Bassline Aesthetics, Part I

What does it mean to play modern (aka "rock") music properly? The harmonic and melodic material is usually pretty straightforward, and usually poses no problem. One area of improvement, however, is the rhythmic dimension, which can often sap a performance of vitality and punch.

Today I'm going to talk about how the kick drum interlocks with the bassline--aka "the groove."

One of the standard bass grooves used in CCM is borrowed from 70s soft rock (and 70s "middle of the road" rock, like Fleetwood Mac) and uses a dotted quarter note with an eigth to give it a musical "heartbeat." The bass notes are almost always the root of the triad, and generally match the harmonic rhythm of the composition (which is usually no more than a single chord per bar).

The kick drum almost always synchronizes with the rhythm of the bass player, creating a solid underpinning for the rest of the ensemble. This emphasizes the "groove" of the tune.

Sounds easy, right? Well, one of the biggest groove-threatening errors is for the bass player and the kick drum to be out of sync. When this happens the bass and drum are not together and the vitality of the piece is threatened. "Rhythmic slosh," ensues!

This is called a 'flam,' which is a term borrowed from the drumming world. Wikipedia defines a flam thusly:

A flam consists of two single strokes played by alternating hands (RL or LR). The first stroke is a quieter grace note followed by a louder primary stroke on the opposite hand. The two notes are played almost simultaneously, and are intended to sound like a single, broader note. The temporal distance between the grace note and the primary note can vary depending on the style and context of the piece being played.

A flam sounds like two notes that are almost together, like a 'ba-Dump!' If the bass and kick aren't keeping perfect time, we're going to have 'flams,' which weaken the sense of pulse so necessary for the piece to "work." A bass player and drummer who aren't playing in time will be considered to be 'out of time' or 'out of the groove.'

Here's what a very obvious flam looks like; I've marked it as such in the score:

Whoops! The kick and bass are off by a complete eigth note! Most flams are created by a synchronization error of a much smaller value (like a sixteenth or smaller).

The best way to correct this is by:

  • being aware of the possibility this can happen,
  • listening--the drummer and bass player must listen carefully to one another, and
  • practice with a metronome, concentrating on the subtle 'push' and 'pull' that gets created when you get 'out of time.'