Bass Playing with Better Timing

Here are some tips for better timekeeping on gigs:

  1. Always Remember Your Function
    As the bass player we have 3 main functions
    – to provide the harmonic anchor to the chord form of the tune/song
    – to provide the timing/groove reference and cues for the band whilst complementing the drummer
    – to provide a natural continuity and flow across the whole tune
  2. Relax
    Sometimes enthusiasm takes over from common sense.
    Bass playing is a marathon not a sprint. So as soon as you pick up your bass, close your eyes, take a few slow deep breaths and smile. Think of your playing as meditation. Say to yourself, “This is going to be good”. Relax as you play, and remember the word ‘play’ means enjoy yourself, be imaginative, try things out. Refresh this at the start of each tune.
  3. Focus on the drummer’s ride cymbal
    The foundation of the band’s groove is going to be determined by the lock between our crotchets (quarter notes) and the drummer’s ride cymbal. So make that your first priority, synchronise with the drummer. If there is no drummer then synchronise with any other rhythm players there. Failing that count your own 2’s and 4’s.
    Use both sight and sound to achieve all of this.
  4. Synch with the Hi-Hat
    Some modern drummers don’t play the high-hat on beats two and four. But if they do, lock onto it as a reference point for where the critical backbeats of the groove are. That will help you avoid rushing and pushing the groove too much.
  5. Feel the groove with your whole body
    Move when you play, whether that means a slight bounce on two and four, or just tapping your foot. Feeling the groove in your whole body embeds it in your playing and promotes a steady and swinging pulse.
  6. Watch the leader’s feet
    Watch frequently to see If they are doing anything physical to mark time, like tapping their foot. Synchronise your movement with theirs, and look out also for cues about ends of sections or new repeats.
  7. Leave your ego at the door
    Bob Cranshaw was once asked how he was able to work so well with so many different drummers. He said
    “You know drummers tend to have big egos; but because I want the music to feel good, I let them do their thing, and I’ll just adjust because I want the music to swing” 
    We need to be assertive with our bass beat, but we need to be flexible, willing to defer to the drummer when needs be. The ultimate goal is for the music to feel great and the band to ‘groove’ as a unit. 

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