Controlling Rhythm and Expressing it Musically

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

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. I have come up against one solid reason for paying close attention to the rhythm. It started with Larry Graham, really. As a bass player in a church setting, you frequently perform without a drummer. Some may have tambourines in the congregation though that’s on the audience side of things. Larry developed his slap technique to add the rhythm and punch that wass mising. This means ya gotta feel the thing. In most cases, control it. As the bass player in that situation and in most others, YOU are what the audience feels. Develop and feel a solid rhythmic groove. Use the rests to your advantage. Make it yours.

    • To me, the essence of rythm with a bass started when a guy started to slap on a double bass, to had that kick/snare drum feel in his playing, it comes really before Larry Graham, but it’s just comparing orange and apples I agree with you anyway ;). I really love psychobilly or rockabilly for that reason ! some “New-Orleans” pianists pointed that also in some piano styles, John Cleary really explains that so well :

  2. Maybe the most important thing I have learned about this subject is that most people think notes first, rythm second when it comes to expression. Try thinking rythm first. It’s amazing what an impact that cab have.

  3. I’ve drummed with my teeth even since I was a kid, to this day I thought I was the only one. I also try to work with the rhythm as the base – especially when reading music.

  4. When you think about the bass players that made significant changes and contributions to the instrument and, more importantly the music itself, you realized that they are all rhythmically distinct. Scott LaFaro, James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, John Entwistle, Jaco Pastorius – even back to Slam Stewart. They were all very distinct in their approach to rhythm, both in solo work and that is what we should remember. Theory and harmony is a math process to a certain degree but rhythm is wide open for improv and line building. I’ve been going back through a lot of standards recently due to a very important upcoming gig and I realized that when I started learning tunes way back in high school, I had only learned the theory of it. But due to a lot of other types music I’ve played in the ensuing years, the rhythmic concept is now different – less notes in approaches but more rhythmic interest.