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Damian Erskine: “Don’t distract yourself with getting gear to solve all your problems. Make what you have work”

Damian Erskine
(Image credit: Bobby P)

Damian Erskine is a career bassist, educator, and columnist, having played with a huge range of musicians, primarily from the jazz world. He’s an adjunct professor at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon and – viruses permitting – regularly travels abroad to teach. 

He has performed at many clinics and written for several print and online publications, including this one, with a long-running series at No Treble coming to a close last year after over 500 instalments. 

Erskine has recently launched the website Bass Education, an online school for anyone interested in beginning or developing skills as a bassist. We caught up with him for a peek into his never-more-busy world...  

Damian, was the launch of Bass Education inspired by the current pandemic? 

“It had been in the back of my mind for well over a dozen years, but it was the pandemic and the cancelation of all my tours and the loss of all my work that finally instigated the process. I started Bass Education in March and I launched it in May. 

“It’s definitely been a labor of love, but I’ve got a lot of great feedback from members and people seem to get a lot out of it, so I keep energized and inspired to keep it going.“ 

You’ve kept membership prices at reasonable levels, which is great to see. 

“I’ve always been a big proponent of supporting the bass community. I’ve taught jazz workshops for Jazz Education Abroad, where we’d go to different countries like China and Thailand and Lebanon. One of the things I was struck by was always how many people are hungry for music education, but don’t have the means to access it. I want to keep the pricing affordable for everyone.“ 

Damian Erskine

(Image credit: Cortney Erskine)

Online bass education is a saturated market. Did that thought ever deter you? 

“It was definitely part of the equation. When I first thought about doing it, it wasn’t a saturated market, but it became one as time passed—and yes, that was something of a deterrent. 

“But back in March this year, I figured I had all the time in the world, so that was no longer an excuse, and I thought ‘There’s a lot of people who enjoy the specific way that I teach things’. 

“It’s rather like my bass playing; if I always compared myself to Victor Wooten and Jaco Pastorius, I would probably have never picked up the bass. The same thing is true if I think ‘How could this possibly compete with Scott’s Bass Lessons?’ or something like that: In that case, I probably would never have built this site. Like with my bass playing, I just do my own thing as best as I can, and put my energy into it, and it’ll do what it’ll do.“ 

There’s still a lot of room for different approaches, of course. 

“Yes, there’s room for everybody, and it’s a global market, which was also part of my approach to pricing. If this thing can pay for itself and make a few bucks on top of it, but more people have access to it, it’s a good thing. 

“There’s no lack of free instruction online, but one of my primary objectives with this site is to remain available and accessible to all students. I tell everybody that signs up, ‘If you have a question, let me know’. I want to be involved in everybody’s process, and I think that one-on-one is generally lacking when it comes to online information.“ 

Presumably a lot of bassists know who you are through your long-running column at No Treble. 

“Yes, that was a big boon, and a lot of fun. I stopped doing it in 2019, simply because I’d been doing it for so long. I’d written 500 or so weekly columns, and I’d started running out of things to talk about. It engaged me with a large part of the bass community, and that’s certainly helped with Bass Education.“

Never be afraid to ask questions – there are no dumb questions. Engage with your teacher or your fellow students

What tips would you give a prospective student of bass?

“First, never be afraid to ask questions – there are no dumb questions. Engage with your teacher or your fellow students, and find out what you need to know. Also, we all started at the same place: On day one, none of us knew anything.

“Information is best absorbed in bite-sized chunks, so have an idea of what you want to work on and what your weaknesses are, and take those things one by one. Keep your head down and keep working, and you’ll be surprised at how fast and how well you learn. It takes longer than you want, but it goes quicker than you think.“

Definitely. Should people worry about getting the right bass gear?

“No. Don’t distract yourself with getting gear that you think will solve all your problems: Instead, make what you have work. Lesser gear often forces you to come up with solutions to problems – that’s how my right-hand technique started. Worry about the gear later.

“Finally, our role as bass players is to be the bridge between the drummer and the rest of the band, so it’s crucial to spend time on rhythm. We should really learn how to think like drummers.“

Our role as bass players is to be the bridge between the drummer and the rest of the band, so it’s crucial to spend time on rhythm. We should really learn how to think like drummers

On the subject of gear, tell us about the basses you use. 

“I play a signature Skjold bass, the Whaleback: I was actually the first Sjkold endorser, and I’ve been with Aguilar for a long time too. I also use D’Addario strings, Reunion Blues gigbags, 1964 in-ears, GruvGear straps, and various great products from MXR, RMI, Two Notes and A-Designs Audio. 

“I’m very blessed in that I’m endorsed by the companies I’d be playing anyway. Pete Skjold is a wizard – he excels at getting to know what you really want. He can turn my dumb bass-player speak into action: when I tell him that I want this thing to sound like chocolate raindrops or something, he knows exactly what I’m talking about, and he makes it happen.“

You’re also an author – tell us about your books. 

“The first one was Right Hand Drive, which focused on the use of the thumb in my plucking technique, and the second was The Improviser’s Path, which was about jazz harmony as I came to understand it. I’m considering a coffee-table book which compiles my No Treble columns, but it’s on the back burner while I focus on Bass Education.“ 

So, what’s next for you? 

“My goal right now is to keep developing the functional content and slowly build it until the membership is large enough so that I can afford to hire a web guru to design the site of my dreams, because right now I’m doing everything. 

“I enjoy being part of my own process: Everything I’ve done so far has been self-published and self-released. I’m building the site, editing the video, and all that stuff, although I’m happy with the way it’s turning out. It’s great so far. I’m looking forward to what the future brings.“