It’s Easy When You Know How!
WHEN I WORKED WITH TENOR SAXOPHONIST BILLY MITCHELL many years ago, he’d often reply to compliments about his swinging rhythmic style by saying, “It’s easy when you know how!” With a wink and a sly smile, Billy confirmed a straight truth about music: Playing a great groove is not about playing all of the notes, it’s how one plays the best notes. Easy, right?
Playing groovy bass lines should be easy. Descriptive phrases like “grooving hard,” “swinging hard,” “slammin’,” or “heavy groove” belie the fact that playing rhythmically compelling bass lines demands the technical command of simple, yet subtle articulations. Last time, I gave you some easy scale exercises to improve your groove and rhythmic pocket by using quarter-notes and eighth-notes. This month, let’s dig deeper into the relationship between notes and rests, and how to combine long notes and short notes. You can play all of these exercises with either straight eighth-notes or swing eighth-notes (i.e., with a triplet feeling).
Example 1 shows a C major scale with a tenuto marking over each note (the line under or over each note indicates that it should be played for its full value without cutting off the note early). Remember to connect each note to the beginning of the next note so that there is almost no gap, even when you change strings or shift positions. Your ability to groove depends on this simple technique. You play the bass—don’t let the bass play you!
Last month, we practiced quarter-note lines with an anticipated eighth-note on the “and” of beat four. Example 2 uses eighth-note lines, also with an anticipated eighth-note on the “and” of four. Make sure that after you play the “and” of beat four, you come in squarely on the “and” of beat one in the next measure. The key here is to feel the downbeat in every bar, even though you are not actively playing it. You should feel the downbeat in time, even though you are only sustaining a note.
Example 3 uses staccato notes (the dot under or over the note indicates that it should be played short and detached). Stay in time when playing staccato notes—there might be a tendency to rush, since there is more space between each note. There are two ways to play staccato notes: (1) Shorten the note by lifting your left-hand finger off the string and muting the note immediately after it sounds; or (2) shorten the note by muting the note with your right-hand index or middle finger. Make sure the lengths of the staccato notes are uniform. And watch out for the trap: The “and” of one in the last bar might take you by surprise. Stay in time!
How short is short? The “and” of beat four in Ex. 3 could be played very short, but then there is possibly an uncomfortably long silence before the “and” of beat one in the following measures. Example 4 shows the same exercise with a tenuto marking over the “and” of four. Experiment with Examples 3 and 4 to hear how you can control the rhythmic feeling simply by changing the staccato or tenuto articulation on the “and” of four. Example 5 holds the “and” of four over into the downbeat of the following measure.
Examples 3, 4, and 5 demonstrate how you can influence your groove by changing just one small articulation. The downbeats (in every measure except the first) have a different feeling, depending on how you articulate the “and” of four. Example 6 mixes short notes and long notes, and has an accent on the “and” of beat four in every bar. The accent (>) marking indicates that the note should be played slightly stronger than the others. This will help fill the downbeat in the following measures. Make sure that you articulate all of the tenuto and staccato notes. You create your groove by using consistent phrasing, but also by your ability to mix articulations like short, long, and accented notes. When you master the fundamental techniques of rhythmic articulation, your bass lines and solos will sound easy, natural, and groovy.
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton has written about the groove conundrum in his blog: “Swing is elusive. The harder you try to swing, the less you swing.” Or as pianist Hal Galper described the goal of effortlessness, “Playing music is supposed to be easy! Most of us think it’s supposed to be hard to play, but truthfully, you can’t play music well if it’s hard to do. If you can’t do it easily, you can’t have fun and project that feeling of fun to your bandmates and listeners.” [IAJE Journal interview with Hal Galper, 1990].
Next month, we’ll look at mixed articulations using eighth- and 16th-note rhythms. Until then, keep your mind open and your fingers grooving. It’s easy—when you know how!
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.