Timing is Everything – Bass for Beginners # 2

Of all the aspects of bass playing, the ability to keep time, even under duress, is the most important. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult skill to practice. But, the better you are at keeping time, the more respect you will get from other musicians. Moreover, once you have the timing down to the point where you don’t worry (as much) about it, you can really get into the fun of playing bass without any of the worries. When you get to the stage where you can lay down a driving bass line without increasing the tempo (as in Radar Love), you’ll have it made!

If you haven’t done so yet, stop now and read David Hodge’s column: Keeping up with the Times.

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

The Standards

There are several standard rhythms that you should know. Here are some that you should practice. With each I have detailed a song that is an easy example of this:

A) Straight-4 and Straight 8: Most blues walks and fast rockers. Can be played at amost any tempo. Usually very few stutters.

Back In The USSR

B) Simple Swing: Slow rock ballads or fast boogies:


C) “…and one…” Thumping ballads. Precede beat 1 and 3 with a 8th note:


D) “one and…” Moderate rockers and others Beats 1 and 3 are eighth notes followed by dotted quarter notes. Sometimes beats one and three are also preceded by an eighth note:

Sweet Home Alabama

Running Laps

While I am not a big fan of repetitive drills, it is still important to spend time practicing how to keep time, as well as to practice some of the standard rhythms. Here are some of the best drills I have encountered:

  1. Play along with a tape and have a friend turn down the volume while you keep playing. When they turn it back up, are you still in time? You can do this with a metronome as well, and my friend Roy does it just clapping with the beat (sans guitar). He tests himself on how long he can go before he loses track. Do this at several different speeds.
  2. Use a metronome set at half speed, and count the clicks as beats 2 and 4 (the snare beats). You have to create beats 1 and 3 in your head. This requires that you focus closely on the timing. Again, try this exercise both fast and slow.
  3. Play with a rhythm guitarist who can mess around with many different rhythms and styles. Agree to a set chord progression. While you keep the main bass line running, anything is fair game to the guitarist, including syncopation and dropped beats. Your job is to provide a steady bottom line, no matter what he does. You are the rock while he flits between paper and scissors and paper. This can be a lot of fun for both of you and really helps sharpen your rhythm skills but also your ability to communicate with your fellow musicians as well. This is an invaluable tool when playing with others, whether they are band mates or people with whom you occasionally jam.

Divide and Conquer

When you are in the process of learning a new song, or walk, or riff, you should focus first on the notes and how you are going to finger them. It is very hard to keep time if you don’t know what note you want to play next. Start out slow, work through the rough spots, and then play it faster, faster than you will want to play live.

After you have a good handle on the song, then you can focus on the rhythm and timing. What is the style of the song? What bass rhythm are you going to choose to compliment that style? Is it fast or slow or in-between? Does the bass-line contribute to the melody, or does it support the song’s chord or riff structure?

What is the drummer doing? The rhythm guitarist? Has the lead guitarist settled on any melodies or sequences that you can compliment?

Some songs have a really steady bass-line, with a few busy riffs (arpeggio is such a long word!) tossed in. On caution here: you can start the song too fast, playing a straight-4, and get tangled up because you can’t play the riff at that tempo. Other songs are so busy that you get physically tired trying to hit all the notes on time and in style.

It is important to spend this time learning and listening and “building” your bass-line. Your bass playing can set the mood for the entire song. I’ll discuss the melody aspects next time.

Off You Go

As with many things, keeping time is easy to explain, and easy for an expert to demonstrate, but hard to actually do. It is a skill that requires constant care and attention since there are many factors that affect one’s ability to keep time. For myself, I know that I pay more attention to how the entire band is playing – orchestrating and arranging – than I do worrying about my own time-keeping. Usually I can rely on the drummer to keep time, but sometimes when I play with students, I realize that my time keeping isn’t always as strong as it should be. That’s why I still work on it, even after all this time.

As always, the best path to getting better is to play. Play with others, play alone, play in your head. But don’t just play for fun; focus on playing better. Pick a song to practice one aspect of your playing that you want to improve. Recognize when you are playing well and when you are not. Compliment yourself (no one else may notice) or kick yourself (everyone will have noticed!) depending on how well you do, but don’t play with a “don’t care” attitude.

After a while, keeping time may become a natural, instinctive, ability, and you can worry less about it. When that happens, you will be well on your way to becoming a solid bass player.

Next Time

Transitions – How to get from here to there and back again.

Feel free to email me with comments or questions. Your input will help steer the way I proceed.