IT’S HARD TO PLAY FAST TEMPOS.
It might even be harder to play very slow
tempos. But we all know that the bass players
who snag the tough gigs are comfortable
at any tempo.
Good bass players always accept the challenge
of playing any tempo the bandleader
counts off. Consider Ex. 1, “The Song Is You”
[Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders,
OJC, 1958], which bandleader Sonny Rollins
counts off at 420 quarter-notes per minute.
That’s seven quarter-notes per second, and bassist
Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Shelly Manne
hold it down with fierce composure. Playing
every quarter-note at this tempo could have
sounded frantic, but Vinnegar stays relaxed,
mixing half-notes and quarters to hook up
with Manne’s splang-dang-alang ride cymbal
pattern. This rhythm section was one of the
best in the business in the ’50s, mainly because
Vinnegar and Manne locked in so well at all
tempos. Leroy leaned on Shelly, who depended
on Leroy. And Sonny, possibly
dissatisfied with the first
version, counted off another
take of “The Song Is You.” The
second one, of course, clocked
in a touch faster.
How do you learn to feel extremely fast
or slow tempos? To play slow tempos, you
should subdivide and feel small increments
of the pulse. To play fast tempos, you should
feel a larger underlying pulse as your point
of groove reference.
Example 2 shows a slow triplet ballad.
Count off a measure in your head by saying
one-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-anda.
When you start playing the line, let your
inner triplet clock run in the background.
You can say the triplet pattern out loud as
you play, or count silently.
Example 3 is a ballad bass line, similar
to Ex. 2 but with an underlying straight
eighth-note feeling. Count off a measure of
even eighths in your head by saying one-and,
two-and, three-and, four-and. Keep
your inner straight eighth-note clock running,
and place the eighth-notes and eighthnote
rests squarely in the pocket.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that very
slow grooves are sometimes the hardest for
rhythm sections to nail. The bassist who can
make a ballad feel good will always work.
To hear great ballad playing, listen to Shirley
Horn’s trio with bassist Charles Ables,
who has laid down some of the slowest,
grooviest, sexiest bass lines on record [Shirley
Horn, I Love You, Paris, Verve, 1992].
Playing slowly is an exercise in concentration,
composure, and confidence. But playing
fast tempos also demands those qualities,
plus it can be downright sweaty and painful!
When he was playing the bass line to “The
Song Is You,” Leroy Vinnegar was not thinking
“one, two, three, four” 420 times per minute.
He was probably feeling half-notes: “one, three,
one, three.” He might have been feeling just
whole-notes: “one … one … one … one.” It’s
easier to relax and feel one downbeat at tempo
105, than to try feeling four quarters at tempo
420. So, to play fast without getting your heart
rate up into defibrillator territory, divide the
underlying pulse. As you crank out quarternotes
in fast 4/4 time, think of two half-notes
or one whole-note per bar. You are feeling
a slow tempo, but playing in the fast tempo.
Example 4 shows a quarter-note bass
line over the first eight bars of “The Song
Is You.” Start at a moderately fast tempo,
and count through eight bars, just calling
out the downbeats: “one … one … one …
one.” After you’ve worked out the notes of
the bass line, lock into the downbeats and
play four quarters per measure, letting your
inner clock tick off each downbeat. This
technique will help you stay relaxed at fast
tempos, and hook up with the drummer.
Example 5 is essentially Ex. 4 in a different
party dress. This is a metal bass line, which
happens to use the same chord progression.
By thinking and feeling quarter-notes, you
can spit out the 16th-note groove without
breaking a sweat. Note that the tempo 105 in
Ex. 5 is one-fourth of the tempo 420 in Ex. 4.
Examples 4 and 5 are exactly the same tempo;
it’s all a matter of how you wrap your mind
around the style, timing, and rhythmic feeling.
Check out your speed limits! See how
slowly you can float and how fast you can
fly. You’ll be a better bassist when you can
cover slow and fast.