Drummers and bassists have always had an unequivocal bond. They share the essential responsibilities of providing the bottom end and holding down the groove, the foundation that allows the song to communicate its emotional message. But it takes more than just countless hours of playing together in rehearsals and gigs before they become a close-knit unit. There are both personal and musical touches that help establish this bond.
FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S APRIL 2018 ISSUE | BY ANDY ZIKER
Though it originally included instruments like piano, organ, and guitar, the term “rhythm section” now often refers to just drums and bass. At its best, a rhythm section is its own unique entity. You can’t easily separate Ray Brown from Ed Thigpen (Oscar Peterson), Ron Carter from Tony Williams (Miles Davis), Jimmy Garrison from Elvin Jones (John Coltrane), John Entwistle from Keith Moon (The Who), John Paul Jones from John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Sting from Stewart Copeland (The Police), and Flea from Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers).
Creating a great rhythm section takes more than just musical chops. It takes a connection to the human behind the instrument. Some of the 15 tips here are music-based and include transcribed examples. Some, however, are less tangible, and that’s where we begin.
Note: The notation examples in this article display a drum part (DP) shown above the corresponding bass rhythm (BR). Only bass-part rhythms are used here to help you more clearly visualize the rhythms that are played between the two instruments.
Relationship On And Off Bandstand
It’s no coincidence that Chris Frantz (drums) and Tina Weymouth (bass) got married during the early days of the Talking Heads. Now, it doesn’t take a lifelong commitment and ring exchange to make a great rhythm section, but a close bond is necessary to maintain a positive vibe in the rhythm. In the sports world, players have to depend on each other in order to get a win. As musicians, and specifically as drummers, our “big win” is a tight pocket that can make the song shine.
It helps to get to know your low-ender. Take them out for lunch and ask about their favorite bands and drummers. Be sensitive to their opinions and ask how they’re feeling before and after each rehearsal or gig. Let mistakes go with a laugh instead of a mean-spirited glare. Communicate with each other about how to improve the music.
Open Your Eyes
In backbeat-oriented music such as rock, country, funk, and R&B, bass players often watch the bass drum pedal. This helps them accurately match some or all of the rhythms played on bass drum. But in straight-ahead jazz, it’s a different story. “In swing, I like to engage with the ride cymbal,” says bassist Dennis Sexton. “My sense is that if the bass player relies on the hi-hat for 2 and 4, it can cause the music to drag.”
On the other side, drummers don’t always home in on the bass player’s fingers for groove playing, though maybe they should — it can be helpful or anticipating band hits, cues, and end-of-the-song timing.
Prolonged eye contact can make some people feel uncomfortable, but it’s important to catch your bandmates’ eyes from time to time to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Listen To Each Other
Because it’s difficult for humans to process multiple sounds, it’s a good idea to practice selective listening on the bandstand. As drummers, we always need to keep at least a fraction of our focus on the bass player.
This is quite often much more important than listening to yourself.
It’s also helpful to be aware of what the bass player is listening for.
“I try not to listen to the drums exclusively as a timekeeping mechanism, but instead in a more musical way,” says bassist Stephen Reichardt. “I listen for elements of melody in the drum parts.”
Location, Location, Location
To aid in communication, set up as close to the bass player’s rig as possible. This will allow you to feel the vibrations coming from the amp and to speak to the player while performing. Keep in mind that bass players normally like to position themselves next to the hi-hat to better hear the highs of the hats and to provide an open field of view to the bass drum.
Know Your Style
Each style of music comes with its own set of idiosyncrasies. It’s your job to learn about the norms of each style, including patterns, dynamics, feel, and song structure. It’s frustrating for jazz drummers to groove when a bass player clutters up the flow with continuously swung eighth-notes (instead of the typical walking quarters). In a similar way, it’s maddening for jazz bassists to be weighed down by a drummer who plays loud quarters on the bass drum, which overwhelms their walking bass lines. Don’t be afraid to communicate any related concerns (in a nice way, of course) to your four-stringer.
Drummers and bassists can make the music feel relaxed or frantic by changing where they play in relation to a metronome. Without one, it’s often up the drums to take the initiative and establish a pulse. In other words, the drums delineate the time and the bass plays ahead, on, or behind it. If the drums are playing ahead of the pulse, the bass often sounds great tucked slightly behind (by a few milliseconds). When the drums and bass both push the pulse forward, it can make the groove feel uncomfortable, as if a boat is about to tip over.
In backbeat-oriented music like funk, the drummer is the main timekeeper. In swing, the bass player is known to hold down the pulse.
No matter the style, the drums and bass share the responsibility, often with chordal instruments. Again, it’s a balancing act: If one instrument ventures out and takes a risk, the other instrument often plays it safe by holding it down.
Song: “I Will Possess Your Heart”
Artist: Death Cab For Cutie
Album: Narrow Stairs (2008)
Drummer/Bassist: Jason McGerr/Nick Harmer
Harmer’s hypnotic bass line clearly establishes the quarter-note, allowing McGerr to use a jagged, syncopated approach as he builds the drum part from the beginning to the end of the song.
Song: “My Favorite Things”
Artist: John Coltrane
Album: My Favorite Things (1961)
Drummer/Bassist: Elvin Jones/Steve Davis
Davis lays down a vamp (a repetitive figure) that establishes beat 1 every two bars while anchoring Jones’ magical flow of triplets.
Song: “Another One Bites The Dust”
Album: The Game (1980)
Drummer/Bassist: Roger Taylor/John Deacon
Taylor plays only as needed (in this case, a four-on-the-floor dance beat) atop of one of the most memorable bass lines in rock history. Interesting factoid: This song was written by Deacon himself.
Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Album: One Hot Minute (1995)
Drummer/Bassist: Chad Smith/Flea
In the verse, Smith stands pat, which allows Flea to explore combinations of eighths and
sixteenths, blending slapping sounds (notated using an accent mark) with regular bass tone.
Song: “Black Market (Live)”
Artist: Weather Report
Album: 8:30 Live (1979)
Drummer/Bassist: Peter Erskine/Jaco Pastorius Erskine plays a repeating samba-calypso hybrid, the perfect background for Pastorius to jam over.
Feel is an abstract term that combines a number of concepts, including tempo, dynamics, and rhythm. It’s used here to describe the space between notes (from straight to swinging). The amount of swing used by drums and bass dictates how the song feels to the listener.
Song: “Jailhouse Rock”
Artist: Elvis Presley
Album: Jailhouse Rock EP (1957)
Drummer/Bassist: DJ Fontana/Bill Black
Fontana plays a straight eighth-note rock beat, while Black walks mostly quarter-notes
with some swinging eighths (a shuffle rhythm) in beat 2. This rub between swinging and straight eighths was an important characteristic of many early rock and roll tunes.
Song: “Love For Sale”
Artist: Dexter Gordon
Album: Go (1962)
Drummer/Bassist: Billy Higgins/Butch Warren
This song features an AABA structure. In the A sections, Higgins plays a bossa nova/samba but swings the eighth notes instead of playing the more typical straight eighths, and Warren swings his bass line in the same vein.
Album: Sublime (1996)
Drummer/Bassist: Bud Gaugh/Eric Wilson
Sublime helped to forge the reggae rock sound of the ’90s, and the band’s drummer-bassist team deserves a lot of the credit. Although the rhythms don’t completely match, notice how the feel of the swinging eighths found in each part meshes seamlessly with the other.
Song: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Let It Bleed (1969)
Drummer/Bassist: Charlie Watts/Bill Wyman
Watts’ and Wyman’s funky swung sixteenths are in lockstep.
Play It Together
There’s nothing quite like the low-end power generated by matched or closely matched rhythms by drums and bass. This strategy is a surefire way to produce a solid pocket, but be careful not to overdo it, as it can become too much of a unified voice.
Artist: The Beatles
Album: Revolver (1966)
Drummer/Bassist: Ringo Starr/Paul McCartney
Description (Ex. 10): Drums and bass play the same rhythm up until beat 4, when McCartney wisely leaves a space for a snare backbeat.
Album: A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
Drummer/Bassist: Will Champion/Guy Berryman
Champion and Berryman generate tension and release from section to section by each pounding out continuous eighths. The piano part is followed by accents on the drums, while the bass stays relatively monotone.
Song: “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”
Artist: Michael Jackson
Album: Off The Wall (1979)
Drummer/Bassist: John “JR” Robinson/Louis Johnson
In the first two measures, rhythms played by bass and bass drum are identical (except for the bass note on the & of 4). Robinson’s sixteenths on the hi-hat demarcate the subdivision, gluing the syncopation together. Check out how Robinson stays out of the way of Johnson’s bass fill in measure four.
Song: “Just A Girl”
Artist: No Doubt
Album: Tragic Kingdom (1995)
Drummer/Bassist: Adrian Young/Tony Kanal
By playing 1 & and 3 & (bass and bass drum) simultaneously in the first three measures, Young and Kanal artfully build tension into the chorus. In measure four, they play the sixteenth-note fill together.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, many of our most beloved grooves use contrasting ideas. In these cases, drums and bass have no intention of playing the same rhythms, and it couldn’t sound any better.
Song: “Three Little Birds”
Artist: Bob Marley And The Wailers
Album: Exodus (1977)
Drummer/Bassist: Carlton Barrett/Aston Barrett
Reggae often involves contrasting drum and bass parts. In “Three Little Birds,” Carlton Barrett drops the bass drum on beat 3 and accentuates 2 and 4 on the hi-hat, while Aston Barrett plays the downbeat in the first measure but leaves it out in the next.
Song: “Sunshine Of Your Love”
Album: Disraeli Gears (1967)
Drummer/Bassist: Ginger Baker/Jack Bruce
Bruce plays along with Clapton’s offbeat-oriented guitar riff, while Baker nails each beat with flat flams on the toms and incorporates a counter rhythmic melody via his bass drum pattern.
Song: “Barney Miller Theme Song”
Artist: Jack Elliott & Allyn Ferguson
Drummer/Bassist: Sol Gubin/Chuck Berghofer
Berghofer plays one of the most recognizable melodies in TV history, while Gubin improvises a funk groove over it. When a guitar melody enters in measure three, the drums and bass keep going their separate ways.
Song: “Mother And Child Reunion”
Artist: Paul Simon
Album: Paul Simon (1972)
Drummer/Bassist: Winston Grennan/Jackie Jackson
Jackson plays a standard repetitive reggae bass line, while Grennan goes off on a tangent, especially with his offbeat bass drum hits.
Overlapping drums and bass combine elements of playing together and contrasting. This concept works really well from a compositional perspective: you get a feeling of randomness while staying grounded at the same time.
Song: “Locked Out Of Heaven”
Artist: Bruno Mars
Album: Unorthodox Jukebox (2012)
Drummer/Bassist: Homer Steinweiss/Nick Movshon
Subtle but important overlap occurs in the bass line in measures one and two (not including the pickup measure).
Song: “China Grove”
Artist: The Doobie Brothers
Album: The Captain And Me (1973)
Drummer/Bassist: Michael Hossack/Tiran Porter
When you glance at the notation provided here, you can see examples of bass drum, snare, and bass guitar that do not line up with one another. However, just enough connections are made (beat 1 in measures 1–3 and the last three or four eighths in measures 2–4) to keep the feel balanced.
Song: “Battlestar Scralatchtica”
Album: Make Yourself (1999)
Drummer/Bassist: Jose Pasillas/Dirk Lance
Pasillas plays a jagged funk beat involving a bass drum note on the ah of 2. Lance
plays a combination of eighths and sixteenths that fall perfectly in the cracks.
Because bass and drums occupy some of the same sonic territory, wielding these frequencies is vital to the overall groove. For instance, when the bassist plays high on the neck or uses a slapping technique, you need to be wary of the midrange (snare, toms). If the bassist plays a low-sounding part, you may want to use the bass drum sparingly, instead using sound sources in the high range (hi-hat cymbals, rim clicks, etc.). The actual sound of the instruments is also something to consider. “I’m talking about sustain and articulation,” says drummer Steve Pefley. “If you have a muddy bass player who lets his notes sustain, it’s really hard to make a definitive groove. The note values have to agree to create a pocket. It’s the same with drums. If you have a really boomy bass drum and you’re trying to play a funk thing, you’re not going to get the definition that you need.”
Song: “Super Bad” (Single)
Artist: James Brown & The JBs
Album: Released as single in 1970
Drummer/Bassist: John “Jabo” Starks/William “Bootsy” Collins
Starks and Collins grab our attention by using contrasting timbres on beat 1: snare & bass.
Song: “Around The World”
Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Album: Californication (1999)
Drummer/Bassist: Chad Smith/Flea
Smith uses hi-hat sixteenths to counteract Flea’s fairly busy bass line.
Song: “Edge Of Seventeen”
Artist: Stevie Nicks
Album: Bella Donna (1981)
Drummer/Bassist: Russ Kunkel/Bob Glaub
The bass line sounds like it’s highlighted, as Kunkel plays accented sixteenths on hi-hat.
The length of each phrase (musical sentence) and the way these phrases are shaped are also key in producing great grooves.
Artist: Aretha Franklin
Album: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
Drummer/Bassist: Al Jackson Jr./Donald Dunn
Even though Jackson Jr. does slightly vary beats 1 and 2, his beat is heard as repeated one-measure phrases. Dunn plays two-measure phrases.
Song: “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”
Artist: James Brown
Album: Released as single in 1970
Drummer/Bassist: John “Jabo” Starks/William “Bootsy” Collins
Collins plays his incredibly funky bass line in a staccato fashion; he almost makes it sound like a tuba. This helps drive attention toward Starks’ long notes, open hi-hat bumps on the & of 1 and 3.
True musical conversations are very similar to when people speak to one another, combining many of the categories presented so far — playing together, contrast, overlap, and phrasing — but done with more of an improvisational spirit.
Song: “Alice In Wonderland (Take 2)”
Artist: Bill Evans Trio
Album: Sunday At The Village Vanguard (1961)
Drummer/Bassist: Paul Motian/Scott LaFaro
Motian goes off on a tangent (which he was known to do from time to time), and LaFaro balances this by holding down the 1 in 3/4 time.
Song: “So Tender”
Artist: Keith Jarrett
Album: Standards, Vol.2 (1985)
Drummer/Bassist: Jack DeJohnette/Gary Peacock
DeJohnette and Peacock share an immediately recognizable improvisational approach. The stick definition from DeJohnette’s flat ride (a straight eighth-note flow) meshes perfectly with Peacock’s legato phrasing on acoustic bass.
Song: “The Real Me”
Artist: The Who
Album: Quadrophenia (1973)
Drummer/Bassist: Keith Moon/John Entwistle
A good deal of the magic of The Who can be attributed to the symbiotic relationship between Moon and Entwistle. In “The Real Me,” Moon plays a fairly straightforward rock groove, and Entwistle responds by leaving space (in the first two measures) followed by consecutive eighths (in the last two measures).
Though it can be one of the most difficult things for musicians to do, leaving space for each other — either when playing fills or laying down a groove — is important in building the trust to take your rhythm section relationship to the next level.
Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Album: Are You Experienced (1967)
Drummer/Bassist: Mitch Mitchell/Noel Redding
Here, Redding (along with Jimi Hendrix) leaves space for Mitchell, who takes full advantage.
Song: “Live Wire”
Artist: The Meters
Album: The Meters (1969)
Drummer/Bassist: Zigaboo Modeliste/George Porter Jr.
Modeliste plays a stream of super-funky sixteenths, while Porter lets him roam.
Song: “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”
Artist: Spin Doctors
Album: Pocket Full Of Kryptonite (1991)
Drummer/Bassist: Aaron Comess/Mark White
Comess holds down the fort, allowing White to supply the funk.