Learning bass and keeping time

Locking in and the beauty of chemistry

By Jon Liebman
September 1, 2023

“Was I rushing or was I dragging?”

If you’ve seen the movie Whiplash, you undoubtedly remember that classic line, uttered by abusive band director Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons.

While his tactics were unacceptable to say the least, he was actually asking an important question.

Being able to keep good time is vital for any musician, but it’s especially important for someone who’s learning bass.

There’s a lot of controversy over whether or not developing good time can be taught, but let’s not go there. Let’s agree that a good time feel can be improved with the right kind of practice.

I had a great conversation a couple weeks ago with awesome LA session player John Peña. When I asked John what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass, he said they should develop good time.

“I seriously recommend getting time, really good time,” John says. “Whatever style you’re playing, you still have to play in time, whether you’re rockin’ or you’re funkin’ or playing jazz or blues or R&B, you have to have (good) time…”

Apps, metronomes… and backing tracks!

There’s no shortage of technology to help musicians groove and work on improving their time. “You can practice with just about anything,” says John. “Garage Band, they have all these really good drums, so it’s accessible these days.”

If you’re old school or you just don’t have any of that stuff, even a basic metronome will help keep you “honest.”

[Hey, this looks like a great place for a shameless plug of my exclusive Backing Tracks library, made specially for the FBPO audience. It’s awesome! Get it here.]

Record yourself

If you want to be really honest, try recording your yourself laying down a groove. While the playback is going to show no mercy, it’ll be good for you to look at it as a positive thing, pointing out specifically what you need to work on. Tracking your progress will give you a real sense of accomplishment.

John used to do that when he was coming up. The tools may have changed, but the concept and the end result are the same.

“Back then it was a two-track or a four-track,” he says. “(I would) listen to it and see if I was rushing or getting behind, kind of getting that tempo locked into my system.”

Let that inspire you. It definitely paid off for John.

Lock in with the drummer, but don’t be a machine

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know I often talk about locking in with the drummer as a vital component of learning bass. 

John’s got a good perspective on that too.

“The drummer’s clock and the bass player’s clock are not necessarily exactly the same,” he says. “We find a happy medium of meeting together. If you’re playing with great drummers that have impeccable time, it becomes pretty simple to be locked in with them. If you have discrepancies with other drummers but they feel good, you can make that adjustment because we don’t have to be machines when it comes to music.”

He makes a great point. Just because people’s internal clocks aren’t 100% in sync, it doesn’t necessarily mean either of them is wrong. There’s such a thing as playing on top of the beat or slightly behind the beat. Not everyone plays in the pocket, even great players, so it’s a matter of listening, understanding each other, and working together.

“There has to be expression,” says John, “and so sometimes a little bit of movement is actually good. It makes it more exciting if it moves up slightly or comes back down, tempo-wise, even if it’s not arranged that way. It’s more about the expression.”

And that goes for the rest of the band too

The bass player really needs to be locked in with the drummer. We’re the ones that set the foundation for the band and make the music feel good. 

But we also need to be sensitive to the other players in the band, even though our relationship with them is different than with the drummer.

“Besides the drummer,” John says, “you’re playing with keyboard players who also have their own clock and guitar players who have their own clock. That’s the beauty of chemistry, being able to bring guys together that can lock in.”

What a great way of putting it.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with so many amazing and great musicians,” says John. “Even though they have their own body clock, they’re really good at what they do.”

In other words, on the one hand, you need to hold your own, while on the other hand, sometimes you need to give a little too.

“It makes it not only fun,” John says, “but (we) communicate musically, able to be spontaneous. That’s icing on the cake, so to speak.”

How about you?

What’s your experience when it comes to developing great time, and a great time feel as a bass player? Leave a comment below and let me know. Then check out my interview with John here.

Comments on Learning bass and keeping time

  1. marcus davis says:

    Keeping good time is very important when locking it down with a Drummer. In my case when I’m recording new tracks in my Studio I have a Drum Machine which I program it’s great practice especially when one is playing live with a real Drummer. I like to lag just a little bit behind because it adds to the feel.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      That drum machine keeps you “honest,” doesn’t it, Marcus! 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  2. Joe Dashiell says:

    I have a drum machine simply because its easy to play with, However, I keep a metronome handy to learn those “tricky” parts that stump me for a while. An absolute must have on hand tool.

    Then you can play along …

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Sounds like a good approach, Joe. The best of both worlds!

  3. Jacque says:

    Don’t forget to challenge your timekeeping skills by setting your metronome or drum machine to click only on the downbeat of a measure. Can you play a full measure—whatever style you play—and land on the downbeat every time? Can you do it over two measures? Do this by dividing your tempo by four … if you’re playing at 120 bpm, a click set to 30 will be the downbeat. There are metronome apps that introduce random click as well . . . not random tempos, but randomly playing the click at all. Quite a challenge and quite satisfying to master! Never say a metronome has to be boring!!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Excellent, suggestion, Jacque, thanks. I also used to turn down the radio in the car, then turn it up to see if I was still in time with the song. Try it!

  4. Luc says:

    I learned to have the click on every 4th sixteenth and play on the beat. Then on every second sixteenth and play on the beat. Just one note, then two… and later simple scales or arpeggios. After that take it to basslines, grooves… you can do the same with triplets. It says excately what your at. Honest.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Love it! Yes, mix it up. Great stuff. Thanks, Luc.

  5. Luc Vandael says:

    For feel:
    I was a bit of a rusher when playing rock, funk, pop… after years of Jazz, lots of walking bass and be used to push. I learned to play laid back by creating a ‘flam’ with the click. Also started really simple. just 1 note at a slow tempo can get you far, creating more awareness. And record it!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      I admire your diligence, Luc, doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Nice going.

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