How To Get Better At Keeping Rhythm
If you’ve been down the bass rhythm rabbit hole you know how hard it can be to keep a steady pulse.
The thing with bass is: it is more important WHEN you play a note than which one it is.
This means that if you mess up and play a wrong note – well, hardly anyone will notice.
But if you play the note, any note, at the wrong time – everyone is stomped.
As a bass player, timing skills are the most important aspect.
You can’t be rushing, you can’t be late, you need to be right on time if you want to groove!
In this post, I’ll share with you 4 things you can do to get better at this:
Play Along With Songs
Let’s start with the most obvious one.
When you’re learning a song, it is okay to first play solo bass, without any music playing, to figure out the bass line and everything.
But as soon as you have a part learned, you need to practice it along with the song.
Ideally, you would set up loop sections for single sections of the song to have them on repeat, while learning the tune.
Once you know the full song, play it many times along with the original recording to get better at timing.
Practicing along with the song even in the early stage of learning that particular tune will force you to get the timing just right, to fit the drums, rest of the band as well as the original bass line.
Next level thing you can do:
Once you learn the song, play a live recording of the tune and play the bass line.
This is an excellent practice, because the live performance will be looser in timing, and it will force you to work even harder on listening to the band and fitting in the bass line just right.
Practice With Backing Tracks
This often gets overlooked by bass players.
Ideally, you should always be practicing in a “band” setting, so that you can develop internal time-keeping and rhythm skills.
Now, even though I think playing with a device like a metronome can be very insightful for a musician, I don’t think it’s ideal.
The next best thing is playing along with music backing tracks.
That’s almost like playing with other musicians, but there’s a big difference:
Most of the backing tracks will usually have a fixed time grid.
Meaning that the track is recorded in almost perfect timing.
Often, these tracks are programmed, not performed by live musicians so the timing is pretty much perfect.
That’s not a bad thing though.
You get to replace sterile metronome practice with a real music track and still keep all the benefits practicing with a metronome provides (=perfect time reference).
My suggestion is to always practice things you play on bass with a backing track, whenever possible.
Even if it’s just a drums backing track (get access to a library of free tracks here).
All courses here in the Bass Road Academy feature music backing tracks for everything you practice.
This helps you build time-keeping skills and experience as if you’re playing with other musicians.
Mostly you get to develop essential listening skills along the way.
Play With Other Musicians
Okay – this is an ultimate experience to have that will help you get better at keeping rhythm.
You see, when you play with a live drummer, a person – he will not play like a machine.
Meaning, that the drummer will not be keeping time like a metronome or pre-recorded backing track would do.
The drummer will keep a rhythm and groove going, but the tempo will vary slightly.
Depending on the skills of the drummer, the tempo may be completely freestyle – meaning he’ll play slightly faster as the chorus and excitement of the song kick in.
Then he’ll slow down for the verse and so on.
This is NORMAL.
Drummers are people, not a metronome.
Of course, more skilled ones will be able to keep a really tight groove and tempo.
The same is applied when playing with a guitarist, keyboard player, etc.
When you’re in a live setting like this, the bass player’s role is important.
You do need to be the one alongside the drummer who has a lot of responsibility for keeping a steady time and pulse going on.
If you start rushing, all the other band members will need to follow you.
Music is a live thing.
Nowadays a lot of music is recorded to a metronome click in the studio.
I can’t say I’m a fan of that.
I prefer live performances, especially from bands that don’t use a click as a reference (sometimes they need to if they have complicated arrangements, pre-recorded loop tracks, etc).
When you’re playing bass with other musicians, you get to develop your time-keeping skills.
You get to be better at keeping rhythm and develop skills to adjust on the spot to tempo changes for example.
You learn to listen to other musicians, what they are playing, and get to find the pocket and fit in.
People are not machines, they are imperfect and that means not everyone in the band will be good at keeping time on the same level.
As a bass player, you need to be as good at keeping rhythm as you can.
Supporting what others are playing and fitting in just right with others while keeping rhythm.
Especially, you need to be good at mirroring drummers and complementing their performance which brings us to the next point.
Listen To The Drums
While I believe that every musician should be good at keeping rhythm, in a live band setting it will usually look like this:
Everyone will consider the drummer as the reference, a sort of live metronome everyone else will cling to.
The bass player is next.
The bass player needs to blend with the drums to produce a steady rhythm.
Guitarists will then usually play slightly looser in time, using drums and bass as the time-keeping reference.
Then you stack other instruments.
As a bass player, you need to listen to the drums.
Learn what each part of the drum kit does, and how the grooves are constructed.
As a beginner bass player, you might not know yet how exactly drums are played.
Work on learning the basics though, like how the kick drum sounds and what it does.
How the hi-hat works, also snare.
The next step is to get into the groove by listening to the drums and complementing the performance with your bass line.
When you put drums and bass together, you get the foundation (soul) of the song and the source of the groove it has.
The kick drum is very important as well as the snare.
That’s because the drummer uses those for accenting important beats in a song, the same ones you do as a bass player.
Learn to listen to the drums with a deep focus.
Dial in your ears to listen to the drums, listen to the kick drum.
The next thing you could do is a cool exercise where you pluck notes on bass only on the kick drum hits.
Try it out – it really helps.
Practice improvising bass lines over drums-only backing tracks.
Practicing to get better at keeping rhythm is your number one job as a beginner bass player.
You need to get good at this, before anything else really.
You don’t want to be that bass player who is “advanced” with all the flashy techniques and licks but essentially a beginner when it comes down to keeping rhythm.
This is the reason why when you become a member of the Bass Road Academy, and start working through the Bass Guitar 101 course inside, you’ll spend so much time practicing rhythm.
That’s a course for absolute beginners starting from day one.
It doesn’t go too fast or introduces too many topics, rather you get to spend quality time practicing essentials – keeping a steady rhythm on bass.
I also have playing assignments there, where you need to video your playing – these are excellent as extra motivation to get you practicing and it’s all aimed at helping you get better at keeping rhythm.
Alright, hope you find this post helpful.
I like to just mention that you should never rush into exciting things on bass, I know we often get distracted.
Spend time on the basics, real basics like how to play in time, along with the backing track.
Be able to do that successfully, before you rush into learning the next flashy bass technique or cool lick.
In the end, what gets you gigs and the title of a good bass player is being able to keep rhythm.
That’s it – so simple!