Connecting with the Drummer: A Discussion for Bassists


Q: I’ve found myself in a situation where I can’t set up a musical connection with my drummer. It’s been three months of rehearsals, but I just don’t feel comfortable playing, the rhythm-sections suffers and we don’t sound good. In my other bands, the great, non-verbal communication came right after one or two rehearsals. I realize I am also responsible. Hopefully you can give me some advice.

A: In short, communication is key and honesty is the best policy.

Assuming that he is as concerned with making good music as you are, he is probably noticing the same thing and would be open to talk to about it. Of course, don’t place blame and be respectful, and just lay it out in a kind way. Tell him or her exactly how you feel, and that you’re wanting to feel more connected, musically, and want to make everything feel more natural.

Like you said, it may just take more time playing together, but treat this as an opportunity for you both to grow and learn from each other. You might even start getting together (just the two of you) and playing, practicing and jamming together. Work on some grooves or feels together for fun. That really helps to feel a guy out musically.

Converse about music, play favorite tunes by the drummer and you, and grooves you love. It can really help to hear where a musician is coming from, by listening to his or her influences and who they’re trying to emulate.

Be open and have a non-threatening conversation in service to the music. If you find the drummer doesn’t have a great mindset or is insecure, it might be tough. As long as you’re coming from a place of artistic integrity and honesty, how could he not be open to work with you on it!

Readers, I know you’ve dealt with this exact scenario. How have you resolved it?

Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski

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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Leave a Reply to Barry Johnstone Cancel reply

  1. Yeah, all that touchy feely stuff isn’t important. What is, is the groove ou are playing. If you are out of sync, chances are one of you is overplaying, working more notes and flourishes in then necessary. Cook that thing back to raw basics. The two of you play a song welll known by both and listen to the kick drum with the bass. If it ain’t together, that’s where it lives. Check your use of tempo as well. Rock songs tend to live on the beat, blues lives just ever so slightly back of the beat, and pop/disco and hip hop go on an in front of the beat. Find a song, any song, that does sync and groove well together, and play it with different feels, then move to another tune and work it up from the kick drum as well.

    • Play on meter but with feel. Separates the men from the boys.

    • First you listen to the 60’s lineup of Bernard purdee and Jerry Jemmott who used to back up king Curtis and Retha Franklin. Then early 70’s grab some CTI label cd’s and listen to Ron Carter with Billy cobham. Then mid 70’s check out George porter and Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters….the pioneers of funk along with James brown. And the finally the mid 70’s sound of Rocco Prestia and David garibaldi of tower power. If that doesn’t do it for ya…..turn your instruments in… are officially void of understanding a groove.

  2. I was in a situation recently where I had to have this discussion with the drummer. What was happening I noticed right from the start was that this drummer thought the universe revolved around the guitar player, which of course it did not. He would watch him solely and never take his eyes away from this guitarist, making changes and endings like train wrecks because he’s waiting for cues and return eye contact from the guitarist, which he never received. I asked him to please work with me on these problem areas instead of waiting on cues from the guitar player, to think of me as kind of a liaison. I noticed immediately that changes went as smoothly as they could go, breaks and endings tightened right up. The difference was noticed right away by the rest of the band.

  3. Eye contact is key. I’ve also found that setting my amp next to the HH while standing in the drummer’s 8 to 12 o’clock peripheral helped. Have the drummer lower cymbals to help limit blind spots too.

    • I’ve never understood the standard practice of the modern stage alignment where the drummer is staring at four butts. I’ve tried, and occasionally been able to set up off to the side perpendicular to the audience. It almost guarantees eye contact with every band member, save for the singer who’s usually blathering on about god knows what.

    • But then you need to actually look at the drummer all night.

    • Never really needed to suggest or use this with Jason on drums. I very fine drummer in all regards! By the way, I know Jonathan and Damian Erskine. A fabulous bass player from Portland, Oregon. I’m still practicing that double thumb thing Damian.

    • Never really had to worry about your playing Jason. Didn’t really need to look at each other….just listen. Huge pocket every gig.

    • Oh yeah, Damian Erskine is a killer bass player here in Portland, OR. Took an amazing lesson with this guy a while ago. Please check out his music.

  4. I just come right out and after introducing myself, let the drummer know that I consider our two parts as absolutely essential to the band’s success and am willing to work as hard as necessary with him (or her) to make it happen; that usually puts a smile on their face and we’re off to the races!

  5. I have a TShirt that reads “BASS, DRUMS and NOISE” noise in a good way but it really doesn’t matter who’s making it. Good players will follow the groove, highs, lows, dynamics that the rhythm section is laying down. Listening is key cuz it may never be exactly the same again.

  6. Just kill the drummer and move on to the next one :-)

  7. I’ve had this problem too. Mostly with drummers that are constantly on the verge of soloing and not paying attention to the groove. Tim Torrence makes an excellent observation regarding the drummer paying way too much attention to the guitar player….Some drummers are more concerned about showing their Mad skills rather than establishing the backbone of the band. It’s hard to lock up with the drummer when they are constantly doing an imitation of Keith Moon.

  8. An activity I do, is to have the drummer play the entire song by their self. I listen and internalize what they play…then work the groove until its a thing of its own, of course then we reverse roles and the drummer listens to me play the entire song. If you take the mental load of performing out of the equation then it makes your listening 3xs better. You’ve got to know where you are going before you find out how to get there:)

  9. I have a problem with my drummer… meter is OK…BUT he has a snare that is very unmusical…loose snares and a nasty overtone…It is a pain to listen to beat after beat let alone that fact that it makes the bands’ meter sound loose…BUT he is a good friend of ours. Now someone fix this!

  10. Have a stripted down practice with hardly any gear, no pedal boards, bass flangers,& only kik/snare/hihat/ride.I’ve found the less gear distractions the better the concentration for everybody.But good luck getting the git player to turn down.

    • some of the most productive rehearsals I have seen were done with acoustic guitars and the “drummer” playing a phone book

    • Don’t even invite the git player … some of the best rehearsals I’ve had have been one-on-one with the drummer … just playing grooves and getting that symbiosis working.

  11. Been there. Fixed it by using down time and before or after practice to just do some bass and drum jams. Just kept it organic. Plus it gave me a chance to work on some song ideas. Big thing is tell him to keep beat going if you take a sec to drop out and come back with something else. Rhythm section need to be tight and organic. If the rhythm sections flows the song will breathe no matter the racket the guitars make…ie..the stooges.

  12. I don’t have a lot of experience – there’s maybe 10 different drummers I played with longer. But if we don’t connect musically without the need to discuss it – there’s usually no way anything can change it. I think sometimes musicians don’t get along and that’s just it.

  13. I’ve played with as many as nine different drummers in one week. Sometimes you meet your drummer right before the downbeat of your gig and you don’t get a chance to work things out. I used to butt heads musically but learned to switch gears if the drummer isn’t able to. Being able to listen closely and interpret how they’re feeling the beat is key. With a drummer who has good ears and can meld to your groove it’s easy. Otherwise you have to be prepared to play simple and do anything you can to help out.

  14. My luck has been the opposite. I’ve played with two drummers that straight from the first rehearsal I have locked with in an instant non-verbal symbiosis. It was uncanny how we just played together with only enough non-musical communication to fill in the blank stares. Trouble was, outside of the rehearsal space, we could not get along. No matter what. There were too many differences a mile long to pin down. So as an extension of this discussion, what do you do? How have you gotten past the personal to maintain the professional?(I now play with three different drummers on a semi-regular basis and we all seem to get along quite well in all aspects…ie. Jamie Doran, Andrew Currie and sometimes even Dave Ashworth!)

  15. It’s often as simple as your strings not responding instantly enough – so your drummer may think you are playing late. The start of your note is very important, so instant response is absolutely necessary.

  16. It’s often as simple as your strings not responding instantly enough – so your drummer may think you are playing late. The start of your note is very important, so instant response is absolutely necessary.

  17. There are actual physical things that you can do to ensure that you both play in EXACTLY the same part of the note – listen with your eyes, and look with your ears!

  18. Sometimes you groove and connect, and sometimes you don’t :-). That being said, good to start off simple and hopefully the drummer will too. Go from there, “listening” to eachother is key. Knowing when to move the beat and riffs on, together sometimes takes time….try not to force it. It really boils down to listening to eachother while playing, being mature enough to talk things out if necessary and just play one on one sometimes sections of a song, without the full band so you can hear what’s going on, and what’s not going on. Cheers!

  19. I think that when, as a bass player, you can pick up on some of the more consistent beats and feels that a particular drummer brings it helps me find that groove. Sometimes it may be more important to fit his groove than to have him fit yours. Be flexible and listen.

  20. have you ever been playing a song, and the guitarist comes out of a solo and is off by a whole beat for quite a few measures, and is oblivious to the fact that everybody else is on one time, and they are not? well, its then that you learn the importance of being “in sync” with the drummer. its a rythm section! I’ve played a LOT of open Mics where the only person that knows the song is the guitarist that says” its just a 1-5-4. descriptive, but ambiguous at the same time. how many measures is the solo? how many solos for different guitarists? any bridge? its been up to me to figure out the structure of the song I didn’t know, and the drummer is on my side. taking clues from me, and we get through it. its a two man team within a larger team. the guitarists doesn’t think that way, but we have to. we have two jobs! people think the guitarist has two jobs, rythm and solo, or three jobs, rythm, solo, and singing, and the bass player just keeps going.

  21. It all about the right hand of the bass player, and the right foot of the drummer. If you can connect there, then you can groove. If you can’t follow the pattern or fill in space for a shoddy drummer, its going to be a long gig, and I suggest getting good enough to compensate for a weak drummer. I did it for years in one band. Made the drummer sound great, when we in reality of all over the place. Preemptively, knowing they are going to suck does help, lol.

  22. Communication with the drummer. There’s an app for that.

  23. 3 months of rehearsals? Get a new drummer.

  24. A band is a releationship, and sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there. You can try working on it for sure, but don’t overlook the fact that maybe it’s as good as it’s going to get. Then youv’e gotta ask your self if it’s something you can live with. If it’s time for a change, so be it. I’ve left bands that I couldn’t connect with before, and that’s part of the game. If your sure it’s him, maybe you need anew drummer, if it’s you, maybe you need a new gig that fits better. Maybe you can work it out? Good luck!

  25. Get to know him as a person, off the bandstand. Find out what motivates him and inspires him, musically and otherwise. You may be pleasantly surprised at how much you both have in common, and this stronger personal connection will undoubtedly translate musically. But on the flip side, if you find that he’s difficult to engage and connect with on a personal level, then just do the best you can to work around those parameters and know that you tried your best to make the situation better. Good luck!

  26. Good discussion but to play devils advocate…

    First off, who’s telling you the band doesn’t sound good? Other members, the drummer, fans? You might want to entertain the possibility it may not sound good enough to you, but might be ok for fans. Also, how often are you rehearsing? For some people, rehearsing for a show is different than practicing/woodshedding the parts and is definitely not fun social party time. Is it possible you guys are rehearsing too much with little or no positive change? If so, he could be burned out or bored.

  27. I agree with John Montagna. Get together and hang. Get some barbecue. Sit down for a slice of pie. Get to know the guy. I’ve found that, in certain situations, it has helped a lot to just get to know the other person.

    • I agree totally. The bass player/drummer relationship is the most important relationship in a band. I’m fortunate to work with a drummer who I have no problem connecting with and we are TIGHT. I’ve found that if you find out where the guy is coming from musically that helps a ton. What bands do they listen to? Who are their favorite drummers and bass players. What do you expect from me? Like any relationship communication is key.

  28. One thing I might add; make sure that the drummer can hear you. I’ve only been playing out 3 years or so, but our drummer is very experienced and helps me, and we always make sure that my amp is back far enough and maybe turned a tad towards him. Helps us both immensely. Heh, hearing the drummer isn’t usually a problem. And always remember, the slick trick is to stick with the kick!

  29. Communicate. The essence of any relationship is establishing this. I have found it hard to lock with drummers at times because they speed/slow up the tempo. Groove is essential. Sometimes a drummer may try to get closer to our moment by looking at my left hand(fretting), while the right hand for me (plucking is the moment. I get inside their groove by watching the kick moment and then try to find the disconnect be it snare or hihat time. I know that if you both try practising to a click in various tempos it will all become clear what is causing this feeling of not locking in. Its a game of push and pull, being elastic without changing the tempo. Good luck.

    • Follow the drummer. Done.

    • Even if he sucks? Thats not fun.

    • Its all about the feel of the groove

    • Interesting.. I find it difficult to lock in with certain bass players as well. I am not a machine, but feel is very important to me.

    • A band is only as good as its drummer. If the drummer has not studied the songs and does not put the kick and snare in the right moment the song is lost. The groove is everything and if he is playing a different groove placement then he is simply playing another song. None of us are machines.I dont claim to be perfect. I know that there is always a compromise in bands. The drummer drives the ship but if the course that he plots is self serving and not directly related to the song, the ride gets choppy. For me it comes down to preparedness and interpretation.

  30. Way I deal with it is send him a link to this article and hope he gets it. :D

    Honestly, I feel that just talking about what both the drummer and bassist are influenced by, or what is their favorite tune, helps break the ice. Even more so when you guys jam out together.