To the casual listener, the importance of the bass guitar player and the drummer can often go unnoticed.
In reality, these two elements are a crucial aspect to any band, acting as the ‘backbone’ and giving the music a stable rhythm that allows other players in the band to express themselves.
The bass player and the drummer need to have a tight relationship which is a mix of lockstep and complementarity. Either one can drive the song and lead the pace at a given time, while the other fills empty spaces for expression before getting back into sync at the right moment.
If the bassist and drummer work well together, the essence of the band slips into place. If they don’t, the chances are that no matter how good the rest of the band are, the music will lack that certain something that moves the listener.
Role of the bass and drums
When we think of drums, we think of rhythm. Essentially, the drummer is the engine of the band, setting the tempo and driving the song forward, acting as a linchpin for all the other players to work around.
A good drummer has the ability to make subtle changes to tempo and dynamics throughout a song to emphasize tension and release.
While the drummer brings the rhythm, the bassist brings the groove. A bridge between rhythm and melody, the role of the bass player is to connect the drums with the rest of the band, laying down the music feel and giving harmonic context to the rhythm.
The bass is the link between harmony and rhythm. It is the foundation of a band. It is what all the other instruments stand upon, but it is rarely recognized as that.Victor Wooten – grammy-award winning bassist and producer
The glue that holds everything together, bassists are often the unsung hero and can be the difference between a good band and a great band.
When we think of groove, it really does all begin with the bass – the guitarist, who listens to the drums for the pulse of the music, listens to the bass for its soul.
Without soul, music just doesn’t connect in the same way.
Bass follows drums or vice versa?
The drummer generally sets the pace. The rest of the band look to the drummer to be the heartbeat of the music, setting the tempo and controlling the flow of the music.
The best bands, however, are flexible in this approach and always have players who can take the lead when the song calls for it.
For example, a bassist with flawless timing can often be the backbone of the rhythmic section of a song, enabling the drummer to inject some color.
When you think of a drummer like Ginger Baker, he would often depart from his role as the metronomic heartbeat of his band Cream to infuse his unique style and incredible personality into the song.
This was only really possible because of Jack Bruce – one of the all time great bass players and someone capable of being the backbeat of the band.
The key is to have fluidity and flexibility. A good drummer and bassist can each drive the song at any particular moment, with either one capable of taking the lead at the drop of a hi-hat through a quick nod or a certain look, which each knows the precise meaning of.
Bass and drums are complementary
Bass players and drummers are brothers in the basement cooking up the groove that makes people move.John Densmore – drummer from The Doors
A crucial part of playing in a band is being able to listen. I’ve seen many virtuoso players who, as soon as they become part of a bigger picture, can’t pay attention to what’s happening around them.
Some fail to understand the importance of complementarity and that the music in its entirety is greater than its individual parts.
A good bassist will look to complement what the drummer is playing, with just the right dynamics, tone and rhythmic feel that falls in step with the drums, elevating it to another level.
This is particularly important when improvising. At those moments during a song, when the drummer throws in something unexpected, a good bassist will be listening.
They might repeat the drummer’s piece of improvisation later in the song, or use it as inspiration to form something of their own. Either way, the drummer knows the bassist is along for the ride and ready to follow the dance.
It’s all about teamwork – and it works both ways.
Bassist and drummer must be good listeners
The bassist should also know how to fit around the other elements of the music and the drummer should be aware of what the bassist is doing.
Playing between vocal lines, for instance, and adding syncopation with little accents on the bass, respects the space and keeps the fluidity of the song, adding color without crowding the music.
A good drummer will hear this and create something to complement it, finding the space between the bass and the vocal line in an instant, with a short drum fill or perhaps dropping a beat off the snare to add another little dimension of character to the groove.
It’s this interlaced, synergy of sound that makes music special and, at its foundations are the bass and drums. Sonically they’re a marriage made in heaven.
Bass & drum frequencies complement each other
The kick drum and the lower part of the bass sound sit side by side on the frequency spectrum – the kick usually around 40–60k and the bass around 80–100k.
Even the higher parts of each instrument’s frequency range – the snare and the high end pop of the bass – sit nice and tight together.
In fact, the relationship between the two is so tight that bass players and drummers often feel like an extension of each other.
For a bass player who’s so deep inside the groove, a drummer feel like having two extra hands that clap along with the snare and stomps along with the kick.
Bass and drums play different patterns
Of course, it’s not all about following each other’s patterns and stepping in line with each other.
Instead, it’s about finding those little spaces in between each other’s playing and pushing the song forward by choosing whether to fill those spaces or not, all the while keeping the rhythmic flow tied together.
It’s a connection that’s hard to find. Many musicians play in a bubble and can’t quite break away from that tunnel vision of focusing purely on what they’re playing.
Rather than marching to their own beat, the drummer and bassist need to collaborate on the rhythm section. The tempo should be locked in, with both totally in-synch, speeding up and slowing down at the same time.
However, it’s not all about playing on the nose and hitting the same accents at the same time. Instead, the bassist hears the spaces that the drummer leaves in the rhythm and fills them in.
Creating a groove is like a symbiotic relationship, a double helix between the two linchpins of the rhythm section.
What makes a good bassist/drummer team?
“The bass player’s function, along with the drums, is to be the engine that drives the car. Everything else is merely colors.”
The best drummers and bass players elevate each other’s performance. A great drummer can make the bass player feel like they can play everything.
The more they outline the chord progressions and dynamics of a song, the easier it is for the bass player and everyone else in the band to express themselves.
Once they’re rooted to the rhythm, they have greater freedom to let go and play with soul.
The bass player also has a big effect on the drummer, laying down a strong groove for the drummer’s kick to follow, while waiting for the right moment to improvise.
If the bass is tight, it will lay a great foundation alongside the drums and it becomes a joyful experience to play with the drummer once both are locked in. A bassline that fits in with a drum beat enhances it.
The best bass players add personality to the rhythm section, at times playing almost imperceptibly ahead or behind the drummer. They fill spaces left by the drummer and, conversely, leave spaces for the drummer to fill.
If the bass and drums are tight, everyone else in the band has the strong groove and solid backbone to build on.
This is why the relationship between the drummer and bassist is so crucial.
Preparation and continuous interaction
For this reason, it makes sense for the drummer and bassist to be fully drilled and extra prepared. A good bass/drums team will often get practice together and making sure their ‘team within a team’ is as cohesive as it can be.
On stage, the drummer and bass player need to make eye contact while playing with nods and glances for non-verbal communication to keep aware of each other’s movements.
It’s also critical that they hear each other clearly above all other instruments.
The easier it is to communicate in the moment, the easier it becomes to anticipate each other’s grooves and make instant changes without getting in each other’s way.
This almost telepathic relationship – the shared ability to instantly adjust, listen intently, and give each other space while keeping it tight – comes with lots of experience.
Bass and drums relationship across musical genres
The relationship between the drummer and bassist is crucial, regardless of style of the music being played. However, the essence of this relationship differs across the many musical genres.
In jazz, for instance, the bassist doesn’t normally follow the drummer’s kick, as the kick doesn’t typically form the back beat, but rather add accents.
In funk, the snap of the snare is a big part of the overall sound, so the bass player will always be conscious of leaving a gap for it to stand out.
In all forms of rock and blues, the bass and kick drum normally form the backbeat of the song, adding a punch to the rhythm.
The heavier the music, the harder this punch. Metal, in particular, has real power to the interlocked bass and kick, hammering into the foundation of the music.
In a standard 4/4 rock song, the bassist will normally play on the 1st and 3rd beats, leaving space for the snare on the 2nd and 4th beats. He is then free to play off-beats, using other notes in the scale or 8th notes for instance.
Remember though, aside from what the bass actually plays, it’s what they don’t play that really makes that groove.
The space left on the 2nd beat, the space after every single note they play and especially the length of each note is the essence of the groove that the bass player lays down.
This groove comes with practice and developing the ability to truly lose yourself in the music.