I started playing music from a very young age. It so happened that I grew up where steel-pan music was heard, or if you took a little stroll from my house you would more than likely walk into the steel-pan band room or steel-band shed as they called it.
What I remembered is that I used to take our galvanized garbage pan cover, held it between my legs as if it was a steel-pan, and played with one piece of stick, knocking on that garbage can cover, and what I heard coming out from it at that time was some interesting melodies, I felt some kind of connection to music then even though I couldn’t interpret the experience. I don’t think that others could have heard what I was hearing, but what I heard sounded so good, it made me aware of something greater than myself was happening within me. Looking back now makes me to believe that it was my inspiration, and a fore-taste of what I would be doing in life.
At times the band members would call me into the band room to play a song with them, they thought that I did have a good ear for music, and catch the music very fast, and I loved it. I also remembered playing with a friend who played the acoustic guitar, and I another acoustic guitar, but with only four strings. I think I was in training then, and didn’t know it.
Even in elementary school I had the privilege to play in the school’s steel-pan orchestra.
My ear got better at that time. All this time I lived In Trinidad. Then we moved to live in Tobago which is the sister island of Trinidad. There my cousin and uncle lead me to a combo, a band that had just started, and my uncle and cousin told the band captain that I was interested in playing bass, which I never remembered telling them, however, the captain was willing to give me a try-out.
There were other bass-guitar players in that band at the time, although we were all learning, but with a bass that had all the notes written and stuck to the fret board, as if they knew I was coming, I then made it my duty to take advantage of this opportunity. Well, that interested me a lot.
What did happened next was an experience I would never forget. After classes at school, I would rush to the band room to practice by myself so to learn about that bass-guitar, and after about three weeks or so I took off the paper that had the notes name stuck to the fret-board. I think my desire and dedication made me to become the more used bass player of that band, more used than the other two bass players.
When I actually started to play; my initiation, or rather to learn songs with the band, the leader of the band who was the organist, would ask me to hang the bass around my neck, and while they played the songs would call out the notes which I would see stuck to the fret-board, and I would play them, and even though I didn’t have the correct fingering as all bass players should, (this must be corrected when starting to practice playing the bass by ear: you can find help on some social media sites), I was able to see, hear, and play the notes.
I got better with time and experience, and with the opportunities to gig with other bands that I think liked my style of playing. Being in the island of Tobago, musicians would come from Trinidad, who would have heard of my playing, and would ask me to play with them, which I did. I learned quite a lot from them. All this time, playing with those groups, had never read a note from a music sheet, or bass-guitar tab; I really knew nothing about such at that time. I played many styles of music only by listening, and transferred what I heard to the bass.
I remember a popular night club where I was a member of the resident band. There were situations when I had to play songs I only heard for about a minute or so, and then had to accompany the singers having to play the entire songs only a very few minutes after. As a matter of fact, they only came to us so to give us a sample of what we should expect. I loved that experience also, I think it helped to train my hearing.
The bottom line is, playing music by ear has its challenges, but it’s not impossible to be a good bass player that plays by ear. My only advice is, even though you might like playing by ear, still learn how to read notes from music sheets and bass-guitar tabs, it will help with knowing note values, learn scales, arpeggios, etc… Listen and try to play all types of music so that you might be an all round player; not just restricted to one style of music.
I just thought that I should encourage the beginners who would like to play bass-guitar by ear.