Topics of Jazz double bass education


Following my experiences as a teacher, talking to colleagues from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, interviewing other teachers and writers of method books and talking to students, I analysed the different topics that a Jazz double bass player will have to learn in order to become a complete and versatile Jazz bass player. I designed a graphical theoretical framework to visually organize the different topics. This assisted me in maintaining an overview while researching existing methods.1


The 11 main topics to consider are:

  1. Jazz bass skills
  2. Technique
  3. Theory
  4. Rhythm
  5. Musicianship skills
  6. Repertoire
  7. Ensemble playing
  8. Improvisation
  9. Artistry
  10. Historic awareness
  11. Meta skills


I used this graphical theoretical model to study and review the chosen methods and to make a graphic representation of which topics were covered by a particular method.



 Topic descriptions:

Jazz bass skills (walking bass, comping, soloing, melodies)

This is the skillset Jazz double bass players need in their daily practice. Playing walking bass lines, other forms of accompaniment in other styles than standard Jazz, soloing/improvising over chord changes and playing melodies.

These elements form the core of most bass lessons and are, to some extend, covered in most books, although the element of playing melodies is often neglected.

Technique (instrumental techniques, posture, body awareness)

This covers all technical aspects of bass playing, from physical aspects like posture, fingering, left and right hand, musical aspects like scales and arpeggios and sound, but also instrument technical aspects of the construction of the bass and the set-up of strings.

Many books focus on scales, intervals, arpeggios and other scale and harmony related exercises. Less attention is given to posture, sound and intonation. In video lessons this has much more focus as this medium is also more suited to address these skills.

Theory (harmony, analysis, scales…)

Jazz music is based on relatively complex harmonies. As Jazz musicians have to improvise using these harmonies, they need to have a well-developed sense of music theory. Bass players have to be able to analyse chord changes, have a good sense of harmony and knowledge of scales and modes.

In general, most methods discuss the basics of harmony and theory. In a music school/conservatoire environment these skills are trained in separate theory classes but also are addressed in the individual bass lessons.

Rhythm (groove, timing, meter, phrasing)

Another important ingredient of Jazz is rhythm which can be divided in groove, timing, meter and phrasing. Groove is a term used to describe propulsive rhythm or sense of “swing" used in Jazz accompaniment.2 Jazz timing is the way eight notes are played, somewhere between straight eight notes and a triplet feel, depending on the tempo and style. This is something that cannot be notated precisely and has to be learned by copying and transcription of historical recordings. Jazz uses a lot of rhythmical metric variations, odd meter, additional and divisive rhythms3 that can be developed by practicing a wide array of rhythmical skills from different related cultures (African, South American, Indian, European). Phrasing is the way Jazz musicians take the liberty to vary the timing of the written melody and the way improvisational phrases are played.

Because of the notation issue most written methods put less focus on these elements. In video lessons this is much more discussed. In one of one lessons this is often discussed topic.


Musicianship skills (reading music, play piano, ear training)

This is a selection of skills that are not necessarily bass related but are to be trained in order to develop as a complete player. These are skills all musicians will need to develop.

In a music school/conservatoire environment these skills are trained in separate classes but also are addressed in the individual bass lessons. In some of the more elaborate methods (books and on line) some attention is given tot these topics.


Repertoire (Jazz, standards and related styles)

In its relative short history of approximately one hundred years, Jazz has been developing in many styles and variations. Different time periods and different geographical areas have contributed to a rich and varied repertoire. A good bass player knows how to adapt to the different styles and adjust his playing style accordingly.

This was one of the things that struck me most from my research, that the majority of the methods give little attention to repertoire and styles. Luckily, some methods are putting their main focus on this. In one on one lessons this is a topic that is unusually very important.


Ensemble playing (playing in different settings, different styles)

One of the most essential ways to learn to play Jazz is in playing together with other musicians. Hein van de Geyn stated in his interview that it is like playing soccer4. You can practice playing the ball at home as much as you want, the real goal is playing in a team. A good bass player can play in different settings, like piano trio, big band, Jazz quintet and knows how to accompany accordingly.

This is a topic that is less suitable for method books but is addressed in some online methods and is often addressed in school situations.


Improvisation (melodic, harmonic, modal, non-western)

Improvisation is, of course, an important aspect, if not the most important aspect of Jazz. In fact, Jazz is a certain style of improvisation. But it is also important to understand other ways of musical improvisation. Jazz often merges with other style forms and cultures like modal music, Afro-Cuban, Indian music and Arabic/Persian music.


Artistry (artistic development, improvisation)

Creativity is crucial part of the development of the student but often ignored in method books, and maybe rightfully so. This might not be a topic that can be taught in a methodic approach. It is a personal learning process. Some books, Like Hein van de Geyn’s method, do attempt to make a start with this by addressing also more philosophical issues.


Historic awareness (instrumental, Jazz history, playing styles)

The history of Jazz is relatively short but in that brief history many developments have occurred, and many different playing styles have developed.

To my surprise most method books pay very little attention to Jazz history. Only a few books use a historical approach, like the book of Jazz Bass Book by John Goldsby. In my interview with Tineke Steenbrink, an early music specialist and harpsichord teacher, she confirmed that most methods written in the time of early music and Baroque were also not referring to its historical context. While one is part of a certain era and style the historic relevance seems to be of less importance. It might be overlooked because most elements of the music are so embedded in the culture of the era and they are taken for granted.


Meta skills (organisational skills, learning process, reflection, practice skills)

This topic covers all the extra-musical skills that are needed to be a successful, self-learning student. This topic is addressed in very few methods, like Hein van de Geyn’s Comprehensive Bass Method and John Patitucci’s online bass method.

Using the graphical theoretical framework gave me an insight in the similarities and differences between the methods I researched. For example, it was interesting to see that almost all of the methods were focusing on the technical aspects and at playing walking bass lines and many of these methods also discussed music theory but much less of a focus was placed on rhythm, history, and creativity. By the nature of the one directional aspect of most methods there was hardly any focus on ensemble playing and interplay.


jazz double bass

in the

21st century

By Tony Overwater