Keeping Time in Jazz

I love a good bass solo as much, or probably more, than the next person. In the band, however, our most important job is to “keeping time.” Below are a few things we can do in the practice room to help improve our “time” before we get to the gig.

Pick a tune you know well, i.e. by memory, and try the following:

  1. Set your metronome at a moderate/comfortable speed, say 120 bpm.
  2. Play two choruses:
    • Play in 2, and in 4, i.e. walking.
    • Focus on making every note lock in:
      • Don’t respond to the metronome, but keep internal time that coincides with the metronome.
      • Every note should be well placed.
      • If you get “creative” and your time suffers, play more simply.
      • Repeat this 2 chorus exercise until you can do both choruses with every note right in the pocket.
  3. Once you can do two choruses at this tempo, bump up the choruses to ten or more.
    • Repeat the process above, but with 10 choruses or more. I suggest the first chorus in 2 and the remaining choruses in 4
  4. Once you can keep solid steady time for 10 choruses at a moderate tempo, bump up the tempo.
    • Can you keep good time for 10 choruses at:
      • 150 bpm?
      • 200 bpm?
      • 300 bpm?
      • Where is your limit? Let’s find it and increase it.
  5. Do these exercises with the metronome on:
    • 1 and 3
    • 2 and 4
    • 1 only
    • 2 only
    • 3 only
    • 4 only
    • Every two bars
    • Every four bars
  6. Only play lines as complex as you can play them in time. If you stumble, then simplify your lines and try again later.
  7. Recording your efforts, and listening back to evaluate, will be illuminating.

Metronome work is important, but playing with humans can be different. So, once you are solid with the metronome let’s try something else:

  1. Find a recording of some of the masters playing your tune.
    • Play with this recording.
    • Focus on your time every beat, even the ones you don’t play.
    • Lock in with the players on the recording.
  2. Do this with several recordings at several different tempi. This one is much faster: Great! See if you can keep up!
  3. One of them is in a different key than you are used to? Great! Can you keep time while transposing to a new key?

I’ve found this sort of prep work helpful for a lot of people, but the main thing is that we, as bass players, spend some portion of our practice devoted to keeping time. After all, once we get to the gig, it’s our paramount concern. It requires focus. Every beat, every note.

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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