Instrument Pack: Bass

Bass Instrument PackThe bass Instrument Pack provides video tutorials and practice MP3s to add instrument-specific guidance to the core musicality training provided at Musical U.

Resident Pro: Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson is renowned above all else for his creativity and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on the bass. He has published over a dozen solo albums, regularly performs live, is a respected thought-leader on the future of music education, and is currently doing a PhD on the topic of improvisation. Steve is known worldwide for his pioneering work in solo bass, employing techniques and technology to create fascinatingly rich recordings and live performances that sound nothing like you might expect from a bass guitar.

Resource Pack Previews

Every month we release a new Resource Pack for bass. Here are previews of the packs so far:

Pack 1: Beginning Improvisation

Improvisation on bass can go far beyond a simple turnaround fill or technique-heavy solo. In this first pack our Resident Pro for bass, Steve Lawson introduces an easy and practical way to get started, as well as some insightful tips on the mindset you should take to exploring improv on bass.


  • How to approach improvisation
  • How to gradually develop your improv skills
  • Thinking in terms of a grid of notes, not just a linear sequence
  • Two starting exercises and other interesting ways to explore this pattern
  • MP3 tracks demonstrating two styles and providing backing tracks for you to experiment with

With these specific exercises (and the large number of interesting musical variations Steve introduces to expand on them), combined with the overall approach he teaches, you will be well equipped to begin creating your own licks and lines and start taking real ownership of what you play on bass.

Pack 2: The Major Pentatonic

The major pentatonic pops up in basslines across a variety of genres and that makes it a powerful tool for the bassist who wants to improvise, write their own lines, or play basslines by ear. Steve dives deep into the several different ways you’ll encounter this scale being used – and shows you how to get familiar with them all – through fun and creative playing exercises.


  • Where you’ve heard the major pentatonic before on bass.
  • The useful connection between the pentatonic and the chords of a key.
  • Different ways to play through the notes of the scale to internalise its potential uses.
  • Finding the root note in different positions of the scale.
  • Using certain notes as “pivot” notes in your riffs and lines.
  • MP3 practice tracks to experiment with the major and minor pentatonic in different keys and styles.

As always Steve brings an extensive knowledge of bass history and a creative mindset to learning the practical skills, making this a far more interesting and valuable tutorial on the major pentatonic than the traditional purely-theory-based way of teaching it. Get your Motown groove on!

Pack 3: Audiation

If there’s a bassist who’s truly free of the improvisation-by-numbers that traps many musicians it’s Steve Lawson, and in this month’s video tutorial he explains how singing can be the key to getting there yourself:


  • Why sing every exercise you do on bass.
  • Different ways to practice singing and audiation using scales, including a Dorian mode example.
  • How this leads to you improvising in a whole new way.
  • Example songs and basslines you can practice with.
  • Using your voice to help you figure things out by ear.

Finding the right notes by ear becomes much easier when you use audiating and singing as stepping-stones and the more you practice with the exercises Steve teaches, the sooner you’ll be able to play the right notes first time, every time.

Pack 4: Scale Degree Recognition

The bassist typically plays a certain role in a band and in this Resource Pack Steve presents a view on scale degree recognition that’s unique to bassists.

Steve explains how recognising scale degrees based on the key or current chord can help you figure out basslines by ear (or create your own), and introduces several exercises to help you develop this skill.


  • The two ways to apply scale degree recognition for basslines
  • Exercises to help you tune in to the root note movement, whatever the full harmony might be doing
  • How scale degree recognition can help you playing a specific bassline by ear or coming up with your own to suit the progression
  • An everyday activity you can do without your bass to help you improve
  • MP3 Practice Tracks providing chord progressions to try figuring out by ear

Pack 5: I-IV-V Chord Progressions

In this pack Steve dives deep into the various ways basslines can connect to the chords in a song and showed a practical method you can use to learn to recognise these progressions reliably at the same time as learning to play them.


  • The musical function of these three chords and what to listen for
  • Why it’s not (always) as simple as just listening for the root note movement
  • Five ways basslines are built on progressions like this and how to learn to use and recognise each of them
  • MP3 Practice Tracks for practicing building each of these types of bassline over various progressions using the I, IV and V chords

Pack 6: Rhythmic Precision

True to form Steve took what could have been a very formulaic topic – how bassists get good at rhythm – and stripped it down to what really matters, musically.


  • Why rhythmic “precision” is really more about rhythmic “control”
  • How listeners’ expectations about rhythmic timing have changed over the years
  • A powerful exercise that both trains your “inner metronome” and gives you the space needed to make your rhythms musically expressive
  • A long backing track MP3 with a selection of licks you can use to train this skill

In this Resource Pack Steve makes clear why having good rhythm on bass is about more than playing like a robot, and how you can develop a truly musical ear for rhythm.

Pack 7: The Power of Dynamics

In this pack, Steve breaks down the topic of dynamics into control and variation, how you can and should train your fingers (and ears) to produce exactly the volumes you intend to bring out the desired musical expression on bass.


  • Dynamic Control: Fingering techniques that will created accented and unaccented notes.
  • Dynamic Variation: Levels of dynamics and playing techniques that can produce different dynamic results.
  • Mechanical Control: How to use equipment to control dynamics.
  • Practice MP3s demonstrating techniques used for dynamics for you to practice with.

Bassists are often underappreciated when it comes to dynamics due to the widespread reliance on compressor pedals and expectation that notes are as consistent and unvaried dynamically as possible – but Steve cracks that assumption wide open and shows what’s really possible for you.

Pack 8: Improvising with Chord Tones

What exactly are chord tones?  Resident Pro Steve Lawson demonstrates truly innovative ways to think about and practice chord tone improvisation:


  • What exactly are chord tones? (The answer may surprise you…)
  • Ways to navigate around every note in the chord.
  • Why harmonic function matters.
  • A fascinating star diagram that will have you thinking about chords and scales in a whole new way.
  • Chord progression exercises and MP3 tracks.

In this resource pack, you’ll learn to wield the ruling power of the bass to decide chord quality and how to go deep in both your hearing and playing with chord tones.

Pack 9: Syncopation

The bass is often called upon to punch up the rhythms in the low end. Resident Pro Steve Lawson takes you on a syncopated journey through the various beats and off-beats of a musical measure:


  • Defining Syncopation: What is it? Why is it important for bassists?
  • Metronome Practice: Exercises that will help you get a strong internal sense of the beat.
  • Shifting Syncopation: Exercises that shift syncopation to different beats.
  • A bass insider’s articulation tip to tighten up your syncopated rhythms.
  • Jam your syncopated bass lines with a beautiful MP3 backing track.

Once you’ve worked through this pack, you’ll have a deeper understanding and control of just where to place your bass for the desired rhythmic effects.

Pack 10: Swing Rhythm

The bass plays a unique part in swing, holding down a walking bass line. But even that straight 4/4 groove has to swing! As you bass-heads know, everybody’s counting on you and the details make all the difference. Join Resident Pro Steve Lawson as he takes you on a bass “walk to remember” through Swingtown:


  • Swing Basics: Differentiation between the theoretical and the stylistic/applicable.
  • Different Types of Swing: Swing feel (4/4), shuffle (12/8), and walking bass swing styles.
  • The Walking Bass: How to play the most prevalent swing bass pattern.
  • Practice Exercises and Backing Tracks: combining typical chord progressions with swing explorations

With this Swing Rhythms pack, you’ll learn how bass holds down the foundation and keeps the music swinging. Steve also points out that not all swing is created equal (ok, by definition none of it is equal – but we’re talking swing styles here). So Steve’s important stylistic tips will make sure you don’t wear out your welcome at the jam session.

Pack 11: Improvising with Phrasing and Vocabulary

Many beginning improvisers mistakenly believe that you have to reinvent the wheel each time you take a solo.  Resident Pro Steve Lawson Improv demonstrates that improvisation is about bringing together your decision-making process, and your (bass-specific) musical vocabulary, not inventing new things every time you play.


  • How to get your improviser’s attitude together before you start playing.
  • How to fit in with a genre with stylistic and idiomatic improvisation
  • How to expand a whole solo from just one note
  • Other improv techniques that maintain continuity and cohesiveness
  • Beautiful backing tracks for your practicing pleasure

Whether you’re frying up some funk or plunking down some pentatonics, learn how to expand your creativity without sounding like a musical “alien” with Steve’s take on improvisational vocabulary.

Pack 12: Intervals

Intervals naturally inhabit nearly all musical environments, including the diatonic scale. Resident Pro Steve Lawson demonstrates how to explore your the inner workings of the major scale on your bass fretboard:


  • Intervals and Diatonic Music – How we think about intervals in relation to understanding and playing in a specific key.
  • Several patterns and exercises for navigating all the notes in any major key.
  • Intervals and Harmony – How the interval of a third can allow us to play new patterns in any key, and give us access to extended arpeggio shapes.
  • How to move fluidly from any note in a key to any other note.
  • Beautiful backing tracks in different keys and styles to put it all in a musical context.

Intervals are inherent in the basic structure of the bass as an instrument, as well as the diatonic scale that underlies so much of our music. Learning them with Steve will help you bring them out creatively and grow your musical ears.

Pack 13: The Blues

The blues breaks the old rules of functional harmony – and yet still sounds great! Resident Pro Steve Lawson gives you the theory and practice of blues bass, along with specific ways to construct blues bass lines and more on the specific rhythmic qualities imparted by the bass:


  • The chord progression that all blues is derived from.
  • How the blues differs from our previous understanding of “functional harmony.”
  • The unique way the blues treats the distinction between major and minor chords.
  • A range of patterns that allow us to create blues bass lines – each of them written out for you as well.
  • Practice MP3s for different types of blues “feel”.

Break into new harmonic territory and learn to hold down the foundation in any blues jam with Steve’s blues pack.

Pack 14: Major and Minor

In this resource pack, Resident Bass Pro Steve Lawson begins by looking at the three primary major/minor distinctions – interval, chord and tonality/key

Then the focus turns to chords: recognising them, playing the arpeggios, hearing the difference, and then looking at how both major and minor chords appear in a major key:


  • Three positions for a C major Triad and three positions for a D minor triad (and how to transpose these patterns to other chords).
  • Building a lexicon of ways to play each pattern on the neck, depending on the context and the sound that you are looking for.
  • Looking at – and practicing – what happens to the major and minor qualities when you change the bass-note.
  • Where the major and minor chords appear in the key of C Major, and any major key.
  • Practice MP3s with backing tracks to explore these concepts through patterns and improvisation.

Bassists have the power to decide minor or major with just one note. Hearing these qualities and knowing where they are on the fretboard will help you create the sound that you’re looking for.

Pack 15: Timbre

Timbre is one of Resident Bass Pro Steve Lawson‘s favorite topics! Rather than going down the rabbit hole of pedals and effects (of which he has many), Steve focuses on the techniques and tricks right there in your hands and on bass, and produces a vast array of timbres before beginning to stomp on a pedal:


  • How it is that every musician is a sound designer!
  • The three main areas where your sound is defined:
    1. your technique,
    2. your bass and
    3. the signal path for your amplifier and effects.
  • Some of the most useful and commonly used techniques for modifying the timbre of your bass to suit specific lines.
  • How the controls on our bass help us to shape the sound further.
  • What difference your choice of strings makes to the sound of your bass.
  • MP3s demonstrating specific lines in different styles and what you can do to match your timbre to the style and other instruments.

Steve is passionate about timbre, and you will be too once you’ve opened your ears to the possibilities he demonstrates in this awesome Timbre Resource Pack.

Pack 16: Chord Voicing

Typically, bass players tend to play one note at a time. But Resident Bass Pro Steve Lawson‘ demonstrates that with a few simple chord shapes, you can expand your harmonic expression whether playing alone or with a group. Plus, learning chords on the bass deepens your harmonic understanding of the fretboard when you do go back to single notes:


  • The one shape you need to start playing chords over any major or minor chord.
  • Explore both closed and open voicing for triads – both major and minor chords.
  • Harmonize the C Major scale so you can start using major and minor thirds around the neck of the bass!
  • Three MP3 tracks demonstrate how to play the chords in a musical context, and double as backing tracks for your own chords and improv.

Watch, learn and practice as Steve demonstrates how to expand your bass playing into the chord zone.

Pack 17: Play it with feeling!

We often spend our practice time focusing on technique, exercises, working out difficult passages – and then we wonder why that connection with our inner feeling selves doesn’t quite come through in performance. Steve Lawson, our Resident Pro for bass, brings the idea of playing with feeling into the practice room in unexpected ways, as he shows you how to create more enjoyable, satisfying, and musical experiences in the practice room that will transfer to more meaningful and passionate performances:


  • The power of finishing something – starting small, and bringing a creative process all the way to its conclusion.
  • Fixing what you need to fix in your playing while creating something beautiful.
  • Changing it up – keeping yourself out of a rut by shifting your approach.
  • Collaborating with others – giving and receiving feedback from other bassists to keep your attitude fresh.
  • MP3s tracks for you to explore your creative strategies.

Bassists are often the journeymen of the music world, expected to lay down an unwavering groove while the other musicians take all the glory. While this is an important skill, practicing creativity, and creatively practicing will strengthen your bond with your bass and flavor all of your playing with your own expression.

Pack 18: Improvisation 1, 2, 3

Why improvise with only 3 notes!? Because limiting your note choices will refocus your mind on many other aspects of your playing and creativity that make your playing sound much more musical.  Steve Lawson, our Resident Pro for bass, takes us on a systematic tour of three-note improv that will bring a deeper sense of musicality to everything you play:


  • learn how to improvise with three notes!
  • learn all the possible combinations of those three notes as patterns for improv.
  • begin thinking about the relationship between phrasing and implied harmony
  • using rhythmic combinations to add variety and interest to a limited range of notes
  • extending our phrases through repeated notes
  • using a shifting bass note to completely change the feel of a melody
  • repeating phrases for dramatic effect
  • MP3 backing tracks to your new jam skills

Who says bassists have to sit in the corner while everyone else gets the glory? With just three notes you bring your improv out front.

Pack 19: Harmonic Tension and Release

Steve Lawson, our Resident Pro for bass, guides us through a musical world of intriguing opposites –

  • tension and release
  • question and answer
  • consonance and dissonance
  • back and forth
  • moving away and coming back
  • expectation and confirmation
  • ambiguity and directness

In the process, we will learn how harmonic tension and release fit within the grand scheme of music:


  • How harmonic tension and resolution can be top-down or bottom-up.
  • The special role of bass players in determining the harmony.
  • What basslines do to the harmony.
  • What melodies do with the harmony.
  • Ear-opening exercises that demonstrate the principles of tension and release for bass players.
  • Custom MP3 tracks, TAB, and scores for each exercise.

Whether playing basslines or melody, bass players exert a powerful control over the harmonic structure of the music. Steve will show you how to wield this power with wisdom and authority!

Pack 20: I, IV, V, vi Chord Progressions

It’s nothing short of amazing what a working aural and practical knowledge of just four chords – the I, IV, V, and vi chords – can do in terms of you being able to play many thousands of songs by ear.

Steve Lawson, our Resident Pro for bass, helps you make that ear-to-instrument connection:


  • Why these four chords are important – especially in pop music.
  • What we can do to help us recognize the I, IV, V and vi.
  • How to recognize the movement between the chords.
  • How to come up with basslines that connect them in interesting ways.
  • Six exercises to sensitize your ear to the harmonic shifts between pairs of chords, then all six chords.
  • Scores for suggested basslines for all the exercises.
  • Six MP3 tracks in various styles for practicing the given basslines and inventing your own.

Learn to play thousands of songs by ear and come up with your own cool I-IV-V-vi chord progression basslines with Steve’s ears-to-fretboard techniques.

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