All Sides of the Beat: A Discussion for Bass Players

Q: I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on playing around the beat: when to play behind the beat? Ahead? And so on…

A: Good question! And also one that is a bit dependent upon how you feel the music.

All sides of the beatGenerally speaking, it is up to you and the rest of the band to determine how a song should feel, but I do have a few preferences determined by the style of music.

I always feel that a walking line should push a bit. This is something I’ve been working on actually, as I tend to lay back farther than I think I should when walking.

I also think that Bluegrass and Salsa should push just a bit.

By “push”, I mean that you’re playing on top of the beat, or just a bit on the front edge.

However, in most pocket playing situations (funk, R&B, etc..), leaning back on it and being a little more “lazy” is the way to go.

Not all musicians treat the beat the same way, and we will typically have to focus more on locking in with each other (especially the drummer) and keeping the time solid. If you’re lucky enough to have a drummer who can also control his or her time well, you can experiment with playing behind, dead on or ahead of the beat with different tunes to see how they feel.

There are even times when the drummer might be pushing a touch, and you might decide to pull just a touch to create a bit of tension in the music. Again, it’s a stylistic choice and one that you’ll need to agree on with the drummer and/or bandleader.

Just remember that to push does not mean to speed up! Likewise, laying back does not mean to slow down!

This takes a lot of control on your part and you’ll have to experiment with the different sides of the beat, but always remember that the differences are minuscule. We’re talking milliseconds here, otherwise we’re shifting the tempo and making it harder to play together.

As far as how to practice this, I say metronome, metronome, metronome! Simplify your harmony (i.e. play one note) so you can really focus on the time and to a click. Locking on to it, pulling on it, pushing it…

I’d also play with recordings that employ pushing and pulling too. For example, D’Angelo’s stuff tends to pull pretty hard. Try and cop some of Pino Palladino’s lines there to get a feel for what we’re talking about.

I hope that helps!

Readers, what do you say? Share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments.

Photo by Aldon Scott Mc Leod

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 wouldn’t call the rhythmic accents you put into a walking line a “push”- to me that refers to the approach to the beat (behind/top/ahead). I call it “kick” “swing” or “anticipation” “digging in”. You’re not changing the groove or the tempo; your adding rhythmic accents that make the groove bounce, for lack of a better word.
    I also agree that a HUGE problem I see with younger players, especially drummers, is that they equate playing in the pocket with slowing down the tempo, or rhythmic anticipation with speeding up. I think this is because there’s a whole generation that was raised on Nirvana and Green Day rather than music that was derived from the blues – or maybe it’s just that I’m a cranky old man.

    • At least they’re playing instruments. Better Greenday than the generation that has been brainwashed to love little wang, Jz, dj’s , drag and drop waves and fast food music (hiphop).

  2. I have been having a hard time with this, because I’ve really don’t know when I push or lay back, and I have always practiced with a metronome. but sometimes I tend to rush. but I really don’t know if I’m rushing or not. how can I get to really be conscious about rushing or lay back?

  3. I definitely like to play a little behind the beat in reggae…

  4. Funny innit. I love to hear walking bass that is behind the beat. Especially low tempo stuff.

  5. Just play in time with the other musos, that’s it.

  6. Sorry but on the beat is exactly where the note needs to be in most situations. Lagging behind can cause an uneasy felling and distrust in the rhythm section. Rushing can do worse. I’m not saying play like a robot and that there can’t be any push/pull. Keep the bass and drums as a solid unit. One or the other should be able ton disappear and the groove should remain strong and intact.

    • I always the there was either in the pocket or you’re not

    • I think the telling part of the article is when he talks about miniscule changes in tempo… (milliseconds). I will push or pull just an eentsy bit depending on the style – salsa does need to be a little up front, as does bluegrass imo. With a good drummer, it’s fun to play with it.

  7. How about posting a video with some examples of pushing and laying back….or point us to some that are already out there. I struggle with playing anywhere but right on the beat.

  8. Listen to some swing! Blues guys do this well. Both the drummer and bassist play behind the beat without dragging the tempo. Lotsa bassists could be much better players if they learned how manipulate the pocket.

  9. I have the same issue with walking lines, I have to consciously nudge myself ahead sometimes as I tend to want to sit back a bit. The most challenging feel I have found though is the feel Pino and Questlove get on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” album – they are so far behind the beat they are practically in the previous bar!

  10. Working on and mastering this kind of stuff is what separates a good musician from a great musician. The better you understand where your own pulse is, the better you can adapt to a drummer who might put their pulse in a different place. (Also FWIW…I heard from a reputable source that some of the tracks on ‘Voodoo’ were nudged back during the production process. They didn’t track it all like that, even though D’Angelo plays stuff way back. That’s the heavy J Dilla influence on that album.)

  11. This article is way to dangerous. As it will lead players, that ain´t got a rocksolid timing yet, to try with pushing and pulling and whatsoever. Just to end up in a big mess. IMHO it´s absolutely crucial to be able to play on the beat, or to pu it that way: In time, before you think anywhere else. There are so many players out there, struggeling with proper timing, especially when playing at or beyond their limits. So please every one that feels attracted by pushing and pulling. Get your time steady first. Cause this is it, what finally or eventually will enable yoou to put the notes where you want them to be. All the rest that´s to come is just a matter of taste. And that´s very various ;).