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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

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