One of the most useful music columns I ever read was in a guitar magazine in the mid 90s. I don’t remember the magazine (possibly Guitar World) and I don’t remember the guitarist that wrote the column but this one small tip will always stay with me and will always provide new inspiration for practice when my passion is low or I’m all out of ideas.
The column basically pointed out that your practice can be most productive when enforcing limitations on yourself. This can be realised in any number of ways and that’s the diverse beauty of the approach. An extreme example would be to take a line or scale or arpeggio or anything you are working on and play it with only your fretting hand. Or you could limit yourself to staying on one particular string. Or you could limit yourself to only staying within a radius of ‘x’ number of frets. Anything goes and you are the boss.
It’s so easy to fall into standardised or systemised methods of learning music. Every bass player or guitarist has pretty much the same initiatory experience of playing a major scale and we all generally learn the same one octave pattern starting on the 2nd finger of the fretting hand. From that point on we tend to learn scales and every other bit of ‘pattern’ based material in a similar box shape way. There are exceptions depending on the teacher or teaching method you’ve used but it only takes a quick glance through some bass tuition material in a music store or online to see the abundance of common patterns. There’s nothing wrong with this but to learn your fretboard and neck as a whole (which is generally the aim of most bassists) you really need to move out of the habit of working across the neck and convert to working both across and up and down the neck.
On the face of it, changing this mindset seems like it would require a broadening of the practice method as you try to see many more notes all over the neck. This is true in terms of the bigger picture but the process of getting to this point is actually better realised by limiting the areas in which you practice. If you embark on assimilating too much information at once you can find yourself in a state of bewilderment, randomly thrashing around as you grope desperately through the fog of new information.
By limiting the areas you choose to practice it allows you to evaluate your progress a little easier because there are less factors to keep track of and it also serves to cut a large musical topic down into bite size chunks that are more easily digested.
As an example, you could choose to concentrate your practice on a specific couple of neck positions and the movement between them. You could limit this further by concentrating on the individual position shifts between the two areas. You could also try limiting yourself to staying on only 2 strings. This general approach forces you to work within boundaries and play in a way that might be quite alien to you. The more you can fine tune your area of practice the less the chance of getting lost in a topic and losing focus. Concepts For Bass Soloing by Chuck Sher and Marc Johnson is a brilliant resource for acquiring hundreds of practice ideas, all of which demonstrate a limitation of your mindset in some way.
In my early days of playing when I was desperately trying to be the next Billy Sheehan, I used to practice playing one handed all the time just to build my fretting hand strength. In hindsight it would be easy for me to be dismissive of my immature younger self and see this as a purely ego driven, flamboyant technique exercise. However, there is more to one handed playing than simple hand strength. You also instinctively strive to recreate the tone and attack of your fingerpicked playing and I’ve since had many experiences on stage when playing one handed has helped me recover from problems when I’ve required a free hand to fix or address something like an amp setting or a page turn or even a passing handshake while keeping the groove in motion. Because of the limitation I’d forced upon myself in practice I was able to confidently take the initiative on the fly in a natural and controlled manner, addressing a pitfall or action I would never have thought about beforehand.
These two examples of limiting your practice regime are very different in nature but show the diversity of the approach.
So next time you find yourself in a practice rut, try putting some new limits on yourself and view your playing from a new perspective.
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