Q: Is the ability to play with good time something that can be improved with practice, or is it more or less just something you’re born with? Is practicing with a metronome or drum machine a waste of time? Also, how can a bass player improve their time when playing in situations where there’s no drummer or time keeper?
A: I do believe, and it’s been proven in my own experience, that one can improve their sense of time through awareness and practice. I don’t have scientific evidence, but it seems there are those born with an innate sense of time just as some are born with perfect pitch. But a sense of time does not guarantee a good feel, just as perfect pitch doesn’t guarantee good musicianship. I have also found that there are some who unfortunately don’t seem to have any sense of time at all (just like being tone-deaf), but we don’t have the time to address these exceptions here.
First, I think it is necessary to realize that there is metronomic time, which we use to establish tempo, and then there is feel, groove, pulse, etc., which is playing the style of the music within the metronomic time. Each piece of music has a pulse, like a unique heartbeat. Think of your own heartbeat and how it’s different when breathing, walking, running, etc. When we truly play together with a drummer and other musicians who feel this pulse in sync, the music is magic. Practicing certain things with a metronome or drum machine can strengthen one’s sense of time, just like exercising a muscle. When you feel a tension or discomfort between your playing and the metronome, then you learn it is you who needs to adjust, i.e. slow down, speed up, play more evenly, etc.
I personally feel you should use the metronome on 2 & 4, or even just beat 4, to strengthen time (you can even put the metronome on various 1/16th notes, i.e. the last 1/16th of beat 2 to develop time). Imagine that the note heads of the 1/4 notes are connected by a thread. You want to keep that thread as tight as possible—if it droops, you’re rushing. If it breaks, you’re dragging.
If playing in situations where there is no drummer, you should prepare by playing duets with guitarists and pianists. Listen and watch. Usually we have to come to an unspoken feeling of agreement with the time, and often you can sense this just by watching the others play. The stronger your own sense of time is from your own practice, the more others will fall in with your time. And you can’t forget to relax—time really suffers when we play with tension.
Lastly, playing along with recordings of all styles can really help your time. Where else will you get the chance to play with Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Elvin Jones, etc.? Remember, we are talking about time; the world of rhythm is a whole universe in and of itself.
About Ed Lucie: In addition to being a Berklee professor and graduate, Ed has a Masters from the New England Conservatory Of Music. As a pro bassist, he has performed with Stevie Wonder, Buddy Rich, Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule, Leo Nocentelli, and has performed both on Broadway and TV. You’ve heard him as a sideman on numerous albums, and perhaps have read his columns back when he was a contributing writer for Bass Player.
For more info on Ed Lucie, visit his Berklee page.