FORGET THE NOTES. MUSIC IS NOT JUST about notes. Music is the groove, rhythm, and feeling that you communicate to listeners. That’s what people want to hear, not just a bunch of notes. In the next few columns, we will explore rhythm and groove—from the simplicity of a quarternote on the downbeat, to the polyrhythmic possibilities that lie underneath every simple musical phrase.
In his book The Music Lesson, A Spiritual Searchfor Growth Through Music [Berkeley Publishing/Penguin, 2006], Victor Wooten portrays 11-year-old Sam—a bass player, teacher, and philosopher— who appears on an unnamed bass student’s couch. Sam can feel a groove, catch a downbeat, and hold a tempo like a wizard from another planet. In Wooten’s story, the student observes in amazement as Sam wanders around the apartment calling out downbeats, completely in sync with a metronome light that is hidden from his sight:
I watched as he walked down the hallway and into the bathroom. He relieved himself and flushed. After washing his hands, he again shouted, “One!” It seemed impossible. If I was not witnessing it, I would’ve never believed that anyone’s timing could be that good.
Michael, the all-knowing, skateboarding protagonist in Wooten’s story, sent Sam to help the student. Michael inspires and confuses the student constantly with simple truths that seem universal, yet hard to grasp.
“Music is alive, and if you treat her that way, she will speak to you. You will feel her pulse. That is her heartbeat. If you pay attention correctly, it won’t matter if you’re in another room or in another state, you’ll still be able to feel it.”
One of Wooten’s main points in his clever yarn is that there is much more to music than just notes. Notes are obviously very important, but they stand alongside the elements of rhythm, feel, phrasing, articulation, technique, dynamics, tone, space, and listening. Many bass players become fixated on playing correct notes, while ignoring other equally important fundamentals.
So how can you learn to groove like Sam, or Michael, or … Victor? The best way to learn to groove is to play with people who can already groove. Like learning to talk, learning to groove requires the constant interaction, imitation, interplay, and trust that can only be developed in a group situation. I often hear of teachers who are telling their students what to play—or worse, what not to play—rather than showing them by example how to play better. Teachers, play with your students! Students, ask your teacher to play for you and with you!
Another important method to learning rhythm and groove is by listening to and playing along with killer recordings. You probably already have a handful of favorite albums that you keep going back to, just because they feel so good, year after year. Three of my all-time favorite tracks are “Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing” (James Brown, with Bootsy Collins on bass), “Unit Seven” (Wynton Kelly Trio, with Paul Chambers on bass), and “But Not for Me” (Ahmad Jamal, with Israel Crosby on bass).
To tackle groove in a practical way, play through Ex. 1. Yes, you and I both know that this might be the simplest exercise in the history of BASS PLAYER. It’s the note C, on the downbeat, repeated in a loop every two bars. What I want you to do is play this at a medium tempo, and listen to what you are playing. At the same time, listen to the space between the downbeats. The spaces are also in time— they’re part of the rhythm. Play the note, feel the rests, play the note, feel the rests, play the note . . . .
You could use a metronome to check your timing (although you run the risk of Jeff Berlin showing up at your doorstep with a cease and desist order). If you want more of a challenge—you know who you are—put the metronome click on only beat one of each bar. Now try the metronome click only on two and four. More challenging? Put the metronome click only on beat four or only on beat two. Still want more? Put the metronome click on the final eighth-note triplets of beats two and four. Or how ’bout only on the last 16th-note of the bar? Or the second 16th of beat three of each bar? You get the idea.
To put this exercise in a more musical context, play it with a real track, like “Unit Seven”. Try to nail the downbeat every two bars and listen to the groove that Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, and Paul Chambers create. Don’t worry that you aren’t hitting the same roots as P.C. Just listen and lock in with their groove; the notes can come later. You can also move the exercise up to the note D, and play along with Bootsy’s Basic Funk Formula [see links].
Now that you are nailing the downbeats, try Ex. 2. Play even eighth-notes off the beats in bar two. Example 3 shows a similar pattern using triplet eighth-notes off the beats. For you practice nerds, use the metronome exercises from Ex. 1 on Examples 2 and 3. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
You might notice even with these simple rhythmic variations that your supposedly solid downbeat on beat one of every two bar phrase becomes somewhat elusive, slippery, or just a bit off. Think about and feel the truth: the notes are in time, the rests are in time, and the downbeats and upbeats are just floating through space, waiting for you to play them right in the pocket. We’ve already agreed that this is one of the easiest rhythmic exercises ever to hit the pages of BASS PLAYER, right? You should be able to play this so people can set their watches to your groove. In the next column, we’ll look at how to elaborate on a basic rhythm and still keep the groove. In the meantime, as Bootsy Collins says in his video, “You got your basic funk formula there—you can do anything you wanna do with it.”
John’s newest release, The Innkeeper’s Gun, is out now. Also check out John’s other recent releases as bandleader, The Visit and Space for the Bass [both on Bass Lion]. He is the author of The Jazz Bass Book [Backbeat Books], and Jazz Bowing Techniquesfor theImprovising Bassist [Aebersold Jazz]. For more info, visit his webpage at www.johngoldsby.com.