Is Rhythmic Tapping Okay in a Band Setting?

Bassist Right Hand Closeup

Q: When I play the bass (let’s say on a 4/4 beat), I often tap the strings on the exact beat that the snare drum makes (on the 2 and 4), and I can’t seem to stop doing that. I was wondering: Let’s say I’m playing in a band, having fun, and I start tapping… is it ok to think of it as “normal” or is it simply “not done”? Does it come with playing the bass? Is it acceptable? (Because when being recorded you can hear it as well.) What’s your view on this? Should I stop it? If so, how?

A: I may have been the world’s worst offender with regard to unconscious rhythmic tapping with my plucking hand. For me, it was a result of me always internally feeling subdivisions and physically tapping many of them out while I played. I actually used to practice tapping 16ths and triplets with my plucking hand while I played because I liked the way it sounded and it also helped me lock into the grid when I was coming up.
It quickly became a habit that I wasn’t even really aware of any more until it was pointed out to me two different times, on two different gigs, in one day.

I had a morning recording session with a songwriter to kick off the day. After taking a few takes of the first tune we went into the control room to listen. At one point, the engineer cocked his head to the side and closed his eyes… he started soloing track after track and went he got the to bass track, we got a big, “aha!”… He was hearing a clicking that, he couldn’t place. It was my right hand subdividing rhythms against the strings. I had never heard it so blatantly and aggressively in my face before. Of course, I had to go in and re-record my part because everything else was fine and we just decided to bang that out while everyone else took a break. I quickly discovered that I no longer felt quite as locked in when I was forcing myself not to do it. I got it done, of course, but it freaked me out how uncomfortable I felt NOT tapping rhythms out with my hand. So, long story short, I had to focus very hard on each take to not do what had become a natural part of my playing.

Move on to the evening… I got a last minute call to play a local salsa festival because the bass player had gotten hung up at the border when the band flew in. My name got put out there as someone who could read well and they had good charts. Everything went well. Great band, great charts… I was having a blast. In between songs, in the middle of the set, while the band-leader was talking to the crowd, the timbalero leaned over to me and said, “man… great job with those charts. Everything feels great, but can I make a suggestion?…. You’re subdividing EVERYTHING and, yeah.. it feels good, but you’re not leaving any room for us in there. You gotta leave some holes so everything can fit together, like a puzzle”.

It was one of the best lessons I’ve had playing that music and it further drove home the point that I needed to get control over my audible rhythmic habits!

I wish I had some fix-all, practice technique that would solve all of your problems but it comes down to this. We play how we practice. We need to be able to feel the subdivisions internally without necessarily representing them aurally. There was really only two things that I did to help me play with intention and remove this habitual behavior:

  1. Record yourself practicing. Play with intention and focus listen back and listen for any habitual behavior (while you’re at it, listen for habitual patterns and licks… keep shed time devoted to exploring new ideas)
  2. Sing what you play while you play it. Only allow yourself to play what you sing. If you want to rhythm-a-cize things, make yourself vocalize that. Keep yourself accountable and only sing what you play / only play what you sing.
  3. Explore other ways to use your body to feel the pulses, subdivisions, grid.. whatever your visualization is for the time feel. This could be stepping in place, dancing a bit, swaying… anything. Just try and keep the physical manifestation of time feel internalized with the exception of what you actually want to come out of your rig.

It will likely take some time before you can really remove the habit because you need to develop the new habit of NOT doing it, thereby saving it for when it actually adds to the groove and just as a matter of course. Developing new muscle memory and new mental memory takes time but it will only serve to make you more intentional with your music, so it can’t be a bad thing!

Best of luck. I hope that helps in some small way!

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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