PIANIST ETHAN IVERSON WROTE, “THE PHRASE ‘The Sound of Jazz’ is bandied about sometimes. Well, for me, ‘The Sound of Jazz’ is Ron Carter playing four beats in a row.” When I read Iverson’s blog post and interview with Ron Carter, I started thinking about how Mr. Carter creates his groove, and what we can practice to improve our own grooves. Bassists know that the player who grooves will work the most. Bassists also know that a groove grows from a magical combination of attack, sustain, and release. Whether jazz, rock, country, or funk, there is always a basic pulse, and we create a groove by stating parts of that rhythmic pulse—playing notes—and implying other parts of the pulse by added rests.
Example 1 shows the C major scale, up to the 9th (the note D on top) and back down. The lines above the notes in bar 1 are tenuto markings, indicating that the notes should be held for their full value, almost connected to the note that follows. The “sim.” marking in bar 2 is short for simile, which means you should continue to articulate the notes in a similar way. Check out the link online to see a Ron Carter workshop where he is just playing major scales. Watching Carter play makes it clear that a simple major scale can also have a rhythmic vibe.
This scale is easy to play, but how can we make it feel good? Let’s look at the tools that we have in our groove factory. The compelling rhythmic groove and the warm, pleasant sound that we want to hear comes from a combination of left-hand pressure on the string and right-hand attack on the note. Another important component is how long we hold each note before the next attack. Dynamic variation—how loud each note is in relation to the other notes—is an additional important ingredient in the groove recipe.
Ideally, every note should flow into the next note, only stopped or cut off by the attack of the new note. We can finesse the release of a note by stopping a millisecond before the full value of the note. The cutoff , or short space at the end of a note, also influences how a groove feels.
Do not make the common mistake of cutting notes too short when you change strings or shift your left hand to a new position. You should be able to play an entire scale with almost no perceptible space between any of the notes. Only then can you consistently control whether you choose to add a small gap at the end of a note to emphasize the groove you create.
Example 2 shows the C major scale with a slight rhythmic variation: You play the G on the “and” of beat four, creating a pushed feeling into the second bar. You can play this exercise with either a swing (triplet) rhythmic feeling, or a straight-eighth-note feeling. The trick is not only pushing the G on the “and” of four, but also landing squarely on the A on beat two in the second bar. Trust me, this little detail is what separates newbs from groove monsters.
Any bassist can push beat four, but only the groove monsters will land squarely on beat two in the following measure. Check this out with your metronome, play it with your computer sequencer, and by all means ask your drummer to indulge you and play this little four-bar exercise with you.
In Examples 3–5, the “pushed” note is moved ahead to the “and” of three, the “and” of two, and the “and” of one. Each variation adds a different dimension to the rhythmic feeling. You might notice, for example, that you have no problem with Ex. 2, but when playing Ex. 5 you have a hard time playing the “and” of two and then landing squarely on beat three.
Now that you have a strong grasp of the rhythmic variations, let’s add a mysterious element to the mix: space. Example 6 shows the same scale pattern as Ex. 2, except that there is a quarter-note rest on beat one of bars 2, 3, and 4. Example 7 is the same as Ex. 3, except for the quarter-note rest on beat four of bars 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Next time, we’ll look at more tools in the groove factory. In the meantime, keep your ears open and your rhythms precise.
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.
For Practice Demons Only
Want to dig deeper and work out on all possible variations of Examples 1–7?
1. Play the scale at various tempos, from slow to fast.
2. Play the scale starting on the top note, going down the scale and then back up. Try starting on the 9th of the scale at the top (one note above the root) and going down.
3. Play the scale up and down on only one or two strings.
4. Play the examples in all 12 keys.
5. Play the rhythms using different types of scales, e.g., Dorian minor, Mixolydian, melodic minor, diminished, etc.