Achieving Rock Solid Time on Bass

Foot Tapping

Photo by CascadeFoto

Q: I was wondering if you could touch on the topic of time, the most important part of being a bassist. Are there ways to get rock solid time anywhere from 60 bpm to 300 bpm other than just playing with a metronome? If so what do you suggest?

A: Aside from my usual answers: a) repetition (hundreds of hours of repetition) and b) patience (see “a”), here are some thoughts.

You will certainly want to practice holding grooves at various tempos with a metronome as well as simply playing along with recordings (which, although may not have been recorded with a click, are still generally in time). Playing to recordings might even be more useful as time flows when you’re actually playing music – it breathes. It shouldn’t necessarily be metronomic. The ebb and flow will more accurately mimic the musically moveable time of many recordings.

If you’re like most people, you can feel mid-tempos pretty well and have a threshold on either side of that, beyond which you get less comfortable (too slow or too fast). Once tempos get awkward to feel because they are too slow or too fast, I generally recommend moving to subdivisions.

If a tempo is too fast to tap or feel, try feeling it in half time. Move your body or tap half notes or even whole notes. This can also serve to help you from getting too tense. I often find that ultra fast lines are easier to play if I’m moving my body to a “larger” pulse. For example, say you have to play something at 240 or faster. Try to only feel the “big beats”, or whole notes. This allows for your lines to breathe without feeling like you’ve strayed from the time (as long as you keep bringing it down on the big ONE).

If a tempo is too slow to feel locked into, try to double it and feel the 8th notes. You might also try to feel it with 8th note triplets.

It really depends on the feel of the tune and the swing (or feel) of your lines. Definitely keep your internal pulse moving in a way that relates to the way you want to feel the line. Any subdivision that relates to the feel you want to convey will work: 8th notes, triplets, even dotted 8ths can work depending on the tune.

While figuring all this out, keep in mind that if the tactic you choose helps you play the tune and it sounds good, do it. For example, I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t tap my foot, saying it is “wasted energy that I could be putting into playing”. I call foul. If I’m tapping my foot, it’s because it is helping me to better feel the pulse, so I’m going to do it. Of course, if you’re in a recording studio, surrounded by mice, sitting on a hard-wood floor, wearing hard soled shoes, you don’t want to stomp away. When your go to thing isn’t possible, figure out an alternative. For example, in the studio you could choose to stop tapping your foot, move to the control room, or ask for a carpet scrap.

Circumstances alter cases.

Working to have the best control over your internal clock is crucial. It also isn’t the end of the story. On some swing gigs, or with certain drummers, you might actually worry about time less than you will locking in with them. Sometimes you’ll need to focus on the drummers ride cymbal stick and play to the time of that instead. Or the kick drum. Or the snare. Depends on the genre and the drummer.

Readers, what did/do you do to work on your time at a variety of tempos? Please share in the comments.

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. David Gotteri

    Good advice, Damian, as always.

    I once talked to a student about this, particularly playing really slowly. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing to keep the time as long as you stay -in time-.
    I used to play really slow stuff and instead of counting “1… 2… 3…… 4… ” I’d count the “e+a”s as well, to help stay locked in.

    For faster stuff I tend to sing it “ba da da da” and all that. Or knock back to the first and third beat (or whatever the music calls for) making it more rhythmic and dynamic, while the guitarists go into meltdown! ?

  2. Adrian

    One really awesome thing I learned from the master V. Wooten was setting up the click to slowly take away beats. For example, it would play 4 bars with 4 clicks per bar to get the tempo down. Then have it take away the 4th beat/click for the next 4 measures. Then, the 3rd and 4th click, 2nd/3rd/4th etc. until you only have 1 click at the beginning of the measure. Then you can start taking those away too. I set up a loop so after that I could get synced up again and keep going.

  3. Alex

    Why are mice in the recording studio? ;-)

  4. colin

    but don’t forget the feel , being in time is only 1 aspect , be it important.

  5. Enrico Barbaro

    I really really enjoy playing with slow slow bpms. Starting with, let’s say, a simple sincopated line at 120 (4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4 or whatever it happens ti be), playing the same at 60, then 30, then 15… That’s is where i start to think of the metronome not being the perfect machine it is supposed to be… Instead i think as if it is a human drummer trying to catch my “ones” ;) if i relax enough i can then play very relaxed on my internal time, rushing and slowing down at moments, putting some larger pauses and still feel the beat, striving to fall on the “1s” with my veeery relaxed drummer. In a couple of minutes trying it i got it… Even 10bpm. Because it’s all about dancing, is’t it?
    Great thread mr. Erskine as always.

  6. Play with drummers way out of your pay league helps a lot…you’ll get a decent meter pretty fast. Scowls from great drummers always seem to hurt the most lol

  7. juicy j

    What about jazz solid time hahaha

  8. I’ve been trying a new (to me) exercise.
    Metronome at 40 bpm.
    Play a scale – one note per beat, then switch to 2 per beat, then 3 etc … to 8 notes per beat. Switching is hard. It’s very satisfying when it starts to get easier.

  9. The most problems with all the subdivisions for students is that they have no clue which of the “ba da da da” to play or how they relate – because the vowels are similar and doesn’t support your brain’s identification and seperation enough. So I came up with a different but very clear “word”: ‘Ta Ka De Mi’ . In which every part is one of the 16ths and it is clearly pronouncable and – because it are different vowels – it’s easy to locate where you are in your 16th subdivision. In that way I can make new students accurately play all possible 16th combinations within 20 minutes. The students than can easily play it at higher and lower speeds as well. And especially at lower speeds it’s stays less abstract due to the different vowels and also more steady in different rhythm patterns. And – yes indeed – I also use the trick of multiplying the beat at slow levels. I made a lot of audio tracks lowering in BPM starting from a convenient BPM to ultra slow and skipping eventually some beats. Those tracks are some minutes long to really have them focus on the beat. And – golden rule – NO COFFEE before grooves and/or timing exercises/recordings hahahaha :)

  10. Yann

    Great advice … When playing over records, I’d add : loop a small portion you want to work on, slow it down, get as close as you can from the time, articulation of the bass player … Then Build it up. And when you are really confortable with it, take the low frequencies off, so you ear as little bass as posible, and play over it.

    If any of these points creates issues, go back to the next one (I’d say go back and forth anyway, just to be sure)