Rick Cua’s column by Grant Norsworthy
The Boy, The Bed & The Bass
Groove is about what you choose to play. NOT what you can play. Groove is about creating parts of a coherent picture that, when combined with the other instruments’ parts, creates a complete picture that moves and engages people. Whether I am playing bass, acoustic guitar, singing or leading the band, the picture I think about is my three-year-old boy Max jumping up and down on mummy and daddy’s bed. If the song is uptempo, the picture or ‘movie’ is in real time. If it’s a slower, more emotive song, it’s slo-mo. It really helps!
Max - my bounding, joyful little man - is the melody and the lyric; he must be the main focus of the arrangement. The audience or congregation recognizes, connects and sings along to the lyric and the melody. (This is especially important in the context of congregational singing). The mattress is the bass and drums; just like my mattress has a mummy’s side and a daddy’s side, so the bass and drums are really two halves to one whole. And just as the mattress is the foundation that springs Max into the air, the bass/drum unit is what provides the foundational groove of the song and makes the listener feel and move to the music. After that the guitars, keys, and anything else are just blankets, sheets, and pillows that add color and shade and make a more enjoyable over-all experience (and for the record, guitarists and keys players, no one can enjoy a bed without a pillow).
The most essential component of any song's groove is that the bass and drums work tightly together to create a solid foundation for the melody. Just as a mattress malfunction would sideline Max's trampoline time, a sloppy bass/drum combo quickly drains the feel and movement of a song. Bassists! We need to be in good, communicating relationship with the drummer. Musically, the drums and the bass should think and play as one.
The first step for bassists is to begin to view the kick drum as essential emphasis to your bass rhythm. Hitting your note at exactly the same time that the drummer hits the kick gives your playing punch and creates a tight sound that the audience can feel. That will not be possible while bass and kick are playing sloppy notes in random rhythmic disorder. It's good to play particular, agreed kick/bass patterns and to communicate ahead of time with the drummer about where and how patterns might change.
Having the notes from kick and bass together is an imperative starting point, but we don’t have to play the same rhythms all the time. But if your bass rhythm is going to be different than the kick, it should be intentional and purposeful in that it achieves some effect that supports the melody and builds groove. Communicate with the drummer and come up with parts and repeated patterns and rhythms. Without this type of liaison it's hard to create a connection with the other musicians and with the listeners, the groove dies tragically, and the melody is left with no mattress to bounce on.
The Essential Arsenal
A lot of times bassists seem too distracted with licks and runs, high notes and fancy stuff and neglect their role in the groove of the music; they're too preoccupied with trying to be a pillow or a blanket and forget that they need to be half the mattress that supports the whole song. A song is often best served by the bassist playing just the bass note of the chord played as whole notes, half notes, quarter notes or eighth notes. Although runs and more complex rhythms might tickle your ear, many songs sound better if the bassist uses solid evenly spaced, evenly weighted notes.
This means that before you do anything else on bass – walking, flurries, taking a jaunt up the neck, anything – you should work with a metronome or drum machine to get solid eighth notes into your repertoire. However simple eighth notes might seem to you, they are often the right choice for a really good, deep groove. Much can be accomplished in the emotion of a song by changing how the bass is subdividing the rhythm. For example, switching from whole to eighth notes to elevate a chorus shifts gears in the intensity of a song in a very significant way that the rest of the band and the listeners will feel.
The Musician's Goal
In the end the bassist needs to be a servant to the song as a whole, which in turn fulfills the goals of best serving the band, the people we play for and our Creator. Focus on getting a solid relationship with the kick drum and practicing effective quarter and eight notes first. Once the two halves of the mattress are working together, the rest of the song can get moving and grooving.