O N BASS
Breaking Out of The Box
When I was in my first high school band, I was So what’s the solution? Time to break out
clueless how to solo. I mostly just slid up and of the box!
down the guitar strings with little sense of
what to do. Then a friend showed me how to
solo with the box method—you know, 1st fret,
4th fret, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, etc., with the box
anchored to the root note on the E string.
The box worked great for basic guitar stuff,
since my solos now had more of the right
notes. I even bought a book that added
two more boxes up the neck. That was better, but ultimately, still confining—I was a
prisoner of that box.
When I play string bass, there are clear landmarks to help find my way around—D on the
G string is right over the curve of the neck
heel, for example. In between there and the
nut, my left hand acts a little bit like a measuring caliper to find all the other notes. Likewise,
I can move upward from the D to the octave
through some calculated stretches.
you’ve stuck with me, you probably are able
to read music at least a little, but even if you
don’t read, thinking about the fingerboard
this way will help you stretch your range.
Think about the electric bass, though—it’s a
big, long stick with lots of dots along its whole
length. And when you get to the octave,
you’re still not up to the neck heel. In other
words, the electric bass lacks the physical
landmarks of the string bass and there isn’t
much time to find all the dots on the neck
while reading all the dots on the page.
Building a Better Box
In a way, you’re still in a box with this
method. But while the usual box method
would keep you stuck down near the nut
within a fairly narrow range that anchors on
the E and A strings, starting with octaves
helps you cope with both range and reading. Essentially, you’re anchoring from above
rather than from below.
When I switched to electric bass, a variation
of the box method moved with me. It served
its purpose of helping find the one, four, five
in whatever key I was playing in. Add in some
scale movement and the box makes bass
playing easier. And again, it enhances the
likelihood of hitting the right notes.
Don’t Fence Me In!
The box method, however, hits its limits when
it comes time to read music. And it’s of little
help for music that has a bigger range than
its narrow four-fret confines. These problems
really reared their ugly heads recently when I
started working with The Latin Bass Book (by
Stagnara and Sher). The music in this book
covers quite a bit of the neck within just one
tune, from the lower regions on the E string
clear up to the octave on the G string. You
have to read pretty quickly and with a lot of
accuracy or the musicians on the play-along
CD leave you in the dust.
Gonna Take You Higher…
To start playing in the higher regions, start
with the octave, which is easy to find on most
necks because of the double dot markers.
That’s your key landmark and you can find
the octave G pretty easily. From there, it’s not
much trouble to use your left hand to measure down a couple of frets to F, and then
another fret down to E. When you can locate
those notes predictably, you’re on your way.
Here’s another example of this approach.
Consider a bass line that starts on an F inside
the bass clef staff and works up an octave—
that’s two frets below the octave on the G
string. Playing within the old box method,
you would automatically guide off of F on the
E string, and then jump up an octave to start
this bass line on the third fret of the D string.
But doing this would create a precarious skip
up to the high F.
That’s when a knowledge of basic intervals
comes in handy. Using the notes near the
octave as a guide, you can easily find the 5th
one string below. The 4th is just a couple
of frets farther down, and then the root sits
on the same fret one more string below. If
It would be easier instead to start the first F
on the eighth fret of the A string, but nearly
as precarious to find your way by moving
up. That’s where using the octave as a guide
comes in. Because the octave is easier to find
quickly, anchor from the high F—two frets
below the octave G—and you’ll automatically
land on the F on the A string, two strings and
two frets away.
And, of course, you can find the 5 easily
along the way, right between the two F notes
as you always would—one string below the
octave at the same fret.
I think you can get the idea—now it’s time to
do a little woodshedding and break out of
the box. Learn the names of the notes a few
frets above and below the octave on the D
and G strings, keep your octaves and fifths in
mind as you do. You’ll have broken out of the
old box and found a new way to keep your
playing on target at the same time.
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun
goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in
blues, jazz and pit settings.