Bassists on Drummers

No matter what style rhythm section a drummer plays in, it is essential that he or she lock in with the bassist. Since there is no one hard and fast rule on the subject, I spoke with some of the top bassists in the country and asked them two questions: What do you look for and listen for in a drummer? What are common faults that you find in drummers?

Jack Six: Acoustic Bass, live performer perhaps best known for his work with Dave Brubeck and Alan Dawson.”The sound of the drums is important. The sound of the cymbals. The feel is the most important thing to me. That’s a difficult thing to describe. The kind of feel that’s affected by the sound, and where everything comes together.

“I think there’s a tendency to overplay with most young drummers. Rushing is common in trying to force things to swing by playing on top a little bit. If things weren’t swinging by forcing it a little bit, it might seem that by playing a little bit on top, it at least makes it seem more exciting. But, it also makes it feel a little more uncomfortable. I think that might be a common failing of younger drummers. To maybe artificially create excitement.”

Carol KayeCarol Kaye: Electric Bass, studio and live performer with a string of movie, TV, and record hits.

“The main thing is a great sense of time, sensitivity and dynamics. A real fine drummer ought to be able to tell a story between his hands and feet and not just bang on the drums. The drummer is like the framework of a house, and the bass player is like the basement. The bass drum is very important to groove with, but not necessarily by playing the same line; perhaps a complimentary line.

“When I watch people dance, the bass is felt in their pelvic area, but the drummer’s got the whole body! The bass player and the drummer should be able to lock in and groove together. Not push or pull. Once in awhile I’m the one that has the energy, so I’ll push and pull the drummer a bit to lock him into a good, steady time groove. Musical peaks don’t happen if the time is rushing an awful lot. You can rush a little bit and drag a little bit, as long as you do it together.

“I listen for cymbal work, too. The sound of the cymbal is important. I look for a drummer who’s looking for the same goal that I am: To back up the lead player or singer with simplicity. To play simple and to put the right stuff underneath a player or singer takes talent!

“My favorite drummers to play with have been Johnny Guerin, Sharkey Hall, Jesse Sailes, Earl Palmer, Jim Gordon, Paul Humphrey, and Shelly Manne. Shelly used to tune his drums in the studio just so beautiful! People say that drums are not musical instruments. Drums are musical instruments! You can play songs on the drums.

“A good groove is essential. That’s the number one role for the bass player and drummer. It’s very rare to find that. First of all, we’ve got to lock in. If I can’t think of a bass pattern, I’ll listen to the drummer’s feel. Not just to his bass drum . . . I listen to everything! Most of the time it’s up to me to create bass patterns. Technically speaking, I never really thought much about the drummer. I created my parts by feeling.

“The players that want to learn that, I’d say just listen to the bass and the drummer on records, and listen to what’s happening on the lead. Listen, when the singer is singing, how the bass player may follow with a little lick as an answer, or the drummer may do the same thing. Or they might do it together! It’s a team.

“A common fault in drummers is that they don’t have good time, especially in their fills. They’ll be concentrating on the technicalities, painting the picture, but they’ve got to concentrate as hard, if not harder on the time. I’m not saying that you’ve got to be like a metronome, because Miles Davis said that with time, you can go up and down a little bit as long as you stop back at the same point.

“Drums usually have their fills at the end of eight bars. They usually rush. I ‘ l l go with them a little bit so it doesn’t sound like there’s two bands. They usually drag when they get through with their fills, and I’ll play on top of the beat a little to smooth it over. It has a lot to do with drummer’s attitudes. They’re told from the time they’re little kids, ‘Drums are not a musical instrument, I want you to play the violin.’ If somebody wants to play drums, for gosh sakes, let them play drums.

“Many times, if your timing is off it’s the attitude. ‘Look at me. I’m great.’ They have to think that way because of what they’ve been told all their lives, that drums are not musical instruments. But, they’ve got to realize they are musical instruments! A drummer should feel proud of his role, but many times they get overbearing and they’ll tell the bass players what to do. Well, just leave the bass player alone! If drummers are going to talk to the bass players, don’t just say ‘Follow my bass drum.’ Tell them on a communicating level how to do it. Not just ‘Copy me.’ I’ve had a lot of complaints from my students about drummers who tell them that. But, I think a lot of drummers are finally getting their shit together as far as thinking ‘Well, I am very important. The drums are a musical instrument.’ There’s not so much of that bad attitude now. It’s getting better. Keeping a happy attitude in the band is very important, and the drummer, being a gregarious kind of guy, can do that.

“The drummer is painting a sound picture. He’s the guy that’s putting the framework around everything. Fine drummers usually have really great ears. They can hear stuff that other instrumentalists can’t hear because they’re listening to the strings, the horns, the percussion, the singer . . . they listen to everybody. They play notes on the drums, too.

“Who’s the boss of the band? That role should be shared between the bass player and the drummer. You’ve just got to groove together.”

Calvin Hill: Acoustic Bass, playing recently with Max Roach and Michael Carvin.

“I guess first of all would be the sensitivity. Does he listen to what everybody else is playing? Most of all that he keeps good time, and listens to what everybody else is doing, and doesn’t cover up somebody. Colors and shades, different volume levels, I guess those are the two main things.

“Faults I hear in drummers? Mainly that they play too loud. They’re too insensitive. A drummer can lead whatever band he’s in. He can force himself to be the leader, just by the nature of the instrument. He can play the loudest, he can cover everybody up and he can make everybody the music go. But, he should be sensitive enough to realize that if he’s not the leader of the band, then he is just another member of the band. That everybody else’s role in the band is just as important as his is. The beginning of every band is the linkage between the bass player and the drummer. Drummers have said to me ‘I can’t hear you. I can’t hear what you’re doing.’ And a lot of times I do that on purpose because I want them to stop and listen. I’m saying musically what I could be verbally saying: ‘I can’t hear the piano player or the horn player because you’re playing so loud. You can’t hear me because you’re playing too loud, not because I’m playing too soft.’

“I think that the greatest drummers had the ability to really burn with intensity while still playing soft. I don’t say that a drummer shouldn’t play loud. I remember listening to Elvin Jones with John Coltrane! To an extent it’s volume but it’s also space. A lot of drummers are just so busy that they don’t leave spaces for other instruments. Like I said, the beginning of a band is the linkage between the bass player and the drummer. If they’re not linked together the band never gets off the ground. No matter how good the piano player or horn players are, if you don’t have that foundation in the drums and the bass, nothing else is going to work.”

Larry Ridley Jr.Larry Ridley, Jr.: Acoustic Bass, live and studio. Mr. Ridley also teaches at Rutgers University.

“I’ve been very lucky because I’ve played with a variety of musicians; drummers who have been from different idioms of the music, whether it’s the New Orleans style or the Swing style or the Bebop style or the Avant-Garde style—one of the basic things that I’m constantly looking for is that common denominator of the spiritual relationship. That’s got to be there! Baby Dodds said, ‘Everybody can beat a drum; but everybody can’t play a drum.’ That might seem an overly simplistic statement. But, there’s a lot of meaning behind what he’s saying there. It goes back into that spiritual aesthetic thing that I was talking about. That’s the major thing that I look for.

“Too often guys are so insecure and wrapped up in their own egos, that they don’t recognize what makes the music strong. I don’t care if it’s a duo or a 200 piece orchestra—you still have a role within that circumstance. I compare it to athletics. You just can’t win it by yourself! You’ve got to be part of a team. And that’s one of the things that a person has to recognize. That spiritual perception and the fact that you’re part of a team. And it’s important for the bass player and the drummer to really lock up. Every individual has to recognize, especially if you’re playing the drums—you might be playing too loud! And you adjust your volume to allow that spiritual perception to take over so that you can tune in to what’s happening, and become a part of that total experience as it happens. There is no set pattern or formula for that. It defies analyzation and it’s a very intuitive ability that an individual just has to learn to be sensitive to.

“I’ve been very fortunate to play with a lot of different guys: Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones! You have to know how to make certain kinds of adjustments. They way I walk my lines, for instance, in playing with Max, it’s not totally different but there’s an adjustment that has to be made. As an individual, Max has a unique approach to how he phrases, how he breathes and the intuitive rhythm he feels. I can’t go in and gorilla my way with Max like I would with Philly Joe. I have to make those kind of adjustments. It’s important for all the instruments to do that, but it is a special kind of thing where the bass player and the drummer have to form what I call a ‘marriage.’ This is something that Percy Heath taught me back in the Fifties when I was studying with him.

“The fault with most drummers is they get carried away, mesmerized by the sound of the instrument. Drummers blow it because they don’t think of themselves as playing a melodic instrument. They think of a sound and they just start beating. They don’t realize that you have to develop a whole range of inner ability to control the instrument so that you can produce different pitches. And there are a variety of ways you can achieve that. The way you tune your drums, the way you strike it, what part of the drumhead you hit, for instance. Just like all this stuff with electronic drums. Okay, so it’s a new innovation. All these guys that are experimenting with that stuff, they haven’t even learned, for the most part, how to play the basic instrument, or to develop the full range of dynamics, colors, pitches, and timbres that you can get out of the multiple percussion set-up. Guys don’t realize the many colors they can explore and get into and that it takes time! And it takes a very sensitive person dealing with it from that spiritual aspect that I’m talking about. You know, them flams might be shams! It’s just like a plumber with a wrench. Just ’cause you got a wrench doesn’t mean that you can install a bathtub or a shower unit for somebody. You got to know what you’re doing. The wrench is just a means to an end.

“The spiritual part is very important. It just ain’t about practicing all the basic rudiments and saying ‘Oh man I really did it. I practiced 8 hours and got all my rudiments down.’ Okay, but can you make any music out of that? If you can’t put it together to convey a complete thought to communicate something and project something to people it doesn’t mean a thing.”

Ron CarterRon Carter: Electric and Acoustic Bass, studio and live performer with most of the jazz greats, as well as his own group The Ron Carter Quartet.

“Someone who is aware of the placement of the beat by the bass player and what kind of notes the bass player plays. “They don’t tune their drums correctly. That’s very common.”

Miroslav Vitous: Acoustic and Electric Bass, studio and live performer. Founding member of Weather Report.

“Musicality. Being musical. Dynamics. Listen to everybody in the group and be musical about it. Do not overpower the rest of the group. Dynamics has a lot to do with it. That’s the number one thing. Number two, just as important, a drummer must have great time.

“Faults would be slowing down or speeding up, or not listening enough so that the whole thing doesn’t come together. All of a sudden everybody goes apart and everybody’s downbeat is in a different place. Overpowering volume is another common fault.”

Eddie Gomez: Acoustic Bass, studio and live performer with Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Bill Evans.

“The most fundamental thing is the ability to listen to the total musical picture, and to respond sensitively. That’s about it without getting too elaborate. Maybe I should get elaborate, but I look for a drummer who responds to the way I’m playing and knows how to play with dynamics, different nuances in the time, and again, has the ability to respond to the whole picture, the whole totality of the music. I would say Jack DeJohnette is a good example of that. Also, Al Foster, Joe Chambers, Dannie Richmond, Billy Hart, and Eliot Zigmund.

Common Faults; “I guess the answer would be somewhat opposite to my first answer. Drummers or musicians that don’t respond to the music, that just kind of go headfirst into it and are not sensitive, and they are not supple enough to be able to sculpt with the music. Also, a drummer can be very, very loud and that can be just totally meaningless. Sometimes it can be very, very loud and it can be extremely exciting. So, it’s really not a question of how loud or how much, but really the intensity under the conditions of what’s happening.”

Reggie Workman: Acoustic Bass, studio and live performer with his own quartet. Has performed with most of the great jazz drummers.

“Everybody has a different approach to the way they deal with music. I appreciate a drummer who has the ability to make music according to the components that he’s dealing with as opposed to having a preconceived idea as to what is supposed to happen.

“Very often you get on the bandstand with drummers who don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happening. They don’t converse with the soloist. They don’t listen. Those who do would be the persons I would prefer to make music with. It takes a lot of ingenuity from the rhythm section to keep the groove from dying.

“I think it’s important to have a concept of putting your feelings where each individual soloist is concerned. Let’s take Philly Joe for example. The way that he played behind John Coltrane was quite different from the way that he played behind Cannonball, and different again from the way that he played behind Miles Davis. That’s an example of what has to happen. You have to have enough in your conceptual reservoir to change according to who steps up to the podium, so that you can converse with him adequately and be a complement as well as a give and take.

“I believe that a lot of drummers have a concept of playing the ‘beat’ instead of playing the ‘groove.’ The percentage is way up over half. Too many drummers are concentrating on playing the beat instead of realizing that every person on that stand has a different concept as to where the beat is.

“I would think that it’s important to understand the groove as well as to understand the beat. There are so many ways of dealing with that groove. Think of Elvin Jones and the wide, broad way that he approaches the beat. Like a Watusi dancer. And then you think of somebody like Jimmy Cobb or Tony Williams who approach the beat very definite, or very closed.

“The other thing I think that is important is to understand that everyone has to have the rhythm and the time in their soul. If they don’t, then they have no place on that stand. It’s not completely the drummer’s responsibility to have to keep the beat and pull everybody’s coat where one comes; or to mark where the bridge is. Some drummers think that this is traditionally a responsibility, and therefore never grow out of it. They don’t cut loose and make music instead of making beats. The harmonious situation on the bandstand is such that the drummer, the saxophonist, the pianist—everyone must understand that time is dispensable. The heart doesn’t stop beating. It never misses a beat, but you’re not sitting there listening for each throb of your heart.

“I always go back to Elvin because when you listen to him you may hear the rhythm coming from his sock to his bass drum, his left hand, his seat, his voice. It may come from any one of those places. It’s a natural thing. And he’s not restrictive, like a lot of other drummers. You never really lose the groove.

“A lot of drummers try to be futuristic and more modern, but they lose the groove and find themselves nebulous instead of in contact with what it really is. So all of the interesting things that are happening, all of the intricate things that are happening in their percussive playing or music making, don’t have the same significance because they lose the groove.”

Richard DavisRichard Davis: Acoustic Bass, studio and live. One of the premier bassists in jazz history.

“Time. Imagination. Musicality. Security. heavy. The time doesn’t float. Some drummers “Common faults? Their foot might be too play with you and some of them play at you.”

Gordon Edwards: Electric Bass, studio and live performer, primarily with Stuff.

“Pulse. Because they’re playing like a percussive instrument a lot of them lack finesse. Shading is a very heavy thing with me. Some drummers only know full speed ahead. They can play the greatest things fast, but if you ask them to play something at a very slow, pulsating rhythm they tend not to be able to keep time. A drummer’s time varies, I feel, more on slow tunes than on fast ones. Sometimes when I work with drummers, if you play something fast, they get it as fast as they can play, and they push themselves. They can push fast and feel that they’re keeping the rhythm. As they get tired they start slowing down and down and down.”

Will Lee: Electric Bass, studio and live with Brecker Brothers and others.

“Steadiness. I just listen to his right foot, usually. That’s where my relationship with most drummers starts.

“Common faults? Just underconfidence. That’s about the only fault that ever comes out of a drummer. Even if his time stinks, if he’s confident you can follow him.”

Bob Cranshaw: Electric and Acoustic Bass, studio and live. One of the first proponents of electric bass. Played with many jazz greats.

“Well, I listen for his ability to play time. What his time feeling is, what kind of facility, what kind of chops, and I try to get to know the drummer himself. The personality. I think we play a lot like we are. So, I try to find the way to be around the person for awhile. It gives you a better idea of what he’s about. Those are some of the things I try to check out in working with a drummer, whether it’s for a few minutes or longer. So, I have to be open. I have to be receptive to the vibes. I have to be open to listening.

“I listen for time, because I’m a time player. So, I kind of enjoy a drummer who sometimes does other things. The way I play is a certain kind of style and feeling, and I think that a different style sometimes goes very well with my playing. It keeps my thing from being monotonous. I enjoy playing time. That’s been my role through the years in playing music. I enjoy accompanying different people. So, the drummer is very important because we help make whatever is interesting, interesting. We have to boost it. The drums can be very exciting. Moreso, usually, than a bass player. It is the bass player and the drummer that help create that feeling, so I enjoy a nice tasty drummer.

“I try to offer the bottom, because that’s what I feel is important. Not every bass player plays like that and those who don’t, work with other groups where another person has the same role, or plays the part. Sometimes it’s the bass player; sometimes it’s the drummer.

“To me, when Coltrane had his thing, McCoy Tyner was the drummer. He kept the time. He marked the place. You couldn’t hear Jimmy Garrison, but he was just moral support for Elvin because they could feel him whether they heard him. It was support for McCoy because he could hear him, but you couldn’t hear him in the audience. Elvin added color. McCoy was the timekeeper. Every group has to have that from somebody in the group. I feel I’m that kind of bass player. So, whoever I’m working with, I can enable the drummer to add those colors, shadings and a certain spark.”

Lee Sklar: Electric Bass, studio and live performer with Jackson Browne and James Taylor among others.

“One of the things I always consider is their time. Most of the guys that I end up working with, their time is very good. It’s an aggravation when it’s not there. One of the things I really like is kind of a spontaneity or an unpredictable quality. I like guys that are real ‘go for it’ drummers rather than those who play it real safe. I’d rather a drummer just completely go for it and lose it, than be completely safe and never kick you in the butt or stretch out! Making you think and work a little extra hard in an effortless kind of inner relationship. I like a sensitive drummer who’s listening to the music that we’re doing and not just off doing what he wants to do. Playing within our framework and being aware of what’s going on.

“I’ve worked with Russ Kunkel for 11 years now. He’s like that. We could play blindfolded and hit almost everything right-on, together, even when it’s not anything that’s indicated or written. We’re really kind of like a nice fitting glove, and that’s what I really like. I like guys that are radical!

“If a drummer’s time is not right, I don’t care how much technical prowess they have, they’re not even worth bothering with because it makes my job 100 times harder! I can no longer open up and be creative. I have to be worried about keeping time. I really get tired of guys that are on an ‘ego trip.’ Just struttin’ their stuff and flailing away all the time without consideration for what everybody else is doing, or for the music.

“But ‘time’ is the whole keypoint. If the time isn’t there then nothing else even matters.”

Max Bennett: Electric Bass, studio and also with Tom Scott and L.A. Express.

“The first prerequisite is really good time. Not only even time but a good feeling. I think the bassist is sensitive to the way drums are tuned also. I look for a good sound, a good ‘even’ time feel, and someone who is easy to play with.

“Common Faults? It depends on age. I think all drummers, when they first get a lot of facility and not that much experience, have a tendency to overplay. But that’s understandable. As they progress and get more experience, then ‘taste’ comes into play. They start leaving out unnecessary things and catch the things that are necessary.”

Sam Jones: Acoustic Bass, live and studio performer with everybody in jazz.

“I listen for the volume that the drummer is playing; how he’s playing with the group, not over the group. I’m also listening to the timing. Whatever rhythm is going on, I try to associate myself with that at the same time. The volume that he’s playing, and the brilliance with which he plays.

“A lot of drummers don’t listen and they play too damn loud! They don’t play with you. They lose time and sometimes they get into a turn around and they don’t know how to come out of it and they throw the whole band off! But, thank God, in my career I’ve played with some pretty great drummers like Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, Ben Riley, Jimmy Cobb, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones. Guys that I’ve played with, they were more together, more musicians.”

Wilton Felder: Electric Bass, studio player generally with The Crusaders.

“I guess the first thing I listen for is time. I also listen for drummers to be aware of what’s going on around them. To know the song that’s being played and be able to accompany whoever is the solo voice at any given moment. To be able to lead the band as well as support the band.

“Most of my bass playing experience has been with drummers in a recording situation. What I’ve found to be the case is the majority of studio musicians don’t listen. Not only the drummers. Maybe they’ve done it so much that they’re not as involved in the music as I feel that they should be. When we’re playing a song, the music always dictates what has to be done. If they listen to the song and listen to what’s going on around them, then they can play the music and become an extension of the performing artist. But, I find that most musicians play what they like regardless of what the music calls for. And unless it’s written out they don’t seem to know what to do. Studio players!

“Rather than coming in and being a part of the artist that they’re working for, and being an extension of it, they’ll come in and play Lick #15, or Lick #25 that has nothing to do with what we’re playing. And just because it fits or works, it’s not what should be done. I think maybe boredom sets in. Frustration from not being able to have an outlet to play something else that they might want to do. But, I still feel that if you accept the date, you should live up to it. That’s why the person hired you, because of your ability to play. It could be fun if you just come in and do it and have a ball and make the other musicians play too. No matter what kind of music you play, it can be fun, if you give of yourself.”