Controlling Rhythm and Expressing it Musically
Q: This week’s column was written in part from a response to a FaceBook question I had about controlling rhythm and expressing it musically. I was also asked about my approach with my right hand, and where it came from with regard to rhythm and how I use it in my lines. I took that response and expanded on it a bit, and here is a slightly more thorough answer to the question of rhythmic mastery!
A: When I was a kid, I was much more passionate about drums than bass. Even to this day, I get more excitement from drummers than bassists when seeing shows or watching YouTube. I’m almost always watching the drummers still.
Because of that, a lot of my bass playing relates to drumming: I think more rhythmically than harmonically. At least, rhythm comes more naturally, while harmony feels more like math.
A lot of the specific technique I use is kind of emulating the ghost notes of a snare drum. All of those subtle, hardly heard, rhythmic notes that are struck that, while a small part of the perceived groove, are still essential to the overall feel and flow. I subdivide everything like mad in my head, and I’ve come to realize that much of the ability to play various rhythms competently and musically comes down to a few key things.
First, it is about internalizing every subdivision on either side of the beat. For example, if you’re feeling it in triplets (groups of three instead of two, which would be an 8th or 16th note type of groove), you have to make sure that you can really feel that more obscure third triplet as well as you can the first (downbeat).
Second, you have to respect the rests. Often people don’t give the rest the same unit of time as a note. We don’t think about the rests as much because we don’t actively play them, but the rests are there to make the notes sound good (in a way… or vice versa. We need to be careful not to cut them short. Many players use the rest to think about their next note and wind up jumping the gun, which drastically alters the feel and solidity of the groove.
Just those two things can really improve your ability to play with rhythm in new ways, and feel comfortable with rhythm in new ways.
The rest is just mechanics. Just training your hands to be comfortable doing something and training them with intention so it is efficient, fluid, dynamic and injury free.
Be mindful of how and what you practice. Practice smart, efficiently and often.
The toughest part is developing your own rhythmic ideas and making them interesting.
There’s one more thing, but these things relate to everything in music: listening and internalization.
In order to help yourself develop new skills, you have to start by exposing yourself to new things. Broaden your perspective. Find YouTube videos offering up music from other cultures, and buy the albums for the music that you like the most and serves as inspiration to your growth. Then transcribe the music.
The music of Africa, Brazil, India and Peru are my among my favorites for exploring rhythms, and I try and dig deep into it. I transcribe, I listen over and over again, I tap things out, I even drum with my teeth when I drive.
Dig even deeper: research and try and figure out where a certain artist got their ideas and who they credit as influences. In other words, get closer to the source.
Often, learning about folk music from other cultures and then following the thread to modern day interpretation can open up entire universes of material to study.
More specifically, you could just spend one month studying Salsa music or Konokol (an Indian system for mastering rhythm through vocalization instead of using drums). You wouldn’t be able to keep yourself from evolving in some way.
You also can’t force it. If you don’t like it or have no interest in something, search out something that speaks to you. I firmly believe that one learns exponentially better when they love what they are learning (or at least, what it is doing for you) than if one is simply doing it because they “should”.
Readers, what is your approach to rhythmic studies? Tell us about it in the comments!
Photo by Almond Butterscotch