Triple Play: Subdividing Rhythm With Triplets

March 9, 2012

LAST MONTH WE LEARNED HOW the entire bass-playing universe is held together by four key elements of rhythm: pulse, tempo, subdivision of the beat, and accent. This time, we’ll focus on subdivisions of the beat using eighth-note triplet rhythms. Review the chart from February’s column to refresh your understanding of rhythmic subdivision.

Most bass lines are made of a combination of quarter-notes, eighth-notes, eighthnote triplets, and 16th-notes, along with their corresponding rests. Through my teaching experience, I’ve found that triplets are hard for many bass players to play correctly, cleanly, and in the pocket. Let’s play some eighth-note triplet patterns and feel how they enhance the groove.

Example 1 shows the relationship between quarter-notes, eighth-notes, and eighth-note triplets. Play accurately and precisely, and focus on feeling the shift from eighth-notes to eighth-note triplets. It may help to use a metronome; either way, tap your foot on every quarter. Ultimately, you should be able to move smoothly from eighths to eighthnote triplets without any assistance from your foot or your electronic ticker.

Example 2 flows through several triplet patterns. To master the line, keep your foot tapping in quarter-notes. In bar 1, play four triplet groupings. Bar 2 is a typical shuffle pattern. This figure can also be written as two tied triplet eighth-notes, followed by one triplet eighth-note. The figure in bar 3 feels slightly backward, but it can also groove. If you overuse this pattern, it will bug your drummer and make the dancers trip ever so slightly, but in a typical shuffle groove it’s a nice change for a couple of beats.

Bar 4 puts a rest on each strong beat, followed by two triplet eighths. This is an effective pattern to play at the end of a form to create tension before hitting a downbeat on beat one. The figure in bar 5 might feel uncomfortable at first. Make sure you hear, think, or tap a strong downbeat and place the note squarely in the pocket on the second triplet eighth. Bar 6 is almost the same as bar 5, except the note is held out for the duration of two triplet eighths. Make sure you leave just the right amount of space for the rest on the first triplet eighth-note. Bar 7 is similar, except the note is placed on the third triplet eighth-note.

Where should you use triplets, anyway? Example 3 is a common shuffle pattern found in countless rock and blues bass lines. [For a detailed look at this groove, check out Ed Friedland’s column in January ’12.] Example 4 shows typical triplet drops, in the context of a jazz walking bass line. To hear walking bass with triplet drops, check out Ron Carter or Ray Brown on any medium-tempo swing tune—these two players have defined the “pickety-dum” (as a triplet drop is sometimes described) in modern walking bass lines.

Example 5 is an eight-bar blues form in a slow shuffle groove. I know, the blues is usually 12 bars in length, but it can also be eight, ten, 16, or even 24 bars. To nail this bass line, first read through the rhythms without your bass. Tap your foot on every quarter-note and clap, tap, or rap the eighthnote triplet rhythms. In bar 2, notice the rests on beats one and three. Putting a rest on the downbeat is a “handle with care” situation, but it can add excitement to a bass line. The figure in bar 5 gives the feeling of two against three, using groupings of one triplet eighth-note followed by one triplet eighth-rest. Bar 6 has groups of two triplet eighth-notes starting on the bar’s second note. This makes the chromatic line from A to C sound pushy—in a nice way. To master Ex. 5, check out the play-along track at Next month, we’ll explore the mysterious world of tempo and look at ways to play really slowly—and really fast.


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