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Developing Timing and Feel: Rhythmic Studies for Bass Players

Bass player grooving
Photo by fensterbme

Q: My question is about timing. I realize that the choice of notes make a line hip, but the rhythm and the timing make the groove! How do you practice timing, Damian?

A: Truer words have never been spoken! It’s all about the groove and time-feel (fancy words for “pocket”).

Here are some goals for developing your timing and groove:

  1. Have masterful control over all subdivisions When working with subdivisions, approach it by dealing with groupings of 2 and 3 (triplets of all types, 8th notes, 16ths, and so on). This is because most any of the more complex rhythms can be turned into a pair of groupings of 2 and 3.
  2. Have complete control over each subdivision. For example: achieve the ability to play an isolated 2nd note of an 8th note triplet or an isolated 4th note of a 16th note pattern, with as much authority as the downbeat. Internalize every subdivision so that I can feel every pulse. This helps you to give rests their due respect. I find that most students tend to cut rests short when playing trickier subdivisions. I interpret this to mean that they are still guessing to a certain degree and do not yet have every pulse internalized.

Here’s my approach to practicing this:

  1. Focus on one of the subdivisions at a time, with a metronome (ultimately covering a wide range of tempos).
  2. Practice without harmony until you’re feeling it.
  3. Play that rhythm utilizing scaler patterns and/or arpeggios through chord changes (using a jazz standard out of the Real Book).
  4. Try and think of combinations of rhythms that you find uncomfortable and focus on those (sometimes you might have to whip out some manuscript paper and think of arbitrary patterns and groupings of rhythms to try out).

Below are links to few examples of rhythmic study. These focus on only 8th notes, 16th notes and 8th note triplets, but you can take these examples and apply most any rhythmic device that you can imagine.

It gets trickiest when you start to try and play more complicated harmonic devices using these rhythms (say 4-part arpeggios from the 3rd (3 5 7 9 of the chord scale) or from the 2nd (9 11 13 root from the chord scale). This is when you discover how internalized it really is, because you are splitting your brain and forcing yourself to think hard about note choice.

If you don’t have the rhythm internalized, then it all falls apart pretty quickly!

Note: much of what I presented here is very similar to another column written early last year (Controlling Rhythm and Expressing it Musically). Never hurts to have a refresher, plus it provided the opportunity to share these exercises:

Readers, what is your approach to developing timing and groove? Tell us about it in the comments!