August 07, 2023
There’s nothing more important than groove in a solid tune, and groove is job number one for bassists – even when they’re going wild with virtuosic amazingness. That’s why the combo of bassist and drummer is called the rhythm section.
Groove is easy to spot, easy to hear, and impossible to explain. Mostly. We can say a few things about what groove means. It means being on time. It means being stable and together. Maybe it means using syncopation just right. But ultimately, it’s about making the song feel right. That takes more than just the technical side – although what happens when you get it right is decidedly technical. In other words, you can be perfectly on time and not groovin’.
Nevertheless, there is a skill to getting in the groove and there are plenty of ways to develop it. So let’s talk a little about mastering the groove – for bassists.
Unfortunately, you can’t just talk about how groove is intangible. You have to actually practice.
So, use those two techniques, along with practicing with your group, to tighten up. Bonus: get your band to practice to a click sometimes. A metronome is decidedly ungroovy, but you learn really fast how to keep it tight and find a real groove when you’ve got that even reference point.
Ok, you’re practicing, you’ve accepted that we can’t quite define groove, but now you want some more technical meat. Ok fair enough.
To create a tight rhythm section, you need to establish a strong connection with the drummer – obviously. So, you need to practice listening. You can do this by working on listening exercises – literally just listen to music and point your attention at the drums. Then dial further into the kick, snare, etc. Now, pick up your bass. Play – but focus your ATTENTION on the drums. Note whether that made you mess up – that’s something to improve on if so.
Next, you can practice this stuff with the actual drummer. You can start working on communicating through eye contact and subtle cues, and don’t be afraid to actually have conversations about it.
Now that you’re practicing locking in, start looking at your arrangements and parts. If you’re writing parts, study the parts of tracks you think groove best. You’ll probably start noticing some things. First you may notice a heavy emphasis on root notes. Next, you’re going to notice where bassists incorporate variations in rhythm, articulation, and phrasing. Small variances can add interest which helps a groove become a groove rather than just a machine beat - stuff like staccato, slides, ghost notes, and syncopation. But you’ll also notice the bass always comes home, and in a groove, you can’t venture too far into the weeds or it stops being groovy.
Finally, and this is the pro secret lots of really good bassists don’t seem to notice – follow the kick first and stop playing so many sustained notes! Groove isn’t boom. It’s groove. Short notes groove, long notes don’t. There are always exceptions here, of course, but that’s a little shortcut that can save you some time.
There are a lot of ways to achieve “groove”, so we thought it might be useful to touch on some common genres and point you at some greats in those areas.
Funk and R&B genres are renowned for their infectious grooves and rhythmic intricacies. These styles often feature syncopated basslines, intricate ghost notes, and rhythmic variations. Emphasizing the "pocket" and maintaining a tight connection with the drummer is crucial. Listen to the greats in this area: James Jamerson, Bootsy Collins, or Larry Graham.
Latin and Afro-Caribbean music offer rich and diverse rhythmic landscapes, providing bassists with exciting opportunities to explore different groove styles. Techniques like tumbao, montuno, and clave patterns are essential in these genres, adding polyrhythmic layers and propelling the music forward. Study influential Latin bassists like Cachao, Anthony Jackson, or John Benítez.
Rock is more about power and driving rhythm, but there’s a groove there too. While rock grooves may have a straightforward approach compared to other genres, they require precision and a strong sense of timing to maintain intensity. Power chords, driving eighth-note patterns, and syncopated accents are common elements in rock basslines. A tight connection with the drummer is vital (as usual) to establish a solid foundation and drive the band's energy. You may also find yourself experimenting with different picking techniques, slides, and fills to add dynamics and flair. Check out iconic rock bassists like John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, or Flea.
Hopefully you can take these techniques to help you as you practice and get better at groove faster.
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