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Improving Your Time and Feel on Bass

Drums and bassist
Photo by MazetMan

Q: I’ve been having some trouble with time. I can keep time and play in time with a metronome or with drummers I know well, but when I play with other drummers who are a little more ahead of me, it’s harder for me to keep time. It happens too when I’m playing Latin music. What do you recommend?

A: As with most things, ability comes down to experience. There is only so much a person can prepare for in the practice shed. Everybody feels time just a little bit differently.

To help visualize the issue, try to imagine the center of the beat as a vertical line and your note placement as a spot before, on top of or after that line. Now imagine that everybody’s spot is in a slightly different spot. This is actually okay providing everyone has the same time-feel. If one player’s time is moving around that center beat in an inconsistent way, that person will be hard to play with for the rest. Great musicians control where their beat falls around that line. Most people just feel it in one place, and that’s where they put it (Again, that’s okay as long as it’s consistent).

What takes a little more experience is learning to recognize and adapt and assimilate with another musician’s time-feel when it’s conflicting with your own. I have often found that conflicting feel has much more to do with things other than beat placement though. The amount of swing, intensity, your level of relaxation in a line… all of these things come into play.

For example, you mentioned Latin music. Many of my students struggle with Latin music for a myriad of reasons. The use of upbeats instead of downbeats can be unsettling if you’re unfamiliar with the style. Many times the tempo is very fast while the feel might be relaxed. In addition, if you don’t understand the percussion parts and the clave, you very well may be rubbing against the groove or stepping on someone’s toes without being sure of how to avoid it.

This brings me back to my point about experience. Familiarity is key. Whether it’s odd time signatures, unfamiliar feels or even just a time-feel that is different from the drummer you usually play with, all of these things require that you listen and interact appropriately to the music. That requires that you have familiarized yourself with whatever it is that’s tripping you up so you can better anticipate, assimilate, interact or counteract.

None of what I’ve said has anything to do with playing with a musician who hasn’t internalized their own sense of time though.

In order to make sure that you have control over your time, here is what I suggest (and maybe you can suggest this to any troubled drummers too):

Rather than focusing on locking with the center of the beat and using a metronome (although that’s a useful skill), focus on internalizing all of your subdivisions. Triplets in every form, 16ths, 32nds, etc., all groups of 2 and 3 that you can imagine. I find that those with funny time-feels are really just pushing or pulling the notes in between the beats. Essentially, the space between the notes is off and unpredictable.

If you can feel any subdivision of the beat as well as you can feel the downbeat, your time will lock in and you will be more able to command where the other players are putting it by virtue of your rock solid command of the grooves.

Rhythmic mastery usually really just comes down to expanding your ability to hear advanced rhythmic phrases (evolution of the ears) and your control over the space in between the beats (evolution of your feel). If you can pull those two things together, you will both own your own time feel as well as be able to better command the entire bands time-feel.

Readers, what’s your approach? How have you developed your own time-feel? Please share in the comments.