There’s a lot of debate out there as to what The Most Important Thing is concerning what a bass player should know above all else, and opinions vary wildly on this subject.
Some say the most important thing is to know your scales, while others say you should know what’s known as “perfect pitch” (and if you’re not blessed with that, don’t feed bad because most aren’t). And yet others say it’s about knowing as many songs as possible to expand your bass playing knowledge.
Well, all of that means nothing if you don’t learn the one thing that holds that all together:
A bass player who can’t play in time is fairly worthless, similarly to how a drummer who can’t play in time is fairly worthless. And no, I’m not saying you have to master all the time signatures, but if you can’t keep a standard 120bpm (one beat every half-second) in 4/4, start using a metronome and learn it.
Side note: Here’s a free online metronome, so you have no excuse.
Sometimes learning songs to learn timing is not a good idea
The best (worst?) example I can give of this is Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young:
“What’s wrong with Cinnamon Girl?”, you may ask.
Nothing at all, except the song speeds up as it progresses. You’ve probably heard this song a million times and didn’t know that. Skip back and forth from the beginning of the song to the middle or end of the song and you’ll notice the speed is significantly different.
What happens is that when you learn this song via the original studio recording, you get used to the fact that the timing doesn’t remain constant – and that can create bad timing habits.
Then, of course there are other studio-recorded songs that keep the timing in check all the way through. Anything by Stevie Wonder usually has very good, consistent timing to it, such as Higher Ground:
Fun fact: Most bands who “recorded live in the studio” where the whole band plays together when recording almost always go off-time, while those who layer tracks are almost always in-time.
What’s the toughest timing to learn?
For most players, it’s the swing beat.
For example, the age-old classic Take 5 is not difficult because of the 5/4 timing, but the fact it’s a very unorthodox jazz swing all the way through:
For you music theory buffs out there, believe me, Take 5 has a lot going on. Namely, a combination of a waltz and two-step. Very interesting stuff. If you can get the timing to Take 5 down, that’s a big accomplishment.
No, you don’t have to take on Take 5 to be Master Of All Timing. But learning how to play to swing beat can increase your timing proficiency.
In other words, if you’re stuck in a rut where you’ve said to yourself, “What can I learn that will really help me improve as a player?”, learn timing.
If you’ve got 4/4 down with standard “boxed” beats, try a shuffle.
Once your timings are in check, then you can move on to more interesting modes, such as, say, Dorian minor.