Writing better basslines: Groove Backpack #3

Complete bass player: Improve your timing on bass

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Having great timing is one of the pillars of being a great bass player. In this article I’ll discuss five things you can start doing today to improve your time on the bass guitar.

Every year around September, in my local music bar (which accommodates Thursday night jam sessions) I see a lot of new faces. I live in a city that has a music college, which results in a yearly influx of mostly young, talented musicians who are eager to play and show everyone what they can do.

The raw energy they bring is (at most times) exhilarating, and a lot of the players have amazing technique, great chops and harmonic knowledge (especially the key players) well beyond their years. Although they are undoubtedly very proficient on their instrument, most of them strangely can’t make a “simple” pop song feel good (yet). Why is that?

Improve your internal pulse

Mostly, this all has to do with timing. One of the most important things a bass player (or any other musician for that matter) needs to have, isn’t amazing technique, a PHD in music theory or crazy chops, but just simply great timing.

You need to realize that you can only play “in the pocket” when you are not depending on a drummer to keep you on beat. Having great timing is mostly about feeling the pulse of the music inside your body. This means feeling where the pulse is, even when you are not playing a note. In this article I will explain 5 ways to improve your timing.

The dancing bass player

When I was starting out as a bass player a good friend once said to me, “Dennis, if you want to become a great bass player, you should learn how to dance”. I really never asked him what he meant by that, but looking back at it, I think he was referring to keeping your internal pulse. If you think about it, it’s great advice. Go ahead and try to play offbeat while dancing on the beat.

I understand not every bass player who reads this will immediately sign up for dance classes. Most of us prefer to stand in the shadows anyway. Besides, if you play in a metal band it would definitely be a bit awkward if you’re busting dance moves while pulling on your open B string. Instead of dancing, you could also tap your feet or nod your head if that suits you better. It’s all about the goal of the movement, which is to be aware of every downbeat.

Practicing with a metronome

“Okay Dennis, enough talk, how can I develop my inner pulse?” I’m glad you ask! We have all heard before that to play something perfectly you have to start slow and speed up gradually. This is an important advice, but it’s also pretty boring. That’s why I’m going to try and make it fun with this exercise:

Grab a metronome or find an online metronome here. Now decide what you want to work on and find out at which tempo you are going to play it. Before you start your metronome, take your tempo and divide it by two. So if you are playing something that’s normally played at 120 bpm, put your metronome on 60 bpm. Now turn on your metronome and start playing the tune you want to work on, but play it at the normal speed. If you are in time, you will only hear the beat of the metronome on the 1st and 3rd beat. This exercise forces you to feel the 2nd and the 4th beat in your own body. If you are off, you will find out on beat 1 and 3

A variation on this exercise I really enjoy is putting the metronome on 2 and 4. This forces you to feel the one, and as we all know thanks to legendary Bootsy Collins, this is the most important downbeat for every bass player. Also the metronome now has the same function as a snare drum.

If you don’t know what to play, try this exercise by Damian Erskine. It’s about playing a groove on one note and incorporating drum parts in your ghost notes. You can check it out here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv1USlSbpVQ, warning: it’s pretty addicting!

Recording yourself

Another great technique for improving your timing, is recording yourself. Preferably video as well as audio “How could that possibly help?” Another great question! Record yourself playing something you are working on. Just record it with your phone. Are you feeling good about the take you just recorded? Great! Listen back to it and pay attention to your timing. Are there certain spots that don’t sound groovy to you? Are you speeding up? Slowing down? Do certain parts just don’t feel good?

Try to really zoom in on the things you aren’t happy about. If you do another take and the same parts still feel off, it could also be something else than just the inability to time it right. Make sure you know what you are going to play before every round of recording and don’t try to just play some variations on the spot. Also check the video to see if your technique is not hindering you. Thirdly, check your breathing. I know it sounds strange, but a lot of musicians have the tendency to hold their breath when playing something they find difficult. Try to relax and keep breathing; better breathing is better playing.

If the part is just too complicated right now, a great choice would be to simplify the part. Steadiness is always better than playing something fancy that is timed horribly. Besides, your goal as a bass player is not to wow an audience by your technicality, but by your skill to get their asses moving.

Do another take. Completely satisfied this time? Awesome! Now imagine your favorite band calling you and asking you to join them on their upcoming European tour. They would just need a little audition video from you as a formality. If you have no problem sending the recording you just made, you should send it and start googling how warm Milan gets in July. If you are not sure if it’s good enough, do some more takes until you are convinced it is.

Want to learn more about recording bass? Check out You need this to start recording bass guitar

Playing without a drummer

Let’s just face it, it’s easier to really lock into the groove when you are playing with an amazing drummer, partly because he plays all the subdivisions on his hi-hat. Unfortunately, there are also times when you’re playing a song or maybe a whole gig without a drummer. A helpful trick for playing these kind or songs/gigs is imagining a drummer playing with you. For me it works wonders!

Rhythm section rehearsal

Something I can recommend to every rhythm section is to have their own rehearsal. Talk about sections of the song that feel good, and sections of the song that feel less steady. Usually going from one section of the song to the next are spots where it can get hairy. Make sure that your parts interlock and check that you are not speeding up or slowing down.

You could even try connecting a metronome to the PA set and blast it through the speakers. Also just play the same groove until you are tired of it. Did you know James Brown and Prince were famous for rehearsing one groove for hours on end?

Listen to your band members and determine if they time differently from you. Does mimicking their timing improve the way it feels or is the contrast between their timing and yours the reason it feels good?

A quick summary

To summarize I would quickly like to recap the five thing you should start doing today to improve your timing on the bass guitar:

  1. Move your body to the pulse, you don’t have to be a dancer. Just be aware where the downbeat is, it will make all subdivision a lot clearer.
  2. Practice with a metronome that only sounds on beat 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. It forces you to feel the beats where the metronome doesn’t sound. Play these beats with conviction even when the metronome isn’t there to support you.
  3. Record yourself and zoom in on the parts that need work. Then actually put in the work until you are a 100% satisfied.
  4. When playing without a drummer, imagine the subdivisions the drummer would play.
  5. Have a rhythm section rehearsal and apply the same concepts as mentioned in step 2 and 3.

As a bass player and part of the rhythm section your timing is the cement that keeps everything in place. A bass player that can only play four notes but plays them at exactly the right time makes a band so much happier than a bass player who plays 40 notes but only nails 4 of them.

Nobody wants a bass player that’s running behind the facts and chasing after the drummer. Make it your mission to be known as the most solid bass player instead of the most virtuoso bass player. There is no better feeling in music than locking in with the whole band and the more you do it, the more you will get addicted to it.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy: The role of the bass player in the band

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.


  1. Thanks for the simple, timeless suggestions. The importance of playing in the pocket is often stated yet simple, actionable tips are rarely provided.

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