Greetings, bass warriors! I would like to cover a few different topics in this article that may propel your bass playing to new heights immediately. I hope that you’ll consider these tips and use them in good foundational health.
As anchor in the band, the pocket depends on you more than you might expect. You have to learn how, somewhat, to be your own metronome. In a situation where the drummer you’re playing with has not practiced in a while, well…someone has to keep the tempo steady. If Mr. Drummer can’t, then you have to! Practicing with a metronome, loops, or techno-style recordings can really be quite helpful. This will help to ingrain internal timing awareness into your musical soul.
At the gig
Subdividing in your head really helps you when the drummer is rushing the slower tunes. If the tempo is 72 BPM, count 1/8 notes to yourself (or tap your foot in double time). This will help you greatly. As you are doing this, pay close attention to the drummer’s hi-hat and cymbals. This way you have a reference between you and the drummer. When he drags, you pull ahead. When he rushes, you pull back (and pray that he’s listening).
Playing Ghost (dead) Notes
Playing those little, subtle, “thumpy” sounding pick-up notes between pitched notes is essential to your own timing, as well as the band’s timing awareness. It is a way of tapping along by using your fingers. Some guys lightly rest their fingers on the strings at the same moment that the snare hits (I do it subconsciously). Try it sometime when you are practicing with a metronome. It’s rarely heard when everyone is playing and helps you keep time. You kind of become your own drummer.
Another useful, more musical style of dead note playing is when you continue picking with your plucking hand and mute the strings with your fretting hand in a consistent pattern. Try playing the same note in a 1/16 note pattern, muting every third note in the fretting hand and continuing 1/16 note with your plucking (or picking) hand. It has a funky sound to it and creates a driving effect that can benefit everyone.
If you are on in-ear monitors (IEM’s), hopefully, you have some independent control over the volume and pan of all of the musical personnel you are playing with. Start with drum levels first. Make the kick loudest, the hi-hat second loudest, the overhead mics third loudest (panned wide), and the rest of the drum mics can be turned off as far as I am concerned. You typically hear enough snare in the overheads and in the hi-hat mic. This applies to tom-tom mics as well. If there is a click track in the mix, make it as loud as the hi-hat. Then pan the click track to 3 o’clock and the hi-hat to 9 o’clock (or visa-versa). This gives you perspective between the click and the hi-hat and moves the sonic attack of both elements away from the attack of the bass drum. Then, adjust the bass level to the same level as the bass drum. All of the other elements in the band must be present on your mix, but not as loud. Never turn off any other element of the band. Pan them in their own places across the stereo image and “tuck” them in the mix. Be aware of everything. Lastly, I do not recommend that you listen with only one IEM (unless for short durations only). It can damage your hearing due to unequal sonic pressure on your ears.
If you are on wedge monitors there are some things that you can try. First of all, if you are close to the drummer, please use ear filters or ear plugs. The hi-hat is your “groove” friend, but it can also cost you your valuable hearing in the long run. If you have a bass amp, have your monitor engineer take the bass out of your monitor. This gives you perspective between the various timing elements and your bass. I typically ask (from loudest to softest) for kick, hi-hat, lead vocals (and their leading instrument if applicable), guitar(s), and key(s). There may be instrument amplifiers or other people’s monitors close enough to you that you may need to adjust levels of particular elements accordingly.
Play on with confidence and authority, warriors!