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Playing Ahead or Behind the Beat

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Bass player by Adam Browning
Photo by Adam Browning

Q: I hear people talk about playing “behind the beat” of “ahead of the beat”. How can I work on that?

A: I call this micro-timing. I think that phrase helps because many students I have tend to overdo it when they play intentionally behind or ahead of the beat. It is a very subtle difference, and you have to be very careful not to simply speed up or slow down but instead, shift how your line lays by a matter of milliseconds.

While I did practice this with a metronome, I still maintain that the best way to work on this is to practice playing with recordings where this is happening.

The metronome:

  • I would definitely start by making sure that you can control your time and play in the center of the beat before worrying about variations. Practice playing bass lines, solos, scales, etc. – all with a metronome.
  • Play everything at a wide variety of tempos (from painfully slow to as fast as you can – and everywhere in between. I’ve met a lot of musicians who sound like they practice everything at certain tempos and have trouble locking it down at tempos that are a little slower or a little faster than they are used to. Everybody has a comfort zone, and you have to train yourself to operate with confidence on all sides of that comfort zone.
  • I vary my volume depending on how solid I feel. If I am have trouble locking it in, I’ll play at a volume that’s lower than my click so that I can’t ignore it. I want that click to mock me every time I’m off from it.
  • If I’m feeling solid, I’ll put my volume right at the click or a little above it in an attempt to make it disappear. What I mean is this: if your click is at a slightly lower volume than your bass (but not too low) or the same volume, and you play right in the middle of the beat, you won’t hear the click at all. This is a satisfying moment, when you stop playing because you think the click stopped for some reason, and you quickly realize that it was there the whole time but you simply weren’t hearing it because you were right on it.

Once you’re feeling solid with the click, you can then practice micro-timing.
When I do this with a click, I try and make it as subtle as possible.

  • Ahead of the beat: I’ll try and start my note right before the click but not so much that I flam the note with the click. Just enough that it sounds like I am starting the sound and my click is there at the end of my attack.
  • Behind the beat: Again, the click is the start of the sound and my note is the end of the sound without an audible flam (you don’t want to hear two hits).
  • Try starting right on the click and then decide to go behind. Then back on. Then behind.
  • Stay with it until you can hit the same spot repeatedly and then do different tempos.

The Musical Way:

I think that the best way to work on this stuff is to listen to and practice playing music in which this plays a role.

Behind the Beat:

Artists like D’Angelo really pull on the time on the records (live as well, but especially on the records where things are physically moved around in post-production) – any kind of “slump” or “slugging” grooves. Some of these grooves are very much way behind the beat in parts, while more on the beat in others. It’s a feel thing that you really just have to have a musical context for (and control of). Find some music that represents the feel you are going for and listen, listen, listen, then transcribe and play along. Often in this style of music, some things will be right on the beat, while others are off and heavily swing which creates a tension.

Here are a few videos to get you going:

On the Beat:

Groups like Steely Dan keep things right in the middle of the beat. Pop music, EDM, fusion or anything likely recorded to a click or hyper rhythmic is typically pretty centered in the beat. Steve Gadd is a drummer who is known for nailing things right on the beat and having great time. He works a lot with Jimmy Johnson who is a great bassist to check out.

Check out Steve Gadd Band performing “The Windup”:

Ahead of the Beat:

Some music need a bit pf a push to feel right. Again, this is a very subtle difference… DON’T RUSH!

Much Latin music (Salsa, Timba, Soca, etc..) works better if the drums/percusion and bass are driving the train a little bit. Check out this video of Alain Perez:

Swing also seems to work better if the bassist is locked with the ride cymbal and both are on the front edge of the beat. Check out “Happy” by the Wlosok/McGuirk/Riley Trio

There are others, but it’s easy enough to hear that the bass is on the front of the beats, and I can attest that it definitely can feel “off” if the bassist is laying back on this stuff. This is something that I had to focus on. I’m mostly a funk and R&B bassist at heart, so when I got into actually playing jazz and Latin music, I tended to sit way back on the beat. I was very quickly made aware of where I needed to be in the music and worked hard – and listened hard – to make sure that I could internalize it and play the music properly. It takes time, diligent practice, a lot of listening and stylistic awareness but your playing will be well served by learning to control your beat placement!

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