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Rick Suchow: Bass

berklee bass talk: ask ed lucie...

Berklee Bass Talk with Bass Professor Ed Lucie



During my tenure as Associate Editor of Bass Musician Magazine, I introduced a semi-regular column entitled "Berklee Bass Talk", in which Berklee professor Ed Lucie answered one reader question per issue.

Here are some reprints of that column, which ran from 2012 to 2013.


About Ed Lucie: In addition to being a Berklee professor and graduate, Ed has a Masters from the New England Conservatory Of Music. As a pro bassist, he has performed with Stevie Wonder, Buddy Rich, Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule, Leo Nocentelli, and has performed both on Broadway and TV. You’ve heard him as a sideman on numerous albums, and perhaps have read his columns back when he was a contributing writer for Bass Player.

For more info on Ed Lucie, visit his Berklee page.

Throw Away The Metronome?

Q:  Is the ability to play with good time something that can be improved with practice, or is it more or less just something you’re born with? Is practicing with a metronome or drum machine a waste of time? Also, how can a bass player improve their time when playing in situations where there’s no drummer or time keeper?

A:  I do believe, and it’s been proven in my own experience, that one can improve their sense of time through awareness and practice. I don’t have scientific evidence, but it seems there are those born with an innate sense of time just as some are born with perfect pitch. But a sense of time does not guarantee a good feel, just as perfect pitch doesn’t guarantee good musicianship. I have also found that there are some who unfortunately don’t seem to have any sense of time at all (just like being tone-deaf), but we don’t have the time to address these exceptions here.

First, I think it is necessary to realize that there is metronomic time, which we use to establish tempo, and then there is feel, groove, pulse, etc., which is playing the style of the music within the metronomic time. Each piece of music has a pulse, like a unique heartbeat. Think of your own heartbeat and how it’s different when breathing, walking, running, etc. When we truly play together with a drummer and other musicians who feel this pulse in sync, the music is magic. Practicing certain things with a metronome or drum machine can strengthen one’s sense of time, just like exercising a muscle. When you feel a tension or discomfort between your playing and the metronome, then you learn it is you who needs to adjust, i.e. slow down, speed up, play more evenly, etc.

I personally feel you should use the metronome on 2 & 4, or even just beat 4, to strengthen time (you can even put the metronome on various 1/16th notes, i.e. the last 1/16th of beat 2 to develop time). Imagine that the note heads of the 1/4 notes are connected by a thread. You want to keep that thread as tight as possible—if it droops, you’re rushing. If it breaks, you’re dragging.

If playing in situations where there is no drummer, you should prepare by playing duets with guitarists and pianists. Listen and watch. Usually we have to come to an unspoken feeling of agreement with the time, and often you can sense this just by watching the others play. The stronger your own sense of time is from your own practice, the more others will fall in with your time. And you can’t forget to relax—time really suffers when we play with tension.

Lastly, playing along with recordings of all styles can really help your time. Where else will you get the chance to play with Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Elvin Jones, etc.? Remember, we are talking about time; the world of rhythm is a whole universe in and of itself.


Swinging With The Drummer– Push, Pull Or Line It Up?

Q: When drummers swing, some play way on top of the beat, some pull way back, and others are somewhere in between. When playing a swing tune with a drummer, is it better for the bassist to push / pull in the opposite direction? For example, if the drummer is pushing it hard, is it better for the bassist to pull back? Or should the bassist try to swing with exactly the same feel as the drummer?

A:  This is an interesting question that I don’t think has one solid answer that applies to all situations. The bottom line is always to make the music and groove to feel good. I remember when I played with Buddy Rich he played ‘on top’ and  feathered his bass drum with ‘4 on the floor’. I had to lock in with his time and feel, there was no compromise. The result was a very powerful, forward feel to the groove. When I listen to Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, the quarter notes on Cobb’s ride cymbal and PC’s quarter notes are perfectly lined up but in a relaxed way. Tony Williams and Ron Carter had something else going on, certainly together but looser.

More recent rhythm sections like Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart have perfect time (if that is possible) right in the ‘middle’ of the pulse, whereas John Patitucci and Brian Blade are feeling time together but not always stating it. So what is the answer? Listening; this is the key to finding your place with the drummer; the quarter note in the ride, the 2 and 4 on the high-hat. If he or she is on top or behind, I think we need to find a ‘middle’ but without fighting him. There is a difference between rushing and playing on top, and dragging or playing behind. If we find the middle then the groove will still have that forward motion and feel.


Is It Necessary To Play Live To Improve?

Q: Is it still necessary for bassists to play live with other musicians in order to improve their own playing? There are so many practice tools available now, especially the hundreds of various play-alongs with great rhythm sections. On the other hand, in live situations, we’re sometimes playing with others that might not be at our playing level. Why not just try to improve our chops at home?

A: It is absolutely essential that bass players play with other musicians, not only to improve their own playing but to experience the ‘give and take’ of being a member of an ensemble. There are so many variables at work when playing with others. The first is simply everyone’s different personalities, and learning how to negotiate and work among them; to be a player among players. I always recall Abraham Laboriel saying the bass is the role of a servant; we are to serve the music and make everyone else sound good. He always does a masterful job of this.

And then there are all the things that occur in the moment that musicians need to be able to respond to. For instance: a singer losing the form, the drummer rushing or dragging, the guitarist playing wrong chords. How do we react or respond? You do not learn this by playing with DVD’s where everything is always perfect and always the same. We learn whenever we play, whether it be with more experienced or less experienced musicians. Try Googling “baseball batting instruction”, you’ll find many. Perhaps you can learn some techniques from these but you need to get into the game. You need to be up to bat with two men on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the game on the line, to know what that takes to succeed. No DVD will ever teach you that. And no DVD will ever teach you the energy, the excitement, the joy and the fulfillment of playing with a good band live, and knowing you are holding it all together.



Was Jaco Overrated?

Q: There seems to be some debate among the newer generation of bass players as to whether Jaco was really as good as some say, or if he’s been overrated. In your opinion, how important was Jaco, and where is his place in bass history?

A: First, I am truly honored to be answering this question regarding if Jaco is ‘overrated’ by some of the younger generation.

I ask most of my students at Berklee if they have heard of Jaco. Most say yes, they have heard of him. Then I ask, have they heard him? Many have not, or perhaps just bits and pieces. When I play them some of Jaco’s playing, many just look unmoved. I think this is a generational perspective that cannot be avoided; they never experienced music, especially bass playing when there was no Jaco. They cannot fully appreciate his impact and now they are looking for just technique and gymnastics.

Jaco was a truly unique gift to music. He was one of the rarities that transcend their instrument and yet have such an amazingly personal sound that they can be recognized in one note. Others perhaps include Jimi Hendrix, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Jaco did not ‘play’ the bass, he exuded music through the electric bass guitar. His sound was him!

He dedicated himself to the electric bass guitar (he did not ‘double’). His technique, time, groove, use of natural and false harmonics, chords, and of course, sound, was unprecedented. He was a composer of depth. His knowledge and insight to harmony, harmonic relationships and orchestration was unique and evolving. He was also a band leader and someone who was not bound by any style or category of music. He played jazz, rock, fusion, soul, folk, classical, etc., and always as Jaco.

Finally, beyond the actual music, he was a powerfully inspiring presence who touched the life and soul of countless people. Overrated? I think not. In fact, I think more is to be discovered.

Mastering Rhythmic Notation


Q: Very often the biggest reading obstacle for bass students is mastering rhythmic notation. Do you have any specific advice in how students can get up to speed quickly in learning to read rhythms? 

A: As far as reading rhythms and rhythmic figures, I have found two things quite helpful both in my own playing and in teaching others. Most of us learn to ‘count’ rhythms i.e.: 1 e & a for 16th notes, or some tri-pl-et for triplets. I have found it much easier to recognize, through practice, rhythmic groupings. (I also say ‘cucumber’ when I see a triplet, it is a much rounder feel). For instance when I see a dotted 8th, then a 16th tied to an 8th and then another 8th note; I recognize this grouping as a very common funk rhythm (rather than counting it). The other exercise I found useful was to read along with a transcription of a bass groove/line that YOU ALREADY KNOW. Then you will put what it looks like and what it sounds like together instantaneously.



Chord Substitutions

Q: When soloing on bass, I want to be able to incorporate chord substitutions, but don’t really understand the concept. How do I learn what chords I can use as substitutes, and where to use them?” This is a good, relevant question that does not have an easy, overall answer, so I’ll try to answer simply in three parts.

A: First is to understand a chord’s function and then use similar functioning chords in their stead, ie: in a major key, the I, III-, and VI- are tonic chords. So in the key of C: Cmaj7, E-7 and A-7 are tonic thus you could substitute an E-7 for the Cmaj for example (assuming your are speaking of applying this while soloing). Likewise, II-7 and IVmaj7 are sub-dominant, so D-7 and Fmaj7 could be substitutes for each other. This can go much deeper with modal interchange, but that’s another story.

Secondly is what is called the tri-tone substitution. This is done only with dominant 7th chords. So you could use a Db7 instead of a G7. The G7 would usually resolve up a 4th to a C chord, whereas the tri-tone sub would resolve down by a 1/2 step (chromatically).

Third is to use alternate scales over existing chords. This has vast possibilities. For instance, you can use a symmetric diminished scale (1/2-whole) on a dominant 7th chord starting on the root, or a whole-1/2 starting on the 3rd, 5th, 7th or b9th. You can use melodic minor and lydian b7 over a II-V vamp. So you would play A melodic minor and D lydian b7 over an A-7 / D7 vamp.

We could go on and on, but I hope this at least gets you started.  PS: Listen to Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett or…..

Rick Suchow - Ask Ed Lucie (Berklee Bass Professor)