Ask Damian Erskine: How to Play with a Drummer

Q: Preston Dickens writes: “I’m a self-taught woodshedder and am about to start playing with a live band at a church. Having never played with a live drummer, what advice can you offer?”

A: We come from the same school, actually! I spent my youth in the shed by myself working everything out and feeling like I had to just KILL on bass before I should go out and play with others. I’ve actually found this to be the case with many folks coming up these days with the advent of great practice tools like loopers, Garage Band, etc. While those are immensely useful in the shed, NOTHING can compare to the spontaneous creation of music with other humans in real time. I’ve always felt that I would have been MUCH better off if I had mustered up the courage to suck a little in public and get my workouts on stage (like I did from college on).

There are so many things that happen when playing music live that you just can not prepare for at home. These are the things that people speak of when they mention someone being “experienced” or not.

You mention the drummer specifically and I think that is a great place to start, although there is much to learn about playing with (and I mean, WITH, not just along-side) any singer, guitarist, pianist, etc.

Here are some things off of the top of my head to keep in mind:

  • The pocket is ALL important as a bass player. Make sure to spend special attention to the kick and snare. The bass is the bridge between the rhythm and the harmony of the band. Arguably, one of the most important jobs. The bass player can really help to hold it together or make it fall apart quickly.
  • Make sure you are ONE with that groove the drummer is laying down. If you feel like you aren’t fitting in with it or you two are clashing a little bit, try simplifying and strip your part down to the bare minimum until you two start speaking more as one.
  • If it doesn’t “feel” good, the notes don’t matter as much. Feel comes first. I will often cock my eyes to the side and watch the drummers feet in my peripheral vision. I want to be tapping or stomping my foot right with him. The more your body dances to the music, the more musical you will play.
  • Relax. Don’t be stiff. BREATH!
  • Don’t try to impress everyone. Keep it simple and serve the song. Many of us make the mistake of listening to ourselves almost exclusively and not the band as a whole. Just as in a orchestra or choir, most in the audience are not hearing every voice in the band individually. Folks are hearing a unified sound. They are listening to the SONG. Make sure that you are listening to the group as a whole before you get lost in a sea of flashy licks and fills in an attempt to show everyone what you can do.
  • On that last note, make sure your volume is appropriate. The bass should be sitting right on top of that kick drum. Like you are the melody contained within the thud of his or her kick drum. I can’t tell you how crazy it drives me when the bass player is cranking away in his own world (and usually over-playing) while he is louder than the vocalist or even soloist. The bass is a SUPPORTIVE instrument. Make sure you are laying the foundation and not trying to jump out front sonically. Err on the side of too quiet… wait to be asked to turn up.
  • Do NOT feel like you have to play a fill every 4 or 8 bars. Don’t try to force anything. Just relax, breath and listen to the music. Don’t play something unless you really hear it before hand.
  • While you’re thinking of all of this stuff remember. STOP THINKING SO MUCH!!
  • It’s harder than it sounds, but the vast majority of us play the best when our minds are off or on autopilot but our EARS are wide open. LIsten to the music you are playing. I sometimes forget that I’m playing at all and feel like I’m just listening to a CD. I love that experience!

One last point. The two worst things that people will complain about (and obsessively think about while you are playing) in my experience are:

  1. The guy who is so afraid to play that everything sounds weak or tentative
  2. The guy who is so confident that he doesn’t even care if he’s off and just plows forward in his own world of self-adoration.

Find a balance between playing with strength and confidence, but ALWAYS be self-aware and pay attention to the band. Pay respect to the musicians, the audience and the music itself and you can’t go wrong!

It takes time to put the ego in check musically. We all want to be bad asses, but we have a job to do. The best compliment from a singer I ever got was one who, after the show, turned to the drummer and I and said, “Thank YOU!! I didn’t even know you guys were there and never had to worry about you both all night long.”

Nobody EVER walks up and says, “Man, you played so FAST! and that diminished lick that lasted for 3 bars during the Chorus brought tears to my eyes!” (except maybe that ONE other bass player in the audience).

Trust me… ;)

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Great advice! Another little nugget I've learned is when you screw up or don't remember the changes, KEEP PLAYING IN TIME, and wait till it comes back to you. Never stop – keep that rhythm going.

    Playing live puts a fire under you in this way. It's really obvious when you stop, so much so that you just can't. You have to keep going and play solidly and make it work.

    When it works, you feel it, and practice helps you get there. But you never get there if you don't actually go out and gig. Playing gigs teaches you all the little endings, tricks, and fills that drummers use universally. If you know these, then the groove starts to make sense.

    Don't reinvent the wheel at first, but as you learn you'll see where the openings are. Pick your spots for fills.

    Great post Damian!

  2. Well put! I forgot to mention that part. Everyone stops when they make a mistake playing at home and you quickly learn that it does not work that way in real life… Thanks @natobasso

  3. LTSmash

    If I'm working as a vocalist it's that combination of bass and drums that makes me happy :D

    And I love those licks that last 3 bars during a chorus haha! (even if im not the one playing the bass)

  4. michaelkazalski

    Bassist + drummer = pulse. *Look* at each other! Also remember that you both have the same target in mind: the beat. Jeff Berlin once said that both of a bassist's hands have to come together at the same time to create a note. Likewise, the bassist and drummer have to come together at the same moment in time to create a foundation for the rest of the band. Excellent column!

  5. Preston

    Hello Dan

    Again, thank you for posting this wonderful article and i appreciate the comments from the other bass players. In closing this is a repeatedly read article.

    Keep Bassin