DTU Library – How to make bassists happy

The inextricable relationship between drums and bass has sparked more conversations than the Pepsi Challenge. It’s common knowledge that the drummer and bassist are supposed to work closely together, but how? What is the relationship supposed to look like?

As drummers we’ve been told to listen and to work together with the bassist to create a groove. That is great advice, but it’s vague. On the other hand, some of us have been given concrete general rules to follow; we’ve been told that the bass drum should match the rhythm of the bass part or that we should keep as much eye contact as possible with our bassist. But the reason why the relationship between bass and drums is so complex and has subsequently led to so much discussion is the fact that there are no cut-and-dry rules, no step-by-step processes lead to success.

There is no substitute for experience. It takes time, playing experience, and musical maturity to play well with a bassist-or with any other musician for that matter. This article is not intended as a substitute for that experience. It will not disclose any secrets. It is merely intended to give a few insights into a topic that at many times may seem ineffable: playing with a bassist in the context of groove-based music. As someone who has been on both sides of the drum/bass relationship, I believe I can at least offer some advice.

What Drives Bassists Crazy

Steady tempo is important. This should go without saying. And although it’s not just bass players who are annoyed by inconsistent tempo, it is particularly bothersome to bassists as your partner in the groove. Playing with consistent tempo is crucial to the feel of a piece and to its energy. Practicing with a metronome will help your sense of tempo, but perhaps the best way to hone your senses is to play with musicians that are highly aware and sensitive to tempos. Listen to the people around you as you play, particularly the bassist. If your tempo is fluctuating and the bassist is aware of it, you will hear clues.

I have attempted to prod along a dragging drummer many times through my bass playing. I’ve made eye contact, played a little ahead of the beat, and used body language to communicate. Be aware of these clues. Again, listening and responding is important.

In groove-based music, patterns need continuity. As a drummer, you will drive your bassist crazy if you continuously change what you are playing. A bassist can lock in with you only if you remain consistent. Be deliberate and aware of any changes you might make in your groove from section to section. Any changes you make need to be for a specific reason. Play intentionally, knowing the purpose of everything you play.

What Bassists Want

Cheesy as it may sound, one of the most comprehensive metaphors used to describe the relationship between drummer and bassist is that of a dance couple. In each instance, there are two people operating as a single unit, yet still reacting to each other and communicating with one another. This give-and-take relationship means that is it essential to listen and respond to the bass player. The groove does not come from either of you alone; it only works when both players are shaping the rhythmic landscape together.

As a bassist, I have played with many drummers who will lay down a groove and not flinch from it, no matter how many times I suggest a change through my playing. Be sensitive to what the bass player is implying through his playing. If the bassist is laboring to fill in holes in the groove, you might need to play a little more; if the bassist is playing very little because there is no room left in the music, then play less. Sometimes the bassist may repeatedly imply a subtle change in rhythm. Pay attention to all of these things, and respond accordingly. Bass players will love you, and the groove will benefit as a result. The groove is always better when it is created by both the drummer and the bassist.

In addition to listening and responding, one partner must take the lead in the drums/bass relationship, as in a dance couple. The responsibility of taking the lead falls to the drummer. You need to be the one to take the initiative in determining the groove. Establish something, and let the bassist fall in. This does not negate the need to listen and respond, but the groove needs to start somewhere. Even though I am a drummer and know what I want in a groove more than most bassists, I still want the drummer to take the initiative. When it comes to the groove, you are the leader. Own it.

The idea of leaving room for your fellow musicians is a universal truth in music, but it is especially important when interacting with a bassist. A common myth is that kick patterns and bass lines need to line up. This is false. Occasionally it works well for the kick and bass to mirror each other, but not in every instance. The drums and bass should mesh, complimenting each other and locking in tight with one another, but much of the time it is unnecessary to be rhythmically identical. Knowing what to play to make this happen is not easy. It accompanies developing a sense of taste and musicality, culminating from experience, listening closely to one another, and listening to a lot of music. It takes time, but a good place to start is to leave room in the groove for the bass.

Lastly, bassists want drummers who will anchor the groove by playing with authority. This goes hand-in-hand with consistent tempo, but truly anchoring the groove is about always being aware of where you are in the measure, the phrase, and the entire piece. As a drummer, you are the master of form. Marking the ends of phrases and sections accurately and tastefully is a part of your job. Drummers who get lost in the form or loose their place in the measure because of complex polyrhythms happening around them will loose the gig faster than you can say “drum machine.” So play with confidence and anchor that groove.


Hopefully this article has provided some helpful advice-advice gained through experience. Take advantage of every opportunity to play with other musicians, and you will undoubtedly develop your own list of helpful hints. Once again, there is no substitute for experience, so get out there and play.

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