Understanding the Beat: How to Interpret Beat Placement as a Bassist
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One of the most important aspects of how others will judge your Bass playing is by your beat placement. In addition to playing correct pitches and rhythms, how you control beat placement can make a huge difference in how your band or gig sounds. The placement of the beat means more than simply playing the notes with perfect metric accuracy; it means interpreting the rhythms so that you’re able to glue the rhythm section together and get the audience into the groove. It sounds like a common sense approach to playing, but if you think about all the gigs you’ve done there has probably been sometime when one or more musicians have interpreted the beat differently. When that happens you either get a product that feels about as good as rubbing sandpaper on your face or sounds like a basket of kittens falling down the stairs. That being said, understanding how to manipulate the placement of the beat and being able to control this will give you and your bands a great advantage over other groups. While I was a student at Berklee, my Bass instructor (Ron Mahdi) told me all the time that if you’re playing Bass correctly then you’d never need a drummer to keep time or create groove because the Bass line would provide all of that information. He is right. As a Bassist, your priorities are to provide a pulse and create a groove, and how you place the beat will determine how good your pulse is and how cohesive your groove sounds. The more you are aware of this, the better you will lock in with the drummer and other members of the band. I could talk about the importance of placing the beat correctly all day, but that wouldn’t do you much good. Instead I want to try and give you some guidance to learn how to start building a vocabulary of beat placement so you will always be able to lock in a groove with anyone immediately. Like most every skill in music, the best way to learn this is by listening critically to the music you have or will be playing. To learn how to place your beats well, you’ll need to do a lot of listening and creating your own categories for beat placement (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Diagram of the Beat and Placement
How to start working on your beat placement
Interpreting a Feel with Beat Placement
More than likely, you’ve heard of the concepts of being “on top of the beat,” “behind the beat,” or “centered on the beat.” These are the big three categories of beat placement and it is crucial to learn how to place your beat where you want it, when you want it there, and how your beat placement fits in with the overall picture and mood of the piece. In reality, the diagram would have a much larger sections for being on top or behind the beat to cover the many shades of grey that exist in this area. As you think about the labels and the sound, try to connect it to some type of sense that makes sense to you. For me, I tend to think of being on top of the beat as anxious sounding – because the beat just can’t wait to get there – and think of playing behind the beat as relaxing – because you’re so relaxed the center of the beat passes by without realizing it. Once you’ve developed an idea of how you can use your beat placement to create a feel, you can start using it to delve a little deeper and start picking up some specifics. But before you do that you need to take out your metronome. Pick some material that you’re intimately familiar with (e.g. a favorite Bass line, some scales, or some chord changes to walk over) and consciously try to play each note perfectly centered on the beat. After you’re comfortable with that pick the sense that you’ve given to either playing behind or on top of the beat. While thinking about the sense, try playing your material with the metronome again but try to create the sense that you’re thinking about by doing nothing other than shifting your beat placement. It may take you a little while to get your line to give a different feel accurately, but it will come in time.
Interpreting Style with Beat Placement
Now that you’ve been listening more critically and have been working on interpreting the feel of your line by manipulating the placement of the beat you should start working on adding detail to your beat placement vocabulary. Styles as a whole can sometimes be pretty vast landscapes of music, but there are usually a good amount of generalities that you can pick out that will help you place your beats well. Through your listening you’ve probably noticed some differences in where the beats are typically placed in some different genres. It’s through listening to genres that you will also start to see how the placement of the beat is not necessarily the same for all beats. If you’re a Bass player and you don’t listen to any Funk, R&B, or Hip-Hop shame on you. It’s not that you’re a bad person, but you’re missing out on tons of great Bass lines. More importantly, you can find tons of great examples of how Bass players can create different feel and groove by manipulating the placement of the beat. If nothing else, you should notice that the backbeat tends to get played slightly behind the beat and that it is immensely responsible for creating the pocket that every band desperately wants. There are tons of different examples of different placements in different styles and exceptions to every generality that you find. But if you start to get an understanding of the generalities that exist in styles (like where the stronger accents are placed in certain styles) it will get you most of the way to locking in with your drummer.
Fine-Tuning Beat Placement
The best piece of advice that I received about playing Bass well with a group came to me during high school. I had just started playing Bass and the drummer in the school band had already been gigging with local jazz, blues, and funk bands for several years. He noticed that things weren’t ever really locking in between us. He figured out why and pulled me aside after rehearsal one day to tell me that I needed to “watch the kick drum and make sure that you play your notes with the kick drum.” I had only started playing a few months early and was eager to learn new things, so I followed his advice. Almost instantaneously things sounded and felt better for the entire band. I wanted to pass that advice on to you all because it’s great advice that works and can help you to get your band sounding tight quickly. We all know how differently people can interpret the same song or style and this is the key for getting your lines fine-tuned with your drummer’s playing. You may very well be playing your back beats just a hair behind the beat to try and get a great relaxed pocket, but if the drummer is interpreting where behind the beat is the combination of kick drum and Bass will sound like a series of consecutive flams. This is also a good way to start learning some of your drummer’s habits (i.e. do they tend to constantly change what they play in the kick, do they play on top of the beat for every downbeat, etc…) and learning how to get comfortable in your collective pocket.
Be aware of beat placement. When you’re listening to music and enjoying the groove, take a few moments and listen to how the Bass player and drummer place their beats. If you have the time write down some notes (or record a voice note) so you don’t forget how some of the grooves you like locked in, the kind of feel and sense the beat placement gave you, if it is typical for that style to have the beats placed that way, and what the interaction between the Bass and the other instruments is like. When you’re not listening critically to music, take songs that you know and practice playing them with different beat placements to see how it can change the feel of the song and how it effects the groove. And most importantly, practice your beat placement and interpretation with your METRONOME. If your metronome isn’t your best friend yet, you should get reacquainted. I’m sure the metronome won’t mind, and it will even help you to place beats where you want to, when you want to, and how you want to.