An undeniably important relationship exists between the drummer and bassist. If we look at a band playing together similarly to how we would look at a recipe, all parts must work together to create the perfect result. While it is the job of every band member to maintain peripheral consciousness of all musicians in the band, it is particularly important from a drummer’s perspective to lock in with the rhythmic elements of the group. Here are 5 tips to focus on:
1. Listen and adapt – It is easy for musicians to become consumed with our own parts, upcoming changes, and mental distractions that, at times, threaten our ability to listen to the other parts going on. Playing music with others is the musical equivalent to having a conversation with them. If I were speaking to you, ideally you would listen to what I have to say and respond with an appropriate answer. The best conversations occur when all parties are in sync and contributing. Have that conversation with your bassist through your instrument and be sure to adapt as needed. Musical collaborations experience peaks, valleys, highs, lows, and as a core contributor to the rhythm section, you need to always be prepared to adapt to any changes, whether they are rhythmic, related to tempo, dynamics, or even technical complications.
2. Focus on key notes – I always look at bass lines as shapes. They all have certain curves, angles, and geometric patterns. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are reacting to every single note, but you do want to locate the notes that are most important to the underlying rhythm. I always try to locate 2 types of notes in the bass line: 1. Key notes – The main notes that form the rhythmic emphasis of the bass line. If you took away every other note, the basic rhythmic idea should be ultimately unaffected. 2. Walking notes – These notes support, lead to, or lead away from key notes. Try to first locate the key notes and form your part around them.
3. Don’t leave the pocket – You may have heard the phrase playing “in the pocket”. This is a musical concept that refers to musicians keeping perfect, consistent time and establishing a groove. What is your hand when its in your pocket? It’s snug, comfy, and we mainly do it to relax our hands. Consider pocket playing as something you do to relax the groove. Make it feel good, not rushed, not dragged, not notey, but SNUG!
4. Play along to recordings – This is a great practice as it will force you to play along with other drummers and listen to the bass lines they are playing with. However, its important to pick the RIGHT musicians to play along with, as plenty of recordings exist that represent examples how NOT to play with a bassist. Consider some of the above tips about playing in the pocket, forming a groove, and seeking key notes to emphasize. If it is a song with a more standard snare emphasis on the 2 and 4 of the measure, make sure you are aligning your backbeat with the one on the recording. Otherwise, you will end up turning the beat around and placing them emphasis on the 1 and 3. Consider the songs below:
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Chameleon – Herbie Hancock
Hey Nineteen – Steely Dan
5. Record your jam – To a previous point I made, when we are in the moment, we aren’t always hearing the subtle nuances of our playing that could possibly be improved. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I nailed a part, then listened back to it to realize either a) I didn’t, or b) someone else didn’t. So be sure to assess and evaluate your playing by listening back to it. You don’t need a sophisticated recording studio with a ton of post production capabilities but try to access a recording rig that will allow you to clearly hear your part. Low frequencies are typically most difficult to capture on more amateurish recording devices so keep in mind your goal of assessing the connection between the bass and drums and the need to clearly hear all parts. The amazing thing about recordings is that they are sharable. Not only do you want to listen back and form your own assessments but send the recording out to trusted musical cohorts and ask for feedback.
6. Practice in a live setting – For now, I’m referring mainly to a live practice setting. We will get to performances in front of an audience. That old cliche saying your soccer coach always told you – “Practice makes perfect”… Well, they weren’t lying. Be sure to have jam sessions both with a full group and also with just you and a bassist to execute the things were are talking about. Even more, don’t be afraid to mess up. After all, that’s what practice is for. Take some risks, step out of your comfort zone, and learn from your mistakes. Somebody once told me (I forget who but apparently they are pretty important) that it’s a blessing to be the worst player in a band. Now, not to get into egos too much but definitely consider what it takes to improve. If you’re always the best, who are you learning from? Seek out jam sessions and opportunities to practice with players more advanced than you. This is a great opportunity to get some advice and also to record yourself.
7. Consider the melody – Branford Marsalis’ drummer, Justin Faulkner opened my mind to this concept. I played a show with him once and picked his brain afterwards on his playing. I’m not going to pretend like I have a rock solid grasp on this. I may have even perceived the message differently than from what he intended but here’s what I get from it… Certain styles of music have a more loosely defined rhythm. Think about jazz. It’s not accessible to everyone’s ear. It’s frequently challenging the concept of pocket playing, and there is not always an obvious rhythmic backbone to lean on. However, it is a pretty melodic genre. Listen to the head of “Straight, No Chaser” for example. That melody is going to guide your rhythmic intentions. I’m humming it as I write this, locating key notes I would emphasize in my comping, considering dynamic moments, and letting the rhythm almost fall secondary to the melody. In the whacky world of jazz, I almost look it at like a pit bull running wild on a leash with you on the other end, chasing after it. The better you keep up, the more control you will have. Trying being less rhythmic for a moment and see where the melody takes you.
8. Know the time signature – How do you know what beat you are going to play if you don’t know what time signature you are playing in? OK, yes there is such thing as groove and you might be able to follow the patterns without knowing how many beats are in the measures you’re playing but I always prefer to save myself the mental anguish whenever possible and figure out (or ask) what the time signature is, as it’s going to help me form a more appropriate part. I guess I like to decrease the margin of error when I can. If your bassist is playing in 7/8 and you aren’t, I just don’t see how that’s a good thing unless there is something intentional about your rhythmic approach to the song that justifies your part being in a different meter. At any rate, consider some of the more frequent odd timings at practice them with your bassist (3/4, 5/8, 6/8, and 7/8 strike me as the more typical ones but challenging yourself to 11/8 or some other meter is great practice)
9. Play to a metronome – Your job, in most contexts, is to function as a human metronome. A big part of keeping a groove is keeping it consistent at the same tempo. When you drag, the band follows… Now the groove is lost. Playing with a metronome will also help you in recording settings if you are playing along to a click track. I recorded a song without a click in my early days of drumming and have to relive the painful moment where the tempo changed every time I listen to it. This was a great lesson for me, as it helped me understand the importance of keeping consistent time and play along to click tracks with better ease. Metronomes aren’t expensive. If you have a smart phone (and who doesn’t?) download the “pro metronome” app. Be sure to practice sticking combinations, hand-foot patterns, beats, and fills at different tempos and in different meters. It might not be an overnight epiphany but you will definitely notice an improvement over time if you follow a consistent regimen with your metronome.
10. Perform in front of audiences – I used to think my playing should be perfect before getting out in front of a crowd. If you are playing at a big event, supporting another artist, getting paid, or performing on TV/radio, yes, be as close to perfect as you can. But if you’re playing at a local bar or a more casual event, you could actually look at it as great practice. You don’t truly know your limitations until you’re playing in front of an audience. This is when you are most alert and probably more focused on execution. The more you get used to playing in front of a crowd, the easier it gets. Practice your part, aim for confidence, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Music is FUN. If you aren’t having fun, it’s defeating the purpose of why you started playing in the first place. Don’t worry about being judged, learn from your mistakes, and continue seeking ways to improve.