Achieving Rock Solid Time on Bass
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.