First of all I’d just like to say that it’s great to be writing for Bass Guitar Magazine – and I hope I can share some useful and insightful stuff with all you bassists out there.
The topic I have chosen for my first column is asymmetric note groupings, which is just a fancy way of saying groups of five, seven and so on. Most often we tend to group notes in triple or duple form, that is to say groups of three or two/ four, often aligned with the subdivision, so groups of three are mostly played in triplet form, and groups of two/four in eighths or sixteenths. You may have already experimented with polyrhythmic effects by playing groups of three in duple time and, conversely, groups of two/four in triple time, which is all good stuff. But we can also derive some interesting possibilities using asymmetric groupings such as five or seven. So what effects do these groupings create and how might they be used?
In figure 1 I have arranged the scale of C major in groups of five from each scale degree in turn. Don’t panic that it’s in sixteenth notes – you can take it nice and slowly. The aim of this exercise is to be able to play the groups of five, but still to know exactly where we are in terms of the 4/4 time signature, bearing in mind that the groups of five will create an implied time signature in fi ve. Try this with a metronome, as slowly as you like, and if you have a metronome that will give you the downbeat and the sixteenth subdivisions, so much the better. You may find, at first, that you start to lose track of where you are in terms of the 4/4 time signature, so one little tip that may help is to accent the first of each group of four sixteenths, thus referencing the original time. Ultimately we don’t always want to do this as it rather negates the rhythmic effect we’re trying to create, but it can be helpful when learning these ideas.
Obviously this idea can be applied to any mode or scale: you can hear Jaco Pastorius use it in some of his solos, for instance a descending minor pentatonic in groups of five during his solo on ‘Port of Entry’ from the Weather Report album Night Passage. But we don’t have to play every note to suggest a group of fi ve, or any other note grouping for that matter – we also have silence to play with. So, for instance, a repeated pattern of four sixteenths and an eighth note rest would constitute a group of six: similarly, four sixteenths and a sixteenth rest is equivalent to a group of five.
This is the basis for figure 2, which is an idea for a bass-line I used in an arrangement I wrote for a singer I was working with some while ago. It’s over a bar of E minor7 and a bar of A7 repeated, making a four bar pattern. The first bar consists of sixteenths grouped in six – four sixteenths and an eighth note rest – which gives us two groups of six and four sixteenths in that bar, the last note being a sixteenth anticipation into the A7 bar, which I’ve left open for you to play what you want. The third bar contrasts the first bar by grouping the sixteenth pattern in five rather than six, so four sixteenths and a sixteenth note rest in place of the eighth note rest. This means, over that bar, we will play three groups of five and have one sixteenth left over to anticipate the A7 bar, just as at the end of the first bar.
In fact, the rhythm of the first bar may be more familiar to you as it’s not an uncommon grouping: for instance it’s used as a unison figure in ‘Getaway’ by Earth, Wind and Fire. The five grouping in the third bar adds a little twist, creating a sense of rhythmic tension and the illusion of speeding up. Again, as in the first exercise, take this slowly to begin with, play to a metronome, and accent the original quarter note at first if it helps. Concentrate on accurate note placement and aiming to nail that anticipation into the A7 bar, which, at first, you can leave as empty as you like and gradually fill out a little more as you become more comfortable with the overall pattern.
In figure 3 I’ve taken the same basic idea and turned it into a two bar pattern on just the E minor7 chord, (with no third in the figure it could also be played on E7 or Esus), and added a sixteenth and a sixteenth rest to create a grouping of seven. Over two bars this gives us four groups of seven and a beat left over to set up the repeat. I’ve bracketed the groups of seven so they’re a little easier to see on the page. Notice how the two low Es at the end of each group of seven alternate between being off the beat and on the beat, as a result of the asymmetric nature of the figure – making sure we nail this aspect of the line can help us keep in place and in time.
Figure 4 demonstrates how we might take this concept to the next level and combine different asymmetric groupings to create ideas. In this instance we have two groups of seven, a group of six, and two groups of five, which, over two bars, leaves half a beat left over, here notated as two sixteenth notes setting up the repeat. Again, it is based on the same basic figure as in the previous examples, but combining the different note groupings we have used so far. As you become more comfortable with this pattern, try accenting the first note of each grouping to really bring out the rhythmic tension.
As you can appreciate, there are many possible ways in which we might combine these different groupings, so when you become more comfortable with these examples you could experiment with creating your own combinations. Also you can experiment with finding different ways to create asymmetric groupings using different combinations of notes and rests – there are many possibilities. At first some of these patterns may feel a little awkward and contrived, but gradually you will find that you can internalise these groupings and ‘feel’ them rather than have to count them, and that all contributes to strengthening your time feel generally.
I hope that my first column has given you some food for thought, and some ideas to practise, so have fun – and don’t lose that downbeat.
Rob Statham has amassed over 25 years as a professional freelance bass player. He has played in a wide range of musical settings, including jazz, blues, prog and classical, and he has taught for the past three years at Tech Music School.