5 ways a bass player can lock in with the drummer

“The drummer is a bass player’s best friend”

By Jon Liebman
April 15, 2022

For anyone learning bass, it’s only a matter of time until you start to hear all kinds of arguments about what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to playing the instrument. People get very passionate about things like pick vs. fingers, 4-string vs. extended range, etc.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, though, it’s that the one of the biggest jobs a bass player has is to lock in with the drummer. 

Not surprisingly, the subject came up in this week’s FBPO interview, when I asked Canadian rocker Andy Curran what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass. “I’ve always felt that my job as a bassist was to be the engine of the band with the drummer,” Andy says, “to be locked in.”

So how do we do that? As someone who’s learning bass, what kinds of things can you do to help you lock in with the drummer and become a better bass player?

Well, if you know anything about me and the way I teach bass, I’m all about the groove. As I always say, there’s no reason you can’t – and there’s no reason you shouldn’t – groove, even when practicing your scales, arpeggios, and other bass-playing “housekeeping” stuff.

Here are five ways you can supercharge your practice routine that will not only improve your overall bass technique and grooving ability, but also help you get massive results in locking in with the drummer:

1.   Put some groove into your scales. Just putting the metronome on “two” and “four” can have a huge impact on the overall feel of the music (yes, scales can be musical!). The better the music feels, the more enjoyable it’ll be to play, and the more you’ll be inspired to practice. This tiny hack will help you improve your overall time feel, and it’ll be amazingly beneficial for locking in with the drummer. It’s a ridiculously simple tweak, but you’ll definitely feel a difference right away.

2.   Practice swing style. As you practice your scales (or anything else, for that matter), try swinging the eighth notes, with a triplet subdivision feel, instead of a straight-eighth-note feel. You can even take it a step further by playing your scales in triplets. Not only is it a good exercise for your fingers, but for your mind too! Like in the first example, you can have your metronome click on two and four, but there are some other things you can do too. If you have a drum machine, set it to play a swing groove and play along to that. Or you can just have your metronome click triplets, with you playing the notes on every fourth click. If your metronome can also accentuate beats two and four, that’s even better.

3.   Take the drudgery out of chromatic runs. Don’t just go up and down the fingerboard, mechanically moving your fingers one fret at a time. Borrrrring! Add some variety and a little creativity. Don’t play just quarter notes or eighth notes. Mix it up. Make it groove! (If you’re a member of the Bottom Line Club, my online school at For Bass Players Only, you know how much more fun it is to practice like this, grooving all the way!)

4.   Experiment with different rhythm patterns. Instead of playing all quarter notes, play quarter, quarter, eighth, eighth (that’ll put you in ¾ time, but that’s totally cool too!). Then switch it up. Play quarter, eighth, eighth, quarter. Then play eighth, eighth, quarter, quarter. There are a million variations! Not only will each one help you solidify the notes and patterns under your fingers, but you’ll become immeasurably more attuned to rhythmic precision, another great thing to have to lock in with the drummer!

5.   Change up the tempo. Find a cool groove and play it really slow, striving for total accuracy. Then speed it up a bit and see how if feels. Next, try playing it painfully slow, just to see if you get any new ideas or insights. You can also do some really fun things, like playing one bar slow, then the next bar double time, then back to slow again. Then reverse the pattern. All the while, you’ll be building massive bass technique within a framework that’ll help you get really good at focusing on feel, beat, rhythm, pulse… all vital components for locking in with the drummer.

The goal is to get really good at the things that will help you lock in with the drummer, all in a fun groove-oriented way. 

As Andy says, “You can do all the finger exercises you want and you can build dexterity, but if you do it with something that’s keeping time for you, it’s going to help you when you get in a band later because you’re going to be that much more in tune with the drummer and what he or she is doing.”

And whatever you do, don’t start out by getting swallowed up in trying to play like Billy Sheehan, or Stanley Clarke, or any of the other “bass heroes” of our day.

“When you’re starting out,” Andy says, “that’s fine if you have aspirations to get there and play like Billy, or Chris Squire, no problem. But start with the fundamentals. Start with being locked in, and part of the rhythm section, and doing your job.”

Locking in with the drummer is one of the most important things a bass player needs to do, so make sure to make it a priority on your journey to learning bass.

“The drummer is your best friend,” Andy says. “Keep that in mind. That’s my biggest advice.”

What about you? As a bass player, what kinds of things have you done to help you lock in with the drummer? Leave a comment below and let me know what’s worked (and what hasn’t). In the meantime, watch my interview with Andy here.

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