Connecting Written Rhythms to Your Bass Playing

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Photo by fensterbme

Q: I can read the notes on the staff and I can tell you if it’s a 16th note or a whole note, and yet, I can’t seem to play the rhythm. Any advice on fixing this?

A: As I’ve said before, learning to read music fluently takes a lot of practice, just like learning to speak a new language.

The key to reading rhythms, in my estimation, is mostly about:

  1. Being able to feel all of the subdivisions internally.
    If you can feel and play 8th note triplets comfortably, it’s not a big leap to seeing them on the page and playing them as written.
  2. Being able to identify where the downbeats are visually amidst the notes on the page.
    There is something called the “invisible bar line” or “imaginary bar line”. The concept is this: You should be able to draw an imaginary line in the middle of a bar of 4/4 (separating the bar into two half-bars of two beats each). This is important when writing music because it makes it easier to read, as you can see the division of those two-beat fragments. It is much the same for each beat when looking at combinations of 8th, 16th, quarter notes, etc. on the page. If you can clearly imagine where the downbeat is (and continue to pay attention to that while you play), it makes it easier not to jump ahead, fall behind or get generally confused.

My favorite way to work on rhythmic reading is to work through drum books. Specifically (but not exclusively) snare drum rudiment books. This really brings the focus in like a laser on your rhythmic reading, honing you in on those various rhythmic combinations that might trip you up.

This is where working with a metronome can be especially helpful, to keep you from cheating. Keep that downbeat on point and the accent on the 1. Work through it slowly and with careful attention, and I promise that it will all come together for you quicker than you might imagine.

Eventually, you will begin to instantly recognize how different written rhythms sound with just a glance. This is another form of muscle memory. It all comes together one rhythm at a time much like learning to read the notes comes together one note at a time. Reading requires constant upkeep and practice. If you’re not reading on gigs regularly or in school, you will need to make sure to read a little bit everyday to keep the forward momentum, or to keep from losing it all together. You’d be amazed how much you can forget in a short amount of time.

The only students I’ve ever had who couldn’t pull the reading stuff together were those that never really tried hard enough. If you do the work, it will come!

Back in January, I answered a similar question and provided some exercises to try out. Check out “Developing Timing and Feel: Rhythmic Studies for Bass Players” for more.

Readers, how about you? What are your favorite and most effective rhythmic studies? 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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