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Rhythm Section Essentials Workshop: “Locking in” with Bass and Drums

Video still from Soundfly's new free series "Writing for the Modern Rhythm Section."

Video still from Soundfly’s new free series Writing Funk Grooves for Drums and Bass.

In most ensembles, a combination of drums, bass, guitar, percussion, and keys make up the rhythm section, which provides the rhythmic and harmonic direction of the band. Particularly for bass and drums, one of the most challenging things to understand is how to interact with each other to make music that achieves something specific.

When writing music, it can also be tricky to strike that perfect balance between bass and drum parts that are predictable, those that are complex, and of course, those with a solid groove. Because you can make so many musical choices at any given time, it’s very difficult to know what to do and how it affects the music beyond the rhythm section.

First, let’s start off by breaking down some misconceptions about the concept of “locking in” with a bassist or drummer. Locking in is a term that describes the action of bass and drum parts rhythmically syncing in a given tune. Later, we’ll delve into some examples of how you can approach the same groove in multiple ways and stay locked in.

Here are the two most common misconceptions pertaining to locking in.

The bass player should follow the drummer. Meanwhile, the drummer can play whatever he or she likes and vice versa.

The action of following inherently adds a time delay into your playing. You have to wait for your bandmate play first, then analyze what was played, and then try to quickly play the correct notes. But if you’re in the moment, confident in your timing, and comfortable with the tune that you’re playing, you can readily adapt to everything going on around you.

In other words, if you’re following your bandmate as you play, you’re essentially following someone through the dark without really knowing where he or she is going or if that person even knows where he or she is going. In order to follow, you have to be cautious in order to not lose your way.

For the drums and bass to effectively act as a solid rhythmic foundation for the group, each player needs to be individually responsible for his or her own timing, intonation, syncopation, and overall knowledge of the tune. At the same time, each member isn’t on an island; the bassist and drummer need to understand how their parts fit in with whatever else is going on in the band.

Let’s see how a typical funk groove features interlocking motion on both the bass and drums in this video taken from our new free course Writing Funk Grooves for Drums and Bass.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What’s the Key to Creating the Tightest Rhythm Section Imaginable? Listen to the Greats.”

Locking in means that the bass drum and bass need to be playing the exact same rhythm from bar to bar.

Although moments of complete unison between drums and bass are necessary for a song to groove and utilize cohesion, total unison throughout an entire tune doesn’t afford the players any freedom to add embellishments to their parts. It also prevents the song from creating any kind of tension and release, a key aspect of evocative songwriting and groove-crafting. All of this can be made much easier when there are parts that feel busier and parts that are more spacious.

Let’s think of this like going for a jog alongside a friend. In the case of something like a three-legged race, it’s absolutely imperative that you and your partner link up. In order to get to the finish line, your movements need to be in sync and calculated, constant and unchanging, or else you’re going to fall.

three-legged-race

But a drummer and bassist duo is actually more like two friends going for a run together on a narrow path. If they’re going to make it to the end of the path, they’ll have to keep an eye on each other’s pace, the spacing between them, and possibly switch up who leads and follows in order to not push each other off the path if they get too close.

A good rhythm section listens attentively to each other’s playing like a conversation, bailing the other out, leaving more space for other players to voice their momentary musical messages, and of course, syncing up when needed.

There are a number of different ways you can approach playing with the other members of your rhythm section. Let’s look at some of the variables available for you to manipulate in just about any given playing situation.

+ Read more on Flypaper: Our article series “How Successful Musicians Practice” breaks down the practice routines of musicians across a range of instruments to help you find a rehearsal rhythm that works for you.

Beat Placement

Awareness of your internal clock is imperative when conversing with other musicians and making music that feels different from tune to tune. In conjunction with harmony and melody, having control of your beat placement will enable you to create music that has a unique vibe or mood. These are the ways we describe beat placement:

  • On TOP of the beat (slightly ahead of the metronome click) — energetic
  • In the MIDDLE of the beat (dead center with the metronome click) — strong/balanced
  • BEHIND the beat (slightly behind the metronome click) — laid back

Although these beat placements can be used for any genre and at just about any tempo, in my personal experiences, I have typically been asked to play on top of the beat when playing energetic pop-rock and afro-Cuban music, in the middle of the beat when playing electronic and funk music, and behind the beat when playing some forms of hip-hop or R&B.

In a production setting, the three beat placements would look like this:

Middle of the beat

middle-of-the-beat

Behind the beat (notice the clap and hi-hat placements)

beat-the-beat

Ahead of the beat (all the parts are slightly ahead of the grid)

ahead-of-the-beat

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Add a depth of complexity to your electronic tracks with a bit of music theory, no instrumental background needed! Join our free course series Theory for Bedroom Producers.

Feel

Feel is how someone might describe the flow of the groove from note to note. A straight groove tends to feel like the movement of the groove is up and down or exact, like that of a clock. A swung groove, on the other hand, tends to have a lilt that’s similar to a dryer spinning clothing in an uneven, yet consistent, manner. It’s off kilter, but you can still bob your head to it.

Feel is a hard thing to describe, so the best way to understand it is to use your ears and try to identify when you hear something straight versus “different” in some way. For example, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has a pretty straight 8th/16th feel, but Stevie Wonder’s song “Higher Ground” has a more swung or shuffled 8th note feel to it. Do you hear it?

Dynamics

Dynamics play a big factor in creating a groove with a bassist or drummer. By listening to each others’ playing, you can gauge how loud or quiet you need to be to create a cohesive sound. One way to figure out how loud you need to play is simply to ask yourself, “Can I hear every note that the bassist or drummer is playing? If not, do I need to be quieter or does he or she need to be louder?”

You can also sometimes use the lead vocalist’s volume as a gauge. If the verses tend to be quieter and the choruses are much louder, then play accordingly. Remember to remain aware of your own volume compared to the rest of the band members.

Chemistry

At the end of the day, even if you have full trust in the other person’s capabilities and the strength of your written parts, things still may not work out as planned. A big, and somewhat abstract, aspect of locking in is being able to adapt to the other musicians’ playing without any cues or communication. That has to do with chemistry, understanding one another and empathizing with the other person’s use of his or her instrument. When you create chemistry, neither player’s parts need to be compromised as a result of off timing, overplaying or overpowering, because you can always find a way to work with decisions in real time.

Complex/Simple Orchestration

With just about every groove, you have the choice to keep it simple or make it more complex. In dense musical situations, keeping things simple will make room for other parts to fit in, which is always a great idea. But it can also be good to create something complex that works together with other parts as well. Here are some examples that show how orchestration can be used to vary the patterns of the rhythm section.

Here, the bass fills some spaces with embellishments while the drummer’s kick drum pattern is very simple (i.e., 1 and 3, or 4-on-the-floor):

Here’s a groove that highlights the harmonic rhythm with an interesting corresponding drum part played by the bassist laying down a repetitive groove and giving space for the drummer to navigate around his or her pattern:

Here, the bass plays against the kick drum by hitting a series of long and short notes while the drummer plays a syncopated pattern evolving around the core rhythm of the groove:

 

If you’re in need of some soulful inspiration, take a look through this list of our favorite all-time drum and bass units throughout the 20th century. Got more to add to the list? Leave yours in the comments below!

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Efa Etoroma
Efa Etoroma

Efa Etoroma, Jr. is a Los Angeles-based professional drummer, composer, and educator who is known for his stylistic versatility, expressive creativity, and his deep musical instincts. He performs and/or records with a variety artists including Moonchild, Sneakout, Ellen Doty, Bennie Maupin, A La Mer, BRNSTRM, The Writers’ Guild, and Sensae. In addition, Efa Jr. serves on the drum set faculty at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, California and teaches songwriting and music production at Citystage LA. Efa Jr. uses Yamaha Drums, Paiste Cymbals, Promark Sticks, Humes and Berg Cases, and Remo Drumheads, exclusively.

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