How Blind Student Alan Wheeler learns to Play Bass Guitar Using The Bass Lab PLUS Membership 

Back in 2016 I started the Bass Lab PLUS from the seed of an idea and nothing quite prepared me for what was coming my direction.

Over the past 6 years we ‘ve helped tens of thousands of bass players start playing the best bass of their lives… but every so often a student comes along and changes your perception of what’s possible.

Every single month the eBassGuitar team and I choose a Bass Lab PLUS Legend.

This is a student who stands out because of their remarkable achievements.

This month I want to introduce you to Alan Wheeler who is our first ever blind bass student.

In this short interview Alan shares what first motivated him to play the bass, how he used the technology as a blind student, some of the challenges he faces on a daily basis, and his aspirations for his music future.

Alan also shares how he used the amazing BLP community to help ‘pick him up’ when times have got tough.

Today I want to celebrate Alan’s success as our January Bass Lab Legend.

Finding Interest in Bass Guitar

J - Hey everyone I’m super excited to announce this month’s Bass Lab PLUS Legend. Now this is someone who we feature who’s done something super special, who has brought something very unique to the table. I’m really excited to give this month’s Bass Lab PLUS Legend to Alan Wheeler who is over in San Francisco, California.Alan is very unique because to the best of my knowledge he is the first ever Bass Lab PLUS student who is blind. So Alan, well done! I’ve watched you progress now for the past year or two and I’m really blown away by what you do. I’d love to ask you to start of with, what first attracted you to playing the bass guitar. 

A - I actually love to tell this story. I have a good friend who I have known for well over 40 years. Back in 2015, I was going to visit him up in Oregon. He called me “ When you get up here, I’m going to teach you to play Bass Guitar “I kind of laughed because my experience with any kind of guitar, primarily acoustic, was to hold it upside down; by that I mean I would strum with my left hand and finger the frets with my right. I was so accustomed to doing that and thinking that was the only way I could play that I was like “ Well okay, good luck. I don’t typically hold the guitar correctly. I’m not sure this is going to work “I got up there, he put a bass on my lap and I don’t know how to explain why or how, but it just felt natural.

It was just like it was meant to be and I started off pretty quick and in fact on my YouTube channel I have some videos of the first few days after she started teaching me of me playing right away. It was less than a week after me learning the bass.

J - Fantastic! Is it something about the feel to you, the sound of it? 

A - It’s a little bit of both. One of the things that cemented it for me was a show I went to. There was a club here in San Francisco. Unfortunately the pandemic forced them to close. It was a place called Biscuits and Blues. I went to see a group there and they did a lot of Motown stuff, James Jamerson type things. The thing that blew me away, ‘ coz I was already in to bass at this point, was the stage was on the other side of the room, I was in the back of the room if you will. As the band was playing, I could feel the vibration of the bass; so much so it was making the hair on my arms stand up. I was just like “ This is an amazing instrument if it has the power to do that. This is an amazing instrument “. 

I’d already heard some amazing stuff ‘coz I had gotten into Jaco Pastorius and was starting to get into Victor Wooten a little bit. Feeling those vibrations; I felt it on my chest my stomach, the hair on my arms. Ever since then, I’ve just been in love with the bass and what you can do with it.

Discovering Ebassguitar

J - How did you discover eBassGuitar?

A - I don’t totally remember. To be perfectly honest, I think I might have stumbled across a video of yours on YouTube? But I don’t completely remember; I was taking lessons from other places at one point, but not that their bad but I feel that wouldn’t be fair. I switched over to your lessons and what you were doing and I liked your mode of teaching. I can’t explain exactly what it is about it that I like, but you made it feel comfortable to be a beginner, to be just starting. I pick up a lot easier on the concepts.

Playing By Ear

J - Fantastic! Can you tell us a little bit about your process, obviously you’re blind, how do you go about using the video content and translation it to the instrument?

A - The vast majority of it is something that’s already taught anyway which is ear training. Obviously I can’t read music notation; that doesn’t help me, but I can listen to what you’re doing or listen to a bass line in a song and figure it out. I mean sometimes I have to make the extra effort of finding or obtaining an isolated bass line so that I can clear out all the other instruments and just focus on the bass. Other than that, there are a lot of times I could just pick it up ‘coz bass is relatively prominent and it’s easy to pick-up. A vast majority of it is just ear training and playing by ear.

 J - I’m curious, because I genuinely don’t know this, how does the technology work for you? Are there buttons where they play now and it gives you a vocal version of that? How do you navigate the technology? 

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A - For the videos, the button that you would use to play it, it may not say play visually, but for example on my iPhone or iPad there is a little program that takes what’s going on in the screen and converts it into electronic speech. It literally reads to me what is on the screen in a computerized voice. For example I’ll be going to listen to one of your videos and I’ll have a play button and there are little bars that tells me how much time has progressed in the video, I can pause the video, rewind it, things like that.

J - Fantastic! So you get this really immersive experience just like everybody else?

A- Yeah pretty much!

J - Fantastic! How else has playing the bass impacted the rest of your life?

A - It’s introduced me to a lot of music I normally wouldn’t have paid attention to. I found a lot of bass players like Marcus MIller, Victor Wooten, Cal Wilkenfeld, Bootsy Collins. I started to their stuff and there’s other music like Motown that I normally may not have listened to but I think the simplest way to put it is its broadened the range of music that I listen too.

J - Fantastic! Does it help you outside of music just navigate life in general? I always find music incredibly cathartic, therapeutic thing. Does it have the same effect for you?

A - Yeah it does actually. With this pandemic and all, a lot of people have been going through what they call situational depression. Playing bass, either learning a song or playing something I’m familiar with can really lift me out of it. I’m focused on music, maybe not so much the technique but the song itself and that just takes me out of whatever is on my mind, whatever is bothering me at the time.

J - You’ve written a few candid posts in the Facebook group and I admire your vulnerability and I just love how the process of music and the process of learning seems to impact everything else in your life. Am I right in that?

A - Yeah you’re right on that. Like any musician, bass players in particular, I have my goals and my dreams. I may have been slow to accomplish certain ones but I’m at least trying to grow as much as I can.

J - What is next for you Alan? What are your goals? What are your bass playing dreams.  

A - I wanna get to a point but I’m getting there very slowly, but I do want to get to a point where, especially after this pandemic stuff is over, I’m starting to get established in a band, learning enough music to get in a band.

One of my pipe dreams is I already thought of a name for a band based on a personal experience. When I turned 50, I did something very different for me, something I never contemplated until that point, and that is getting a tattoo. It’s a shot glass with whisky in it and kind of tilted on one side. The words around it say “ Everybody needs a shot in the arm “. 

I may still do this someday, but I thought a name for the band, a good one, would be whiskey tattoo. That’s kind of my little pipe dream there. Start a band called Whiskey Tattoo. One of the songs I’m learning and still perfecting but check out the band called Uncle Tupelo and there’s this song called “ Get Back The Key to My Heart “. I’ve been learning it and perfecting it for years ‘coz I wanna get it down perfect.

J - Cool! I’m curious how long have you been a member of eBassGuitar?

A - Probably about 2 to 3 years now.

J - In a few sentences, how’s the experience been for you?

A - The experience has been great! Your lessons, your videos have actually helped me push myself and understand things I couldn’t understand before. For example your description of using shapes on the fretboard is actually interesting because one of the things you teach is for the C Major chord. You start with C on the D string and you work way up to the octave. The point is that one way of doing that C Major, the shape, the notes in my brain form a Braille letter Q and that’s the way I’ve always remembered that shape. 

J - How fascinating that you can plot these shapes to Braille! It must be such a unique way that you are learning. I can’t begin to relate to that, but that’s incredible and so unique!

A - If you google the Braille alphabet and you can see in print what a letter Q would look like and you’ll get the idea. Imagine those dots in that Braille letter Q as the notes on the fretboard that you would finger on the frets.

J - One of the things is you’ve entered our Bass Lab PLUS song competition which is a bit of fun we have every single month. I was blown away seeing you put a video together and deliver it. What has been the process of making videos been like for you?

A - It has its challenges. I find myself wishing that I had some of the equipment other people have but I can just do basic stuff. I have my little 25w Fender Thunder over here that I play through and I just set-up my phone as I have it now on my desk and sit back far enough that you can see everything, every part of what I’m doing and just record it. I record it with my camera on my phone and upload it to YouTube.

J - And it works! I’m full of admiration for you doing that. Alan it’s been amazing gaining an insight into your process of learning the bass guitar. I’m super happy ! What would you say to anybody who’s thinking of joining eBassGuitar.

A - I would say that first of all, the community is very supportive. As you said I have made myself very vulnerable with my frustrations. I’ve had people be very very supportive. If you’re struggling with anything, you’ve got people to help you. You’re not alone in this. The lessons themselves; they put you at ease. You don’t feel like you’re at the bottom trying to start climbing. You’re given an easy goal to reach and then you can move on it your own pace. Something I really appreciate is sometimes I need extra time. Getting my left hand to cooperate has been a challenge when it comes to prep work. I’m still working on that but there’s nobody hurrying me, nobody’s trying to rush me to do that and people have said take your time, practice it, work on it. No pressure, no fuss, no must. Just do it as slowly as quickly as you need to.

J - Fantastic! I’m so happy to have you as part of the Bass Lab PLUS community. I thank you so much from the bottom of my heart of everything you give to it. I’m full of admiration of the tenacity and overcoming the challenge you have to play the bass guitar and experience what this wonderful instrument can do to everyone. Thank you so much and congratulations on being this Bass Lab PLUS Legend!


Comments 3

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  1. I am genuinely astonished by Alan’s accomplishments, what an amazing feat. I am one of those bass players (maybe it’s just me) who has to study the fret board with my eyes, almost willing my fingers to the next note. I am truly humbled by Alan and if he ever gets to hear this comment, I hope he keeps it up and my very best to him.

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