Improving Time and Rhythmic Accuracy

As important as playing with good intonation is, it is even more important to play with good time and rhythmic accuracy. Most of us know that counting, subdividing and practicing with a metronome can help. However, there are things we can do beyond these initial steps. Below are a few suggestions, and a few games, for taking your rhythmic accuracy to the next level.

To Do at the Bass

Play with Recordings of Recognized Masters

Trying to lock into the groove of James Brown’s rhythm section can be very instructive. Besides, it’s fun.

Move While You Play

Accurate rhythm and good time are at least 50% physical, and keeping your body needlessly still can impede your concept of the beat. You don’t have to dance a jig, but moving some part of your body to the beat, (even if it’s just tapping your toe or nodding your head) can help your playing sit firmly in the pocket. Do this for anything you practice that has a beat.

Count Rhythms Aloud While You Play Them

Playing this rhythm?

Rhythm pattern

Count the rhythm aloud while you play using the numbers and syllables of your preferred counting system. (e.g. One and-a, Two and-a, etc.)Don’t have one yet? Go get one.

Count the rhythms aloud while you play your etudes, repertory and sight reading for a week and see what it does for your rhythmic concept.

Away from the Bass

Keep the Beat Going

  • Set your metronome to a tempo, say 110bpm, and let it click away.
  • Tap this tempo with one hand
  • Use the other hand to reduce volume to zero
  • Keep the tempo for a time in your “tapping” hand
  • Turn up the volume and the metronome and see if you kept a steady beat. How long can you keep the beat consistent?
  • Can you keep the tempo for one bar? Ten bars? One minute?
  • You can also do this “at the bass.” Simply replace your tapping with a consistent rhythm played on an open string. If you want to try this, I suggest starting with quarter notes.

Recognize Tempi

Use the “tap tempo” function on your favorite metronome (or metronome app) to determine the tempo of your some of your favorite recordings. Put a bpm number to recordings you are already familiar with. Memorize the bpm of a few songs.

Once you start to get a feel for different tempi, start the guessing game on a new batch of recordings. Feel the beat of the song you are listening to, then try to determine the tempo simply by recall. Check your guess against the “tap tempo” function of your metronome (or app). Do this for a few weeks and see how your tempo recall improves. Work to get within 5 bpm below or 5 bpm above.

Constant Counting with Subdivisions

Precision rhythmic placement requires the performer to subdivide. Get into the habit of counting, and subdividing, at all times.

Count and subdivide while listening to recordings. Count and subdivide to the rhythm of the washing machine, your windshield wipers, the grooves on the highway…everything. Do it until you find yourself counting and subdividing without even realizing you were doing it.

As a reminder, “counting” means counting with numbers and subdividing with syllables. Simply hearing “clicks” in your head won’t be as effective.

Get creative, create your own games and challenges.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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Share your thoughts

  1. Pat Nolan

    Jeff Berlin is out there just fuming with anger! ;)

  2. Totally agree the “embodiement” concept of accuracy: feel it first with your body, then play it, this is what I tell my students, and it always works ;).

  3. Keep the beat going: I’ve got some backingtracks for that matter: download for free ;)

  4. I love working with this new pedal called a beat buddy. Basically it is a drum machine in a pedal. Any drum machine type of device is better than a plain metronome.It helps me to learn to different rhythmic patterns for different styles of music without actually needing a drummer.

    • Petey

      Hi Billy, who make this beat pedal? I would love to get my hands on one.?

  5. I too use a drum machine/patterns that are in the Boss RC 300 Looper. To second your Recognize Tempi example, using mostly Beatles tunes, I find the tempo of a song using the Boss looper and after learning the fundamentals of it, create my own voice but within the confines of the original tune.

    Coincidentally, while learning Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars, I discovered that the drum pattern he uses for that song is based on a drum machine or click track. It’s a perfect 142 bpm (or whatever the beat is the tempo is constant). I was surprised about that because most songs I play the tempo varies… never perfect like the Bruno Mars tune.

    Thanks for The lowdown, Dr. D!

    • SubSonicGroove

      I’ve done most of these examples over the 20+ years playing and I find that, throughout the years I naturally developed the necessity to move, which has helped my staying in “the pocket” and its actually harder to just stand there. Some players can stand there and be a cardboard cut-out, me… I’ve got to move!