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Rhythm Section - Drums & Bass

You’ve all been working hard on your individual instruments for some time now, but we want you to think about taking your playing to the next level. Performing by yourself can be fun, but music is really about being a creative part of a social collaboration… namely, a band. In this essay, we will take a look at the first steps in becoming a member of a musical ensemble. The drummer and bass player form what is known as the “Rhythm Section” — the driving force behind a band’s sound and dynamic. Without us, the music simply drifts and isn’t held down with a good solid ‘groove’ and a pacing beat.

What is the role of a drummer?

Quite simply, the drummer’s main role is to be the timekeeper of the group. That is why it is most important for a drummer to be able to keep time, because every other musician will be following his or her lead. Therefore, it is essential to practice with a metronome (“click track”) or a professional song recording. Remember, being a solid drummer requires a good sense of timing, so we need to work on that skill as often as possible. Of course, there’s always room to let rip as well!

What is the role of a bass player?

The bass player is often seen as providing the middle ground between the rhythm and the melody (the drums and the guitar/vocals). However, the bass guitar can offer so much more than that — from providing a danceable ‘groove’ to a pumping ‘riff,’ the bassline can really make the song move around and help keep it grounded. Having a good sense of timing is also important with the bass guitar, and he/she should be ‘locked-in’ with the drummer at all times.

How does the “Rhythm Section” come together?

The Rhythm Section works best when the drummer and bass player learn to play together, and the biggest skill required is the ability to listen to one another. Being in a band is not about trying to show off all of your skills all of the time, but about trying to compliment each other and make the music flow.

Preparing for the “Band Experience”

Locking in on the “downbeat”:

Play a number of your favorite songs on your iPod or computer, keeping the styles and tempos as varied as possible. Now, try and establish the quarter-note rhythm behind the song (counts 1,2,3,4). Sometimes, it may be hard to find the right rhythm, but the best way to get it down is to listen for the share drum. The snare drum is almost always on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. When you have the quarter-note rhythm down, try and clap (or click your sticks) with the song for the whole duration. This will help you with your timing (as all professional recordings are recorded in “good time”) and will allow you to feel the ‘pulse’ behind the music.

Understanding the time signature:

Most of the time, you will be playing in a 4/4 (common time) time signature. For anything else, you will need to practice and understand alternative timing. Other common time signatures used are 3/4 and 6/8, but on occasion you may hear 5/4, 7/4, 9/8 and 12/8. Again, to understand the time signature you need to locate the ‘pulse’ behind the music. However many times you clap the downbeat around the main ‘riff,’ usually denotes the time signature being used in the song.

Establishing the ‘riff’:

A ‘riff’ is simply a section of music that repeats itself, and we refer to an individual section as being the ‘riff.’ Bass players should already understand how a ‘riff’ works, but drummers would do well by listening to the other members of the band and how they structure the music. Usually, a ‘riff’ would be a single pass (play) of a chosen melody, which would be repeated throughout a particular section of a song. Once we can establish where the ‘riff’ begins and ends, we can start to think about how to structure the drum patterns and subsequent sectioning of the song.

Understanding the style of the music:

Music is a diverse and wide-reaching art form, so it’s important to understand the color and mood behind a particular piece of music. Just by making a simple and minor adjustment to your playing, you can make a significant alteration to the whole feel of a song. The best way to understand musical styles is to listen to a wide variety of music, not just the same bands/artists that you listen to already. By opening your mind to alternative styles of music, you can entertain the possibility of offering something unique and individual to your own style of playing — not to mention the band as a whole. Remember, the musical legends that get remembered the most are the ones who started something new!

Learn to communicate without words:

There are, reportedly, 98 muscles in a human face. So, when the music is blaring and you cannot communicate with words to your fellow band mates, remember to have some kind of facial expressions worked out to signify changes in the music. If you want the song to pause, let people know by making a face; if you want the music to move onto the next section, raise an eyebrow; if you want the dynamic to get quieter, lower your head. These are all examples of how you can tell the group to change something up with the music while you are playing.

Begin your ideas in a simple fashion:

When you finally get to play along with your band mates, start off simply. You should have already listened intently to what the other guys are playing, so the best way to add yourself into the mix is to ease into it gently. Don’t hammer your way into the song with all guns a blazin’! Start off with a basic idea that is a stripped-down rendition of what you are trying to achieve, and then progress with it as you play along with the music. There is plenty of time to mess around with ideas and be more creative as you gain a better understanding of where the music is going, so you should always listen to what everyone else is playing even when you are trying to concentrate on your own part — always keep one ear on what you are doing and one ear on everyone else.

Record your ideas:

Too many good ideas are forgotten before you get together with your fellow musicians the next time, so try and record your practice sessions. Another good method, although not used as often, is to write out your parts, as the following example demonstrates:

Make sure that you have fun!

This is the most important aspect of playing in a band, and with music in general. It’s all too easy to take everything too seriously, and forget to enjoy yourself along the way.

Good luck!

Owen Liversidge

Owen Liversidge, currently in Atlanta, GA, has been an active drummer for 21 years, playing both in the UK and the US. He has a degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Leeds, England. After teaching for 12 years, Owen has recently released two books for teaching drum set method - The Teacher and Student Method Drum Set Studies book 1 & 2, both available on Amazon.