No drummer is an island. We need other musicians to make music. Without artistic interplay we revert to being soloists, and you already know how much the general public loves drum solos. But we need bass players most of all, to help fulfill our mission of laying down the biggest, fattest grooves on the planet. They’re the booty-shaking insurance.
To buy the policy you have to understand the relationship between drums and bass. You have to understand the relationship between the notes you play and the notes played by your bass player. You have to understand the relationship between the spaces that you leave for each other. And you also have to understand the relationship between two human beings who come together to create art.
It’s called chemistry, and we readily admit that it can’t possibly be quantified on paper. You just have to dig it or not. But at least we can look at parts played by other rhythm sections to gain insight into how their creative juices intermingled at that given moment. That’s why we transcribed the following groove excerpts from four of the heaviest rhythm sections in history.
Look at “Fire,” the eighth track from Are You Experienced. The transcription starts right at the intro of the song. Bassist Noel Redding doubles Hendrix’s guitar riff, leaving plenty of space for drummer Mitch Mitchell to fill the holes. But Mitchell doesn’t just roll around the toms arbitrarily. He chooses certain eighth-note motifs played by Redding to hang his fills on. It pulls his part into the arrangement and lends cohesion to the entire intro.
“A Love Supreme” is the pivotal composition by saxophonist John Coltrane from the album of the same name. Here we see how drummer Elvin Jones communicates his ideas to bassist Jimmy Garrison. The first four bars present the main theme in a relatively unornamented fashion. But by the fifth bar Jones begins to turn up the heat by syncopating more fervently. Watch Garrison begin to pick up the signal in bar seven, spicing up his bass lines. It’s a nonverbal conversation. They’re playing follow the leader.
While the nature of Jones and Garrison’s relationship is based on improvisation, the excerpt of “Come Together” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road reveals a rhythm section playing a thoroughly orchestrated arrangement. Here both bassist Paul McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr craft parts that are more melodic than propulsive. One bounces off the other, alternately leaving or filling spaces, so that the final result meshes like well-oiled gears in a machine.
But if propulsion is what you want, James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (from the album of the same name) offers the ultimate example of the special relationship between drums and bass in funk (in this case handled by the legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield and bassist Bernard Odum). It’s all about counterpoint. The bass and drums practically ignore one another, playing parts devised to push the feel of the song. Now look at where they finally lock together – on the last eighth-note of every other bar. That one pinpoint in time is exactly enough to give the entire rhythm track continuity.
So how do rhythm sections work? However they want. Whether they push or pull the beat, match every rhythm note-for-note, or circumvent the other’s phrasing, in the end it’s all about relationships. So go grab your favorite bass player and work on the following four classic rhythm section parts together. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.