I was talking with a friend the other day about
a bass player he’d heard at a local gig. The
bass solos were strong, with an impressive
degree of technical ability and interesting
ideas. Somehow, though, when a solo was
done, the groove wasn’t there for the tune
itself—and the display of chops continued.
Keep it simple.
This goes along with the foundation concept.
Quite often, the best groove is the simplest.
I’ve noticed this most when we’re recording.
I’ll put together my part, record it, and it will
feel good—almost like my fingers are dancing. Then I’ll hear it back and wonder what
I’d been thinking. There was so much going
on that the changes and beat have slipped
into the background. Essentially, my contribution to the band’s effort has worked against
Chops versus Groove
felt my part was dragging down the groove.
Soon, I was pushing the beat just a hair and
the music came to life. I need to emphasize,
though, that this idea refers to note placement
around a steady beat, which is different than
rushing or dragging that speeds up or slows
down a song.
“I don’t have any chops,” I jested. “Sure
you do,” my friend replied. Truth is, I rarely
solo at my blues gigs, and there is no way
I could execute what that other guy could
easily handle. I’ve settled into a background
role that focuses on maintaining the groove,
and rarely get into any busy stuff unless the
song is building to a frenzy and I need to
contribute to the pandemonium. Here are
five things I keep in mind to maintain the
groove, which can be adapted to your specific musical situation.
Lay the foundation.
I see my role as the foundational glue that
holds the music together. This works in two
ways. First, I play the chord roots to cue where
we’re at, especially when moving from one
chord to another or arriving at the top of a bar.
When the others in your group hear the root
on the downbeat, they’ll know where they are.
Further, this kind of emphasis gives them confidence that you’re holding things together so
they can add their piece of the magic.
Here are five things
I keep in mind to
maintain the groove,
which can be adapted
to your specific
Keep chops out of the groove.
It’s tempting to drop in some chops-type licks
as a tune unfolds. But when you do, the beat
sometimes goes all to hell. I once played
with a drummer who could get a nice groove
going—and then he’d drop in this dreaded
fill that made everything start to fall apart.
A guitar player and I began calling it the
“Punxsutawney Fill,” in jest of the groundhog
that tells us if more winter is coming. I’m
not urging you to avoid variety in your lines;
that would probably be just as bad. Instead,
I’m saying if you add some variety through
chops, go easy and try to avoid having licks
The second element of bass-induced glue
comes from how you indicate the beat. It’s
nice if you want to take a more melodic
approach to your music, but that leaves all the
time-keeping duties to your drummer or other
rhythm players. Take on a fair share of keeping the beat and you’ll make the work of your
other players more fun.
the tune—undone by an attempt at chops.
Of course, it’s also possible to over-correct
and make the line too simple; the song loses
energy when not enough is going on.
What’s interesting is that when you see your
work as foundational, you’ll get compliments
from the others you’re playing with—
compliments on what you aren’t doing! But if
you’re light on the roots and weave your
way around the rhythm, the others in your
group will feel that something’s amiss, and
the music won’t have the life it deserves. You
know what they say: nobody really listens to
the bass player. But when you’re doing your
job, both musicians and audience will know
that the groove is there.
Lock with the drummer.
Another part of keeping the groove is
watching what your drummer is doing.
Sometimes working with the drummer’s line
is intuitive, but try to mentally move the
drum parts forward in your ears. What’s the
kick drum doing? The snare? The high-hat?
Those are the parts of the drum kit that signal the groove.
But sometimes, chops are okay…
It’s okay to flaunt your chops on occasion. If
you’re lucky enough to have the talent, the
coordination, the musical instincts and the
work ethic to pull it off, make your playing
shine in a showcase song or two. Other than
for Jaco and a couple of other big names,
the audience won’t be sitting on the edge
of their seats waiting for your bass solo. If
you’ve worked something out that’s interesting and can execute it reliably, talk with your
bandmates about fitting your chops stuff
into the show.
There’s a second part of locking with the
drummer—where you place your notes in
relation to the beat. By this I mean, are you
square on the beat? Pushing it ahead on the
front edge of the beat? Sitting back a bit? All
of these beat “places” affect the groove of
the song. At a jam session a few months back,
I started out playing square on the beat, but
Looking ahead, take the opportunity to listen
and learn from other bassists who play your
style of music. When do they hold the groove?
When do they work in something that shows
off their chops? Does their use of fancy licks
add to the overall musical energy, or is that
when the band has to regroup and regain the
groove after beginning to run off the edge of
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun
goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in
blues, jazz and pit settings. He can be reached with questions or comments at: email@example.com