There is a tendency among musicians to value technical facility when discussing favourite players. Outrageous, difficult and esoteric passages often played at stupidly fast tempos and sometimes in unusual time signatures are fun to discuss, but it’s largely an intellectual exercise. The folks who are the most fun and the most valuable to have in your band have a good ear and a great sense of time.
There’s an old joke about bass players (my tribe) that goes,
A father bought his son a bass, an amp and four weekly bass lessons to get him started. On the day of the first lesson the son comes home and his dad asks him, “How was the lesson?”
“Not bad dad. I learnt to play the first five frets on the E string.”
Next week the son comes home and the dad asks, “How was the lesson?”
“Not bad dad. I learnt to play the first five frets on the A string.”
The next week the son doesn’t come back until the early hours of the morning and he smells of beer and cigarettes. Dad doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss so he simply asks, “How was the lesson?”
The son replies, “Sorry dad, I couldn’t make it. I had a gig.”
Bassists are often derided for simple technique and an easy life in the context of a rock band, but the truth of the joke is that if you can play a single octave range well you can be a bass player. OK, not quite, but if you can play in time and with sensitivity to the rest of the group you can be a useful player.
Timing is simply vital. If you can play not only in time but with an engaging feel you make everyone’s life easier. You can even play “wrong” notes, but if you’re in time nothing has to fall apart. Conversely you can play all the “right” notes but if you play with a rubbish feel things will soon fall apart. A good ear helps in being part of the ensemble. If you can hear what other band members are doing and support them you will be a joy to play with.
The good news is that both these aspects of musicianship can be learned. It is easy to think of feel and ears as something you either have or don’t. This may be true at the upper reaches of the skill but everyone can get better at both. It’s just a cop out to believe otherwise.
Some things you can do to work on your timing and feel,
- Practise with a metronome or drum machine always
- Don’t just hit the metronome’s beats practice playing ahead of some beats and behind others, particularly behind the two and four of four-four time (in the pocket)
- Set the metronome to half the tempo of the song and let its clicks fall on the two and four
- Play along with recordings of bands with a feel you like (I’m currently using Little Feat for this myself)
To work on your ear,
- Transcribe songs from recordings and try to get as much information as possible not just your instrument’s part
- Sing along with recordings and again sing all the different parts, even the drums
- Sing scales and arpeggios with no accompaniment, but periodically check if you’re still in tune
- Use an online ear training tool or get a software one and use it often
While you may not become the guy that everyone talks about as the “monster player” you will be the guy everyone wants to play with if they’re smart. Band-members with good ears and good feel are gold dust and they make everything better.
Finally a lot of the guys that have that monster technique have great feel too. Eddie Van Halen has chops coming out of his ears, but he also has great feel. His rhythm guitar playing is excellent. Similarly Jaco Pastorius had stunning feel. It’s not always apparentt with his more flamboyant playing but in his work with Joni Mitchell particularly the live Shadows and Light he pulls in his horns a bit and you can hear the tremendous foundation he gives the band.