The Lightbulb Moment: All About That Bass Drum

Bass Drum

Photo by Keary O.

I’d like to take a moment to reminisce. It’s the summer before freshmen year of high school and time to join the ranks of “pep” band. My school was more of an academic institution than an athletic one and while we certainly had plenty of competitive aptitude, the science club and debate teams took home the gold. Nevertheless, football season was just around the corner and the band was gathered to attend pre-season. Choreography wasn’t our forte, hence the term “pep” rather than “march,” and due to lack of enthusiasm by upperclassmen, freshmen were required to participate. As a member of the percussion section, my fate was determined by leader of the drum line — a senior who devoted most of his high school career to snare rudiments and jazz band. Few newbies got their instrument of choice, and being the lowest person on the totem pole, I was assigned the big ol’ bass drum.

From that moment on, band was something I no longer looked forward to. It meant long hours of pounding away at the same rhythmic pattern, a sore back from carrying an instrument that I could probably fit inside, and many hours standing in the hot sun. There seemed to be little finesse in banging giant mallets on beats one and three and I came to despise songs like “Jungle Boogie” and “The Horse.” It was enough to make me quit; and I did.

Despite the emotional scarring from school band, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, I should give a “thank you” to the band director for inspiring me to quit and, in turn, focus my attention on the bass. To this day, I remember the kick pattern to “Shining Star” and who knows, it may have planted the seed that sprouted my devotion to part playing and rhythmic sensitivity.

Years later, as I find myself playing all kinds of music with all types of drummers, my focus is still placed upon the kick drum. It’s what locks the rhythm section together, the provider of pulse and momentum for the rest of the band. In some ways, it makes life easy; it spells out exactly where to attack the note and makes us the perfect bed to lie in. If we’re playing a mid-tempo song with a kick pattern of “one-(two)-and-three” then I’ve got the lines to a painting that I’m only too happy to color.

In other ways, it can be a point of controversy, bringing up questions like “should I meticulously play to every kick?” and “what do I do if the guitar players are emphasizing a different pulse?” It can make you question how to fit in to the music, especially when the song is feeling a bit rocky and it’s up to you to glue everything together. So how do we navigate these waters? How do we decide where our rhythmic allegiance lies?

First things first, there are no universal truths in the matter – it’s music and it’s what you make it. There are different ways to approach playing to certain kick pattern, such as the “four on the floor.” You can play quarter notes to match it, eighth notes to add a pulsing subdivision, or play a pattern highlighting the upbeats to add syncopation, such as “one-and-(two)-and-(three)-and-(four)-and.” Depending on how funky you want to get, the “four on the floor” gives you a very versatile canvas to work with because it’s simple, unyielding, but fairly malleable for the bass player.

Then there are other kick patters that are so specific, you either need to lay out and let it carry the song, pick and choose which beats to emphasize, or play an identical rhythm. This is particularly common in pop, hip-hop, and funk where the groove is so tight and defining that the rhythm section can’t help but lock in. If everyone has done their homework or people are collaborating during the writing process, the places to “troubleshoot” involve deciding when not to play the identical pattern.

And finally, there are situations that are completely up to your discretion (or to that of the band leader). Sometimes, the drummer and the guitar players seem to conceptualize the song in different ways; one may hear certain beats pushed while the other hears them straight. Or, perhaps you’re playing with a singer-songwriter who has a “go with the flow” attitude; they may be used to performing solo and are not necessarily set in their rhythmic ways. Both situations tend to place the bass player at a rhythmic crossroads… do you play with the singer/guitar player leading the song? Match them push-for-push and potentially clash with the kick pattern? Or do you defer to the drummer and create a unified rhythm section, even if that means you go against the song leader? I’d suggest that 75% of the time, you’ll want to follow the drummer, but it’s certainly worth playing around with other ideas. If you have a chance to rehearse the song, suggest trying both ways, get input from the other members of the band, and make a democratic decision. That’s probably the best way for the band to feel comfortable with the groove of the song.

Whatever situation you find yourself in, whether you’re transcribing a song, performing live, or tracking in the studio, kick drum awareness is key. If you’re having trouble locking in, pay attention to what’s going on under the kit… it may reveal more than you think. In the studio, ask for a little more kick in the headphones; performing live, try standing close to the drummer and catch a glimpse of their right foot. You probably won’t get a whole drum line worth of bass drummers playing “Hey Ya,” but bringing it to the forefront of your mind wouldn’t hurt. As for me, I would have preferred playing the quad toms in the band, but perhaps everything happens for a reason – maybe my assigned bass drum foreshadowed my current career. Now if only I could get those routines down…

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Ryan Templeton

    Great read! I played the trombone in marching band back in high school. It was terrible, but that’s initially what kickstarted my musical abilities. Without the trombone, I probably wouldn’t be playing the bass today. Looking back, I’m appreciative of my marching band experience even though I hated it at the time. Funny how that works. :)