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Walking Bass Line Tutorial – Improving Your Sense Of Time
Bass players in all genres of music should practice their ‘time keeping’ and their understanding of the rhythmic division of the beat as much as drummers do. It’s a sad fact of life though that very few bass players include specific exercises in their practice routines to help develop their time and their understanding and mastery of rhythm.
In this month’s ezine we’re going to look at playing short walking bass lines – in the examples in the lesson we will use 8 bars of a typical bass line for the first ‘A’ section of Autumn Leaves – in conjunction with exercises that will improve the sense of time in our bass lines.
(Paul’s Note – This excerpt – and all the examples in it - is from a walking bass lines course I’ve been developing over the last 12 months.)
Practicing Hitting The Strong Beats
The ‘strong beats’ in jazz from a rhythmic perspective are Beats 2 and 4 and we have to make sure we hit those with notes in our bass line. So when we’re composing bass lines and we start layering in different rhythms, remember to ALWAYS hit beat 2 and beat 4 with a note.
What we have to do now is to translate this knowledge into a practice exercise that will improve our sense of time – and help us hit those signposts on Beats 2 and 4 so that we are totally in sync with our drummers.
Being able to do this will give a strong sense of ‘time’ and ‘feel’ or ‘groove’ to our lines. So to start this off we’re just going to work in 8 bar sections.
My recommendation here is to start off picking a simple pattern that you composed for an earlier part of the course.
When you’ve picked your line you want to play it a few times to really get it under your fingers. This is so that you can then concentrate on hitting Beats 2 and 4 and not have to worry about brain capacity being diverted to concentrating on the note locations or where you’re going to play them.
So play your example through a number of times until you feel like it’s under your fingers. When you’re doing this vital preparation work don’t hesitate to use either Band In A Box or the bass less backing tracks that have been generated in the course.
Once you start to feel really comfortable with your chosen 8 bar section then it’s time to practice hitting those rhythmically strong beats. I’ve tried several ways to implement this, but the simplest way that I’ve found is to program a backing track that has a sound (either a click, or a hi-hat, or a side stick) on just Beat 2 and Beat 4 of every bar. Here’s the example I’m using along with drum notation showing this:
A few notes on this:
1. This is one of the few exceptions where you shouldn’t practice with a track that has harmonic material on it. Your focus should be totally on the rhythm – don’t worry about hearing the harmony when you’re doing
2. This might be another counter-intuitive part of this lesson – but once you’re familiar with an 8 bar pattern this exercise is harder at slower tempos than it is at faster tempos. Remember that the goal of the exercise is to absolutely align your bass notes with Beats 2 and 4. As you play this slower the amount of actual, linear time between each click or drum sound increases. So your time keeping has to be better with this exercise playing it slower. So start off at say 140 BPM, and then work back in 20 BPM increments. (I’ll provide a slew of 8 bar and 16 bar and 32 bar ‘2+4 Click Tracks’ on the downloads page at various tempos).
3. This is an exercise where you MUST audit yourself. The simplest way is just to video yourself doing this exercise with your iPhone or Tablet camera. The recording doesn’t need to be anything other than OK – as long as you can clearly hear your 2+4 Track and your bass. And listen carefully for the placements of your notes on beats 2 and 4. How I visualize this when I’m practicing this is to try and make the clicks on Beats 2 and 4 inaudible because I’m playing there.
Now this simple sounding exercise is one of the best exercises you can do to work on your sense of time. As well as the click tracks that I’ll provide you can also do this exercise with a conventional metronome. Say you’re working on a tempo of 140 BPM then just by setting your metronome to 70 BPM you can now count those clicks as ‘2’ and ‘4’ and the space between them is 1 and 3.
I recommend that you should play this exercise or a variant of it – and we’re going to talk about variants shortly – every practice day as part of your walking practice. Even just 10 minutes a day will make an appreciable difference.
Now if you do this, in a relatively short period of time you’ll find that your time feeling improves and your placement of notes on Beats 2 and 4 will get more accurate – and this will give your playing a much stronger sense of time.
When you do this exercise the metronome or click track is marking beats 2 and 4 – and YOU have to mark beats 1 and 3 internally. This is why your time feel improves – because you’re not leaning on a drummer or a metronome to provide time and playing along with that, YOU are providing the time yourself and the metronome or click track will eventually come to support you.
Now with this basic 2&4 exercise once you start to get to grips with it you can extend it out – and start playing 16 bar and 32 bar examples with it. And again, don’t forget to start out at a reasonably brisk tempo (140-160 BPM) and then practice the same lines by moving the tempo back. Doing this at 80 BPM is much harder – but will work wonders for your sense of time.
Time is a crucial component of the walking bass player’s job on the band stand though – and there are other ways to work on it as well that are worth knowing and practicing. The rest of the Lesson will focus on these variants.
Variant 1 – The ‘2’ Only
In the 2&4 exercise you become responsible for marking the time of the missing beats – Beats 1 and 3. When you get comfortable doing that a great way to make your sense of time even better is to give you even more responsibility.
So you can drop the Beat 4 click and just get a click on ‘2’ only. With our example it looks like this:
Again, with this exercise start out with 8 bar sections. And start out at mid tempo – 140/160 BPM – and really focus on nailing Beat 2. Everything else will follow from that.
This stretches your time perception because now you have to accurately take care of Beats 1, 3 and 4.
The reason – especially for this variant – we start with 8 bar phrases is that if you miss a Beat 2 you can stop and start again. And your goal starts out just getting through that first 8 bars. When you start to have a degree of success – and if you’ve practiced with 2&4 diligently it doesn’t take long – then you can make it harder by slowing the tempo down.
100 BPM is a challenging tempo for this exercise. But when you find you can accurately do it – and extend to 16 bar and 32 bar examples – you’ll notice a subtle but definite improvement in the sense of time in your playing. Again, auditing yourself by recording yourself is a must here so you really ensure you are nailing Beat 2.
Variant 2 – The ‘4’ Only
This is similar to Variant 1 – only we’re switching the ‘click’ from sounding on Beat 2 to sounding on Beat 4. With our example it looks like this:
If you’ve had success with Variant 1 – The ‘2’ Only – then you should find the transition to Variant 2 fairly straightforward. Again you have three beats of time to take care of – Beats 1,2 and 3 – and you should also audit to ensure that you’re really hitting Beat 4.
Both Variant 1 and 2 are natural extensions of the 2&4 exercise and don’t take a great deal of work to step up to – the next variant however can be tough at first!
Variant 3 – The ‘2’ (or ‘4’) Only – Every Other Bar
In Variant 3 we’re going to drop our click out every other bar. With our example it looks like this:
Now suddenly things are getting tricky. We’ve gone from taking care of Beats 1, 3 and 4 to taking care of Beats 1, 3 and 4 in one bar and beats 1 to 4 inclusive in the next bar. So you’ve got to accurately keep time for 8 beats!
Now this may take some getting used to – but it is definitely achievable. And I’m going to detail some further variants that you can use to build your internal sense of time without the leap that’s apparent in going from Variant 2 to Variant 3. (Paul’s Note: Sadly for these exercises you WILL need Band In A Box. IMO if you’re serious about learning walking bass you should have this software in your practice toolbox.)
If you find whilst attempting Variant 3 that you lose your place quickly and it’s hard, then go back to Variants 1 and 2 and spend more time with them and then come back to Variant 3. It may take some time to develop your time perception to the point where this is comfortable. But it’s highly recommended.
Paul’s Note – there are other suggested variants in the actual lesson itself – but this excerpt should give you enough information to get you started practicing working on your inner sense of time.
In May’s ezine we’re going to do a similar exercise where we work on your sense of time….but we’re going to do it by dropping beats from an 8 bar section of a tune. Again we’ll use the ‘A’ section of Autumn Leaves to provide the framework for our examples.