Steve Lawson has been described as “one of the most gifted solo bass players on the planet” and has published more than a dozen albums over the last decade. He teaches bass guitar and runs “Beyond Bass Camp” masterclasses. He’s known as a thought leader on the future of the music industry and music education, and earlier this year took part in the Future of Musicianship event in London.

He somehow managed to find time alongside all that to answer a few questions from us on our current topic of playing by ear.

Steve, thanks for joining us here on Let’s jump right in – could you tell us a bit about your own music education growing up, and what part aural skills and playing by ear had in your learning the bass?

I started out – as so many kids do in the UK – with instrumental lessons in school, on the classical model. So it was 15-minute lessons, with no ear training at all, on violin and then trumpet. There was no attempt at all to connect what I was playing with what I was hearing outside the classroom, and I, like so many, gave up.

I then got a bass guitar for my 14th birthday, and did the opposite. Set about learning from friends, trying to get bits from records. But I struggled because all the language I had about music was about dots on a page, not sounds in my head. So I had no systematic way to connect what I was playing with how it sounded, without first going through dots… I had some really messed up ideas about music for quite a few years after I first started playing bass! 

We started this series on the site with an post arguing that any musician can learn to play by ear, and that the best way to do so is to try, and try again. Is that something you agree with? Or do you think musicians are naturally born as “by ear” or “from sheet music” players?

I’m not a fan of blaming nature for any of our musical biases. I think it’s far more random than that, and for most people the problem is about the method of learning, or more specifically, the appropriateness of the teaching.

I struggled because all the language I had about music was about dots on a page, not sounds in my head.

Whether you’re a logic-person or a visual-person or an emotional-person, there are sets of metaphors for what we’re doing as musicians that will enable you to connect with playing by ear, or by dots, or improvising, as a non-alien concept within your existing frame of reference. From there, we can build new metaphors, new sets of labels, new context etc.

Do bassists have a particular relationship with playing by ear? Is it more or less important for them than, say, a guitar or piano player?

The bit that’s MUCH harder for bassists is that, if you change the root, you change the music.

If a guitarist plays, for example, an Emin chord instead of a C, so long as the bassist is still playing C, everyone’s going to hear CMajor7. As soon as we change, everything else does too!

So it’s not about the instrument, but about the role of “playing the lowest note, and as such defining the harmony” – If the pianist is playing the roots, and we’re improvising melodically, then the same set of ear-skills apply as for anyone else playing melody.

But, given that most of the time in bands, the bassist is the one playing the lowest note, our ear skills need to be sharper and our response time quicker to make sure that we’re both in time and playing the right note from the range of possible notes in the key we’re in!

A lot of children start learning music with the violin or piano, seemingly by default. How does bass guitar stand up as an alternative first instrument? Is it a good choice of instrument for a new music student who wants to focus on aural skills and playing by ear?

Steve Lawson (Photo: rohsstreetcafe@Flickr)Why we ever started kids out on violin is beyond me – it’s an almost impossibly difficult instrument to play well. I’ve heard ‘pros’ whose intonation made my eyeballs hurt. What chance have kids with no other musical background got of not making a horrible noise? You need a your perseverance to outstrip your own desire to stop making a bad noise to get past those first few years of horrible-noise-making to graduate to where you can play well…

I applaud anyone who does – because played well, violin is a glorious instrument. But it’s no wonder that something like 90% of kids who play an instrument at school give up before they leave high school! 

Bass is a GREAT first instrument, largely because it’s so easy to pick up. The first few things you learn to do on a bass are really simple, and you can be playing along with U2 records within an hour of first picking up a bass…

It is, however, much harder to master, as there’s no set repertoire in the way there is for most other instruments – if you go anywhere other than deeper into the ‘bass player’s role’ within ‘band music’, you’re pretty much on your own.

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of other people who’ve done it, it’s just that none of the material is canonical, so you really need to make some decisions about what influences you’re going to take on board. As such, ear playing becomes really important, because so little of the massive range of possible influence is actually scored at all. You just need to buy records, go to gigs, get on YouTube and start learning by ear. 

Do you think playing by ear is neglected in traditional instrument teaching? Is it something which should be taught as a separate skill, or integrated into instrument learning?

It seems to be to be utterly integral to our relationship with music.

The huge problem with the way that many many traditional music learning paths go is that they encourage students to be ‘right’, to differentiate between getting it ‘right’ and getting it ‘wrong’. Which leaves the musician wholly out of step with a contemporary music audience, because unless you’re pla