Getting the Feel: A Guide for Bass Players

Bass player feeling it

Q: What’s your suggestion for someone trying to get a better feeling on where to put a “pop” on a bass line? Sometimes I want to put a pop on a slap or a pizzicato line, but I always end up putting it on the beats 2 or 4. How to develop a better feeling, to be able to place it in less obvious places in the measure?

A: Two things come to mind when I think about this.

1. You should work to develop the ability to comfortably place it anywhere.
What I mean is this: Make it a goal to never let a lack of technique hinder your ability to play what you hear. Obtain more ability than you need (or at least, as much as you need and never less).

To this end, work on taking any given exercise or lick, break it apart and approach it from every angle. For example, if you are only comfortable playing a slap on the downbeat and a pop on the upbeat (8th notes), reverse it. Get comfortable playing with your thumb on the upbeats and plucking on the downbeats.

Then, work 16th notes. Start the pattern on the downbeat, then the “e”, then the “&” and finally, the “uh” (1-e-&-uh = the 4 subdivisions of a 16th note in one beat).

That is a basic example, but you can displace entire grooves like that. If the groove starts on 1, try starting it on the & of 1 (upbeat). Try something like that with every subdivision I can think of (triplets and 16ths, etc.. groupings of 2 or 3).

If it’s too much of a brain-twister, try writing it out so you can see where things should land. Don’t worry about getting frustrated and confused, that’s a part of the process and you are sure to learn something while in that space!

2. Use history as your guide.
Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe… and learn! To get a better understanding of how to best utilize a technique or style, one of the best things you can do is to study what others have done before you.

Make it your mission to transcribe a song from front to back (or an entire album) and work on it at a slower tempo – if necessary – until you can play it forwards and backwards. Work to really get it under your fingers.

You can even set a structured routine. Study Louis Johnson for a solid week or month, then move on to Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, and anybody who has played a line you like. Learn them, study them and master them. There is a 100% success rate with regard to improvement if you work hard at it.

The key is simply sweat equity. You get out what you put in and the smarter you are with how you use your time and what you spend your time studying, the quicker the results will come. Keep yourself challenged and never let yourself get comfortable!

Readers, how about you? What do you do to find that feel? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Valeria Guerrero

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. It seems to always come down to practice, doesn’t it?

  2. Relating to part 1 of this answer, take a look at this video. It’s Anthony Wellington and Victor Wooten describing exactly the concept of displacing a groove by 16th notes (semi-quavers for Europeans).

  3. I get a lot of inspiration from listening to what the drummer is doing. Also horns can really give you ideas. The just push the boundaries and remember not to overplay.

  4. Gotta agree with Dave and Joe here, esp. the comment about overplaying. Bass pyro sounds and looks cool, but if you can simply hold the groove you will get a lot of calls!