My third Groove Rule of Thumb (GRT) is one of the most important, mainly because it applies to any style of music: all notes should be as connected to one another as possible. With this ‘GRT”, I’m talking about the importance of legato playing; playing each note in a fat, connected, and smooth manner. We don't want our notes to be “choppy” or short – sustain is what we need to strive for. We want our groove to flow, one note melting into the other, like hot molasses merging.
This is a particular challenge on the bass. String crossings and fingerings are all working against us in connecting notes. We have to play in a positional and ascending, or vertical manner, as indicated in the diagram below:
Navigating this “real estate” for legato playing takes work. Here are three tips for doing so:
1. Focus on the Left Hand.
Many bassists focus too much on the right hand. I see this all the time teaching bass lessons in NYC and globally via Skype.
A focus on the left hand holds true for the electric and upright bass. Practice with a focus on the smooth connection of notes in the left hand. Prepare for each left hand fingering and shift before the next note is played. Always be thinking about where each note is moving.
(Note: We’re always going to have to balance short and long notes, depending on the tune we’re playing. In no way am I implying that Staccato fills and choppy “stabs” aren’t a huge part of what of what we do. But, for the vast majority of our playing, this “GRT” holds true)
On the upright bass, keep the left hand thumb more on the treble side of the fingerboard, in line with the D and G strings. For both instruments, keep the hand curved, and relaxed. If you’re left hand feels strained or tight, stop playing! You're doing something inefficiently and need to course correct. Video yourself practicing to make sure you’re left hand posture adheres to the principles above. This technique will allow the left hand to move positionally (see diagram) more efficiently.
2. Listen to bassists who do this masterfully
Here are a few bassists whose notes are always long, connected and “fat”:
Hassan “JJ” Shakur
As a result of adhering to the long and fat rule of thumb, your groove will fulfill the main criteria of playing in the pocket: it will be relaxed, laid back, smooth and warm. For electric bassists, there is probably no more magnificent an example of this than the playing of James Jamerson (that old-school, flatwound sound, increasingly popular today does help make things fatter).
3. Play on one string
Keeping left hand string crossings to a minimum and playing on one string is a beautiful way to maintain a broad, even, and connected bass lines. This is a pretty unorthodox approach, as we’re taught to play in such a positional manner. Playing up and down the fingerboard on one string also forces us to get comfortable the full length of the instrument, breaking away from the boxes of positional playing. This will open up new possibilities, enhancing our master of the full range of the instrument.
Notice I didn’t mention anything about the right hand? Playing long and fat lines is almost entirely about the left hand. Yes, proper hand technique is an integral part of playing the bass, and this will be subject of a future blog post. But concerning my “Long and Fat” Groove Rule of Thumb, working on the left hand is the first order of business.
So go for sustain; beautiful, long, fat lines. This is what will keep your phone ringing. Or, more accurately in our era of the smartphone, “pinging.
To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for private in-person lessons in NYC or via Skype.