This is a series about famous bass players and their approach to rhythm and groove. We’ll look at some excerpts from interviews and the key takeaways producers can start applying to their own basslines immediately. The format will start with the key takeaway and then the quote from Washington below.
“Ready” Freddie Washington is an American session bassist who has played with Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Stevie Wonder, BB King, and Aaliyah to name a few. Here are two tracks Washington played bass on you may recognize:
Patrice Rushen – Where there is love – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b13_V9y5zo
Patrice Rushen – Forget me nots – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Amzp7W0RkPA
1. Feel the pulse of the song in half time. This is a practical tool when you’re not sure where the groove is landing and you haven’t written the bassline yet. Also, because of the slowness of the pulse, it will be easier to write a bass line that fits if the beat is moving to fast. When in doubt, slow it down.
“Well, I feel the pulse of the song in half time, which gives it a much more laid back feel. In the clinics I always point out that I have technique, but I’m not a technical player. I focus in on the groove and then work with that rather than against it. Every style of music has to have its groove, whether it’s soul, funk, fusion, pop or whatever, and that’s what I focus on – the groove.”
2. Mesh with the drums. If you’re not sure what to do with the bass, chances are you’ve stopped listening. Listen intently to what’s happening with the drum tracks, especially the bass drum and begin by mirroring or accenting specific beats. Feel the groove, does the bassline feel disjunct with the rest of the track? Does it work to support the other elements?
“The first aspect of the groove is to lock onto the tempo. Then you focus on your bass part and come together with the drum part. I listen to where Keith puts his kick, hi-hat, and snare, and to the intent behind it—what he’s trying to do. Then I try to blend with his subdivisions.”
3. Pay attention to space and note duration. It’s easy while producing to lose perspective of the song and work on one element in isolation; almost like the rest of the song isn’t there. This is more difficult to do when you’re playing in a band because other people will let you know you’re off in your own world. You create space by paying attention to how long the bass notes ring out for. You’d be surprised how even minute adjustments in duration can change the feel of the groove. Is the bassline needlessly busy? Is it stepping over other elements? Or is it dancing and meshing and grooving?
“I’m way into space and simplicity. I listen to what everyone else is playing and think, how can I stay out of their way? I’m comfortable leaving space because I know someone else is going to fill it in. My thought process is, How can we all dance together? Often, it comes down to the length of notes. There’s an art to note duration— how long you let them ring and where. I’ll play a short note to let Keith’s snare release because it makes the music clean.”
4. The last take away has less to do with bass and more to do with creativity. Play shows even if you’re not “ready”. There is a tendency to hole up in the studio and try and attain ‘perfection’ before showing work. If you feel yourself start to lose momentum and clarity of purpose, throw a show even if it’s not perfect. Invite some friends to a small bar or shindig at your house and play some beats for them, you’ll be surprised how invigorated you feel to continue working and outdo yourself.
“I’ve always loved playing live and I see that as being where I get a lot of my new ideas from. If you spend all your time in the studio, you could get sort of stale, but when I’m out playing live, I get inspired and then take a load of fresh ideas into the studio with me.”
If you want to go deeper, watch a video of Washington at a bassist clinic. He says heavy stuff about rhythm, body language and feel. You’ll want to start watching from 9:42 to 11:44.
Author: Markus Laczko