An Advanced bassist knows their instruments like the back of their hand. In fact, some of them are so comfortable playing the bass that they don`t even need to look at it. So how is this even possible and how do you play bass without seeing the fretboard?
Playing the bass without looking at the fretboard requires knowledge of where every note is located, and the muscle memory to fret them intuitively. This can be attained by practicing scales and finger permutations, and by learning how to sight-read.
While there are no shortcuts, there are routines you can practice to get better at playing bass without looking at your hands.
Therefore, I`ve compiled the 5 best ones in this article to help you out. They will help you take your eyes off the bass when your play, and make it less likely that you make mistakes when you do so.
1. Practice Scales
By practicing and memorizing various scales you will familiarize yourself with every part of your fretboard. The knowledge and muscle memory you will develop from this is the cornerstone that will allow you to not look down when you play.
The vast majority of music is written in a major or major scale. Therefore, I recommend focusing on these two scales at first.
Here is how a major scale looks on the fretboard. Notice that playing it one step higher retains the same pattern of the scale, but changes the key:
The same idea applies to the minor scale. They share a similar pattern to major scales, but the 3rd, 6th, and 7th steps are a half-step lower:
I recommend practicing these two scales at different spots on the fretboard. Start by ascending and descending them, and then move on to getting comfortable playing them in various patterns.
In time, this will make the major and minor scales second nature. This will lead to you knowing what notes you are playing and how you are playing them, which means you won`t have to look down to make sure.
2. Practice Finger Permutations
Finger permutations are helpful for developing coordination and control of your fingers. When I first started taking lessons I had to do these all the time. While I found them boring, I can now say that they have also been incredibly helpful.
These easy bass exercises consist of playing strings up and down in various finger patterns. You can do this with 2, 3, or 4 fingers. Here are some examples of 2 finger permutations:
With 2 fingers, it`s best to do these exercises with different finger combinations. For the first exercise, you can for example perform it with your index and middle, middle and ring, or ring and pinky finger. It`s also best to do these at different spots on your fretboard.
Moving on to 3 and 4-finger permutations, you will have less flexibility in what fingers you can use. However, the exercises themselves will be more demanding. Here is an example of 4 finger permutation that you can use:
Depending on your skill level, you might find that you can already practice permutations without looking at your fretboard.
However, when playing bass lines in real-time, the muscle memory you develop from this exercise will make playing more fluid and natural. As a result, you will be less inclined to look at your fretboard or your hands when performing.
3. Force yourself to not look
Regardless of whether you actually need to look at the fretboard or not, you could find yourself taking a glimpse at it. This can either happen out of habit or just as a security measure to make sure you`re on the right track.
The best way to deal with this is to make it impossible for yourself to look.
There are several ways you can do this. A convenient and easy way to do this is to play in the dark. This will also make you more conscious of what you are hearing rather than what you are seeing. In turn, this will make it easier to spot mistakes in your playing.
Another way is to put on a blindfold. This is a good option if don`t like the idea of playing in a dark room, or if you are unable to make it fully dark.
4. Practice Sight-Reading
Sight-reading is the practice of reading music in real-time as you are playing it on your bass. It`s helpful for both forcing yourself to not look at the fretboard, developing control, and improving your theoretical knowledge.
Reading notation is preferable to reading tabs, as the rhythmic notation of it is superior. However, if you can`t read notes, reading tabs will still help you develop this skill.
Related reading: Do You Have To Read Sheet Music To Play Bass?
If you use tabs, I recommend choosing songs that you are familiar with, but that you don`t know by heart. This way you will be familiar with the rhythm of the song, but you will still be forced to sight-read.
When I tried sight-reading for the first time, it was embarrassing, to say the least. It took a good bit of time before I could comfortably get through beginner-level songs without at least a mistake or two. Therefore, do not be discouraged by how poorly you do when starting out.
Getting proficient at sight-reading also has a ton of additional benefits in addition to helping you not look at your hands as you play. It helps develop your control, timing, and theoretical knowledge, as well as increasing your chances of finding work as a bass player.
5. Look in a mirror
Looking in the mirror as you play the bass might sound redundant. After all, you can still see your hands right?
While that is true, it will still help you in several ways. First of all, it will give you a different perspective on how you are fretting notes. If you have found yourself missing notes or getting fret buzz when not looking at the fretboard, it becomes easier to see why this happens when looking at the mirror.
This is because your muscle memory and technique will still be the same. Any mistakes or flaws will however become more apparent when you have a full-frontal view of your fretboard. This can be used to fix your technique, and is especially helpful for learning to sing while playing the bass.
Second, you are not looking down at your fretboard, but looking right at it. The fact that you are focusing your sight in a different direction is a great way to break the habit of looking down.
Therefore I recommend doing some of the other exercises mentioned in this article in front of the mirror. If you do those for 30 minutes or so and step away from the mirror, you will find that it has become slightly easier to not look down at the fretboard.
Consistent practice in front of the mirror is thus another way to gradually develop better control of your fretboard, which will ultimately lead you towards playing without looking altogether.
While playing the bass without looking at the fretboard can seem like a superhuman skill as a beginner, it really isn`t. It`s merely a result of focused practice sessions and becoming familiar with the bass.
Scales and permutations are the bread and butter of improving at this. I`ve used both in my practice sessions for over a decade now, and they still help me improve to this day. They will help you get better at not looking at your hands when you play, but will also improve your technique, tone, knowledge, and control.
By forcing yourself to not look and by looking in a mirror, you are playing the bass from a new perspective. In addition to eliminating bad habits, this is beneficial for developing a deeper knowledge of your instrument.
If you learn how to sight-read, you also learn how to play without looking at the fretboard. While it is a time-consuming skill to learn that many bassists tend to disregard, it is also one of the best things you can do to make playing feel like second nature.
Playing the bass without looking is all about eliminating flaws in your technique and building knowledge. A good way to do both of these things is to take lessons. To learn more, read my guide on whether bass lessons are worth your money.