Playing Bass with a Drumming Background

Bass Drum

Q: I’ve often heard non-drumming musicians say that they are frustrated drummers, but you actually were a drummer before getting into bass, yes? Can you tell us why you made the switch, whether you are happy to have done so, and if you ever get jealous of the drummers you are playing with now? Before taking up bass, did you think harmonically and melodically, or were you mostly occupied with rhythmic concerns? Do you ever play the kit now?

A: Technically, bass was my first instrument, but drums was my first love. I was primarily a drummer until around age 23 when I started going to Berklee College of Music. After spending my first year feeling lost as a metal drummer in a jazz school, I switched my major to Bass Performance, as I was just discovering fusion and fell in love with a few bassists (Jaco, Gary Grainger, Victor Wooten).

Initially, I only made the switch because it seemed to make more sense for me at the time, but I quickly fell in love with it and, I’m sad to say, that I haven’t really played drums since! I still have a kit but I well and truly stink now. It’s still fun to lock into a groove from time to time but I get frustrated with how alien the instrument feels to me now and, knowing that I don’t have much time to devote to it, the drums have never really made a re-emergence in y musical life in a serious way.

I think that every instrumentalist should learn to play the drums, at least a little bit (just as everyone would be well served to learn a bit of piano).

Learning to think like a drummer is immensely helpful when it comes to your relationship with rhythm, time, and feel.

I still very much think rhythmically. Learning to think harmonically was something that I had to work very hard at (and still work at). Rhythm will always be a more natural part of my musical perspective but I think that it’s a more primal or base part of our relationship with music. Almost everybody likes to finger drum or air drum along with the music. I never stop drumming on things (just ask my wife). Whether I’m subdividing or tapping polyrhythms along with my turn signal or just tapping my foot and trying to play different rhythmic patterns on my leg as I sit in an airport.

Rhythm is everything for me.

When you actually start to work on the independence and coordination necessary to play a kit or percussion instrument, you are instantly working to internalize and physically connect with the rhythmic grid (as I call it). Learning to operate on a purely rhythmic level does wonders for your phrasing and ability to feel the music on a deeper level (I believe).

I wholly suggest that every musician get a percussive instrument of some kind and devote time towards learning how to really play it (even a practice pad and a pair of sticks along with a snare-drum rudiment book). You’ll be amazed at the things you’ll learn that you can adapt to your instrument as well as how it will cause your relationship with rhythm to evolve (and for bass players, rhythm is everything!).

My only regret is that I let my relationship with my drum set go for so long. I mistakenly figured that it would always be there for me and I felt like I had so much work to do on the bass that I never felt like I could afford to skip my bass studies (as well as living in tiny apartments for years so… practicing drums? not ideal).

So yes… I’m still a drummer at heart and rhythm is my comfort zone.
I still feel like my role as a bassist is to play drums within the confines of the foundational harmony, in a way.

For me, harmony happens in the head but rhythm happens in the heart.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Paulo Santos Cancel reply

  1. Paulo Santos

    I’ve played the violin for 20 yeard before picking up the bass. This paragraph applied perfectly well to me (replacing drums for violin):

    “My only regret is that I let my relationship with my drum set go for so long. I mistakenly figured that it would always be there for me and I felt like I had so much work to do on the bass that I never felt like I could afford to skip my bass studies (as well as living in tiny apartments for years so… practicing drums? not ideal).”