual note names as its created is absurd. Sometimes the line might be a pre practiced ‘lick’ in which case this is usually based on a mental pattern you would consider, for the sake of argument, muscle memory. If the line is pure improvisation then the scales, arpeggios or basic intervals being used will still be based on finger patterns. Why slow your brain down by using a two step process when one will suffice? If I want to play an F mixolydian scale, I don’t NEED to think of the individual notes before I play them. The pattern is already laid out for me once I’ve moved to the F. The fact I’ve studied music and the notes present in all of these musical ideas is irrelevant and I think telling students that it’s WRONG to think of patterns when you play is utter stupidity and very misleading. I know the notes of F mixolydian are F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb but no matter how hard I try to ONLY think of these notes when playing the scale, eventually the visual reality of a finger pattern would be too much for me to avoid.
In no way am I suggesting that you only use fretboard patterns. But I would say that if you have an exhaustive knowledge of the notes on your fretboard then it would be pretty hard to not see the note names as you play patterns. Both approaches then meld into one and it’s actually hard to know whether note names or patterns are the initiation of the process. I suspect this is why some players think that they only think in terms of the alphabet when playing lines.
OMG! Not TAB!
Tablature is the other big no-no in music academic circles. I remember teaching in a music college some years ago and being reprimanded by the head of department for using tablature as a tool in teaching scales. At the time I argued my case a little but then just arrogantly decided he didn’t really understand anything about bass guitar. Being a sax player and all.
I absolutely understand the criticism of tablature as a popular form of sheet music. To any bass player out there that doesn’t already realise, you CANNOT learn music from tablature alone. It’s impossible. You would need a copy of the recording to listen to at the very least and that is not a very reliable process. To make things worse, the majority of tab sites on the internet are terrible and the tabs that get submitted are usually far from accurate.
However, as an aid and supplement to learning fretted instruments, tab can be very useful. The fretboard gives rise to a conundrum of problems when it comes to deciding what position or fret to use because there are so many iterations of the same note in different areas of the neck. One rule of thought says that you should make your own decisions and find your own way and fingerings for particular basslines and melodies. But that can often be problematic when dealing with fast lines or with different techniques, especially open strings or harmonics. You can sometimes be trying to learn a line from sheet music and spend months on a total wild goose trail before seeing a video of a song or piece and realising that an open string has been used for facilitating an awkward jump. There are a limitless number of these problems and, as most players are aware, these occasions are really common. It’s at these moments when I see tablature as the perfect solution to a problem that sheet music fails to solve.
Tablature is also a great way to demonstrate various fingerings for different scale and arpeggio patterns. The beauty of the tablature system is that it complements regular notation so well. Something that neck diagrams do not.
So, even though I feel a little like the devil’s advocate in putting up a fight for tab and fretboard patterns I think it’s always worth providing a complete, unbiased teaching of a subject and I don’t see how putting a blanket BAD sign above certain musical doorways can be helpful. It’s much more helpful to demonstrate how these avenues can be used as a supplement to regular study while concentrating on the meat and potatoes of standard music teaching.