Marshall Wilborn, bass player for the Lynn Morris Band, recently said it best. "It all begins and ends with the timing." That pretty much sums up the role of the bass player in bluegrass music, and that notion is reinforced in premier bassman Mark Schatz's instructional videos from the crew at Homespun Video.
From his long musical association with Tony Rice to his current work with Tim O'Brien and the O'Boys, Schatz has carved out a stellar reputation as one of the finest bass players in bluegrass music. He does every bit as well as a teacher. While there are plenty of hot licks here to learn, Schatz covers a wide range of techniques and topics, yet he always emphasizes the importance of putting timing first.
The first tape dives right in to the mechanical details, starting with left hand technique and mixing in a tiny bit of music theory. With the theory as background, the student will be ready for the later discussion of intervals and scales which Schatz puts to use in finding passing notes between chords. This part of the tape will probably be easier if the student has some musical background, but his presentation is clear and not overly detailed. He goes on to show how to use right hand placement and picking styles to vary the sound from the instrument and gives several nifty exercises to increase dexterity with the right hand. There is even a short mention of using a bow, rare to nonexistent in bluegrass, as a training method for developing fluidity with the left hand.
Intonation on fretless instruments is one of the hardest things to teach, especially without an instructor there to nag you when you drift off, so Schatz stresses critical listening while you play. It seems almost silly to say that you have to listen when you play, except that it's easy for a beginner to concentrate so hard on what they're playing that they forget to listen to the other instruments.
Once finished with the mechanics of each hand and with a background of theory to build on, Schatz takes off into showing how it all works in context. Ably assisted by banjo player Richard Bailey and state-of-the-art guitar wizard David Grier, Schatz develops a series of more and more elaborate bass lines. This part of the tape could easily have been called "101 Ways To Play Blue Ridge Cabin Home", but it shows how to build passing notes between chords in a number of different ways, all using the same song. Each step adds different color and rhythmic emphasis to the old bluegrass chestnut.
The first time through the tape may be confusing for a beginner - Schatz doesn't show the basic quarter-note pattern for the three chords in the song, but thanks to the miracle of video rewind and some nice split-screen camera work, you can find it. It's one of the advantages of having the lessons on video.
The tape winds up with a couple of bass lines from out in left field, one chromatic and one which starts on the 3rd of the scale, rather than the root. They're food for thought more than anything else, encouraging the student to look for other licks to add to their bag of tricks. There's something here for every one, beginner or not.
The second tape is a whirlwind tour of songs and styles. Schatz uses the tune Ginseng Sullivan to show how the bass line can follow the melody. He also shows several ways of playing in 3/4 time, using songs like Blue Railroad Train, Cry, Cry Darling and White Dove. This time signature is one of those areas where beginners often have trouble getting comfortable, and the time Schatz spends on the topic is a good investment.
A fair portion of the tape is devoted to some of the flashier points of bass playing. He shows how to play that nice walking rhythm in Foggy Mountain Special and illustrates several ways to incorporate some very tasty slap bass into your bag of tricks. Pay special attention to the unnamed rockabilly duet between Grier and Schatz. It's a killer!
The tape winds up with a valuable discussion of dynamics, sound reinforcement and of fitting the bass work into the overall sound. In fact, he does a fine job of emphasizing tasteful playing throughout both tapes.
The overall feel of the tapes is friendly and approachable. There's no pretentious "snob" attitude here, yet Schatz's classical training shows through. He doesn't teach left hand patterns. He doesn't mention the common "L" and "Inverted L" patterns that many bass players use, nor even how the relative separation of the notes changes as you move up the neck. It's probably a matter of taste, but patterns can be useful. For example, they make it much easier to transpose keys. Given his emphasis on listening, and the fact that you can endlessly replay the tape, they aren't critical omissions although they might help a complete novice get up and playing in the first few minutes.
What might be more distressing, at least in a group situation, is that there is no mention of damping off notes until the end of the second tape. I imagine we could be inflicted with a whole generation of long, sustained, rumbling bass notes, coming from bass students who have only worked through the first tape. It's also worth noting that the review copy of the first tape suffers from an audio defect. The sound from the bass is overmodulated and distorted. There's no way to tell if it's bad miking or a bad copy. More than anything else, it's a annoyance in an otherwise fine product.
This is an excellent instructional series, with something for everyone, beginner or not. The camera work is excellent, the presentation clear and well paced. Beginners will really want both tapes, though. There aren't many tunes in the first one, so you're mostly seeing how to fit different interpretations within the same context. The more experienced musician will find much more on the second tape to use. Mark Schatz and the folks at Homespun are to be commended on a fine, educational product.