Play Fast, Think Slow . . . Play Slow, Think Fast

March 21, 2012

IT’S HARD TO PLAY FAST TEMPOS. It might even be harder to play very slow tempos. But we all know that the bass players who snag the tough gigs are comfortable at any tempo.

Good bass players always accept the challenge of playing any tempo the bandleader counts off. Consider Ex. 1, “The Song Is You” [Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, OJC, 1958], which bandleader Sonny Rollins counts off at 420 quarter-notes per minute. That’s seven quarter-notes per second, and bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne hold it down with fierce composure. Playing every quarter-note at this tempo could have sounded frantic, but Vinnegar stays relaxed, mixing half-notes and quarters to hook up with Manne’s splang-dang-alang ride cymbal pattern. This rhythm section was one of the best in the business in the ’50s, mainly because Vinnegar and Manne locked in so well at all tempos. Leroy leaned on Shelly, who depended on Leroy. And Sonny, possibly dissatisfied with the first version, counted off another take of “The Song Is You.” The second one, of course, clocked in a touch faster.

How do you learn to feel extremely fast or slow tempos? To play slow tempos, you should subdivide and feel small increments of the pulse. To play fast tempos, you should feel a larger underlying pulse as your point of groove reference.

Example 2 shows a slow triplet ballad. Count off a measure in your head by saying one-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-anda. When you start playing the line, let your inner triplet clock run in the background. You can say the triplet pattern out loud as you play, or count silently.

Example 3 is a ballad bass line, similar to Ex. 2 but with an underlying straight eighth-note feeling. Count off a measure of even eighths in your head by saying one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and. Keep your inner straight eighth-note clock running, and place the eighth-notes and eighthnote rests squarely in the pocket.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that very slow grooves are sometimes the hardest for rhythm sections to nail. The bassist who can make a ballad feel good will always work. To hear great ballad playing, listen to Shirley Horn’s trio with bassist Charles Ables, who has laid down some of the slowest, grooviest, sexiest bass lines on record [Shirley Horn, I Love You, Paris, Verve, 1992]. Playing slowly is an exercise in concentration, composure, and confidence. But playing fast tempos also demands those qualities, plus it can be downright sweaty and painful!

When he was playing the bass line to “The Song Is You,” Leroy Vinnegar was not thinking “one, two, three, four” 420 times per minute. He was probably feeling half-notes: “one, three, one, three.” He might have been feeling just whole-notes: “one one one one.” It’s easier to relax and feel one downbeat at tempo 105, than to try feeling four quarters at tempo 420. So, to play fast without getting your heart rate up into defibrillator territory, divide the underlying pulse. As you crank out quarternotes in fast 4/4 time, think of two half-notes or one whole-note per bar. You are feeling a slow tempo, but playing in the fast tempo.

Example 4 shows a quarter-note bass line over the first eight bars of “The Song Is You.” Start at a moderately fast tempo, and count through eight bars, just calling out the downbeats: “one one one one.” After you’ve worked out the notes of the bass line, lock into the downbeats and play four quarters per measure, letting your inner clock tick off each downbeat. This technique will help you stay relaxed at fast tempos, and hook up with the drummer.

Example 5 is essentially Ex. 4 in a different party dress. This is a metal bass line, which happens to use the same chord progression. By thinking and feeling quarter-notes, you can spit out the 16th-note groove without breaking a sweat. Note that the tempo 105 in Ex. 5 is one-fourth of the tempo 420 in Ex. 4. Examples 4 and 5 are exactly the same tempo; it’s all a matter of how you wrap your mind around the style, timing, and rhythmic feeling.

Check out your speed limits! See how slowly you can float and how fast you can fly. You’ll be a better bassist when you can cover slow and fast.

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