If so, here’s how to make it better. If not, here’s how to get it…
By Jon Liebman
February 16, 2024
As someone who’s learning bass, how often do you struggle with getting your time – and your time feel – just right when laying down a bass groove?
You think you’re putting all the right notes in all the right places, yet somehow something’s missing and you just can’t pinpoint it.
The topic came up during an amazing conversation I had with Dave Swift the other day. Dave is the longtime bass player for a British-based TV show hosted by former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, where, over the last 30+ years, he’s had to play every style of music imaginable.
Aside from listening to his stories about his incredible experiences with Jools and with the show, I asked Dave to shed some light on what he thought was important for someone who wants to learn bass, especially older, non-career-bound people who are learning bass just for fun.
Not surprisingly, developing good time was one of his top priorities.
“As a bass player,” he says, “you’ve gotta have some gravitas. You’ve got to have a solidity about yourself.”
Mind you, he’s not talking about the kind of gravitas pursued by wannabe rock stars. Rather, the kind that’s important to anyone who wants to play bass.
There are a lot of things you need to keep track of when playing bass, but Dave says there are two things in particular that are most important to him.
“I want to hear a good sound,” he says of the first one, “especially from acoustic double bass. I don’t wanna hear a thin, whiny sound. I wanna hear a big fat Ray Brown big, big sound.
“The next thing is time. There’s got to be good time.”
This one is all-too-often overlooked by aspiring bass players who place far too much emphasis on building dazzling technique and trying to impress others with flashy solos at the expense of playing with good time.
“The thing is,” Dave says, “I’ve seen great players with great facility and they can do some stuff, but their timing is terrible. They just haven’t got that in-built time.”
There is a place for flashiness and impressive solos, but at the end of the day, you’re a bass player. It’s your job to take care of business and provide what’s expected of you, specifically, locking in with the drummer, setting the foundation for the band, and making the music feel good.
“If a guy has got a lousy sound and his timing is off,” Dave continues, “you shouldn’t actually be up there playing with other musicians until you’ve sorted that out. I’m sure some guys have lost gigs because of that, because their timing hasn’t been good.”
Can good time be acquired?
Once people get that and understand the importance and the necessity of having good time, the question that often comes up is whether good time can be acquired, or if it’s something you have to be born with.
Not to worry, says Dave. “That isn’t something that’s always in-built. Sometimes that that has to be developed.”
In that case, how does one develop good time?
“I used to use a metronome,” Dave says. “The reason why I don’t use one anymore is because most of my work is learning songs to play on TV or to play on tour, so I’m learning them from an existing recording which is usually with fantastic musicians.”
Playing along with recordings is a great way to improve your time and groove. My only caveat is that you’re careful not to get lulled into thinking that you’re the one making the groove feel so good, which is very easy to do.
“But also,” Dave says, “it just came from lots of listening. I listened to tons of music whenever I could. If you listen to enough great music and great rhythm section players, whether it’s the Funk Brothers, whether it’s the Muscle Shoals guys… if you listen to enough of that that stuff it’s gonna get into your soul. That’s going to become engrained into you, that sense of time and pulse.”
The (lost?) art of listening
Dave’s advice is invaluable. Practicing is important, but don’t underestimate the importance of listening. I mean really listening.
“A lot of people don’t listen enough,” Dave continues. “They’re so fixed with practicing, they’re so fixed with doing the arpeggios and scales, sometimes they forget to actually listen. Just listen to music, not necessarily playing along with it, but just listen to tons of music. That’s what you need to do. That’s what I did.”
It’s also possible to think that if you spend too much time listening, you’re sacrificing that precious time you could – and should – be practicing.
Again, not so.
“It’s weird,” Dave says, “because you think if you’re listening, you think if you haven’t got your instrument in hand and you’re not physically doing something, your mind plays tricks with you. It makes you think, Oh, you’re not improving because you’re not physically doing something on your instrument. But we don’t work like that. Human beings don’t work like that.”
Can you hear what everyone else is doing?
Listening should not be limited to recordings. There’s much to be learned from listening to other players when you’re in an actual playing situation too. In fact, it’s vitally important.
“I think that’s where my sense of time came from, more than practicing with a metronome. It came from listening to those classic recordings of all those amazing musicians who had great time, great feel, but also doing gigs with great players. It’s the age-old thing: Always try and play with people who are better than you.”
I told Dave how that was not a problem for me in the early days (evoking a good laugh), because I got a late start learning bass, especially on the upright. In the beginning, I was always playing with people who were so much better than I was. It may not have been much fun for them, but it’s pretty much impossible not to get better fast when yyou’re in that kind of scenario.
Lessons in music… and in life
“Sometimes it can embarrassing,” Dave says. “For me, the lessons I’ve learned as a musician have often been under the most painful, excruciating circumstances. You know, when you turn up to a gig and you don’t know the tune and you should know it, or you could have learned it. Just anything like that. But then you learn the lesson very quickly. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t gonna happen again.’”
Then, together, we cited a few examples of how this lesson applies to all kinds of life situations, not just in music. (How many can you think of?)
It’s never too late to learn
It’s okay if you didn’t study music in school. Dave says for him it was both a blessing and a curse.
“Although I regret not having a great (music) education and having no qualifications,” he says, “when I left school was when my education started because then I started making up for lost time. Now I’m the eternal student.”
How many times did you refer to yourself as an “eternal student” when you were in your 20s?
There are definite advantages to learning bass – or anything – later in life. Chances are you probably have a better attitude and approach today than you did back in the day.
And that applies to developing good time on the bass as well.
“I’m always studying,” Dave says about his life today. “I read a lot, whether it’s about music or philosophy or self-improvement, anything like that. I don’t want to be caught out. I don’t want to bluff anything. I want to do my homework, which I never did when I when I was at school. I always do more than what’s needed. I do it for me.”
What about you?
What are your thoughts about acquiring good time and listening to great music to help you become a better bass player? Leave a comment below and let me know what’s on your mind. And be sure to watch my interview with Dave here.