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Playing 'behind' the beat - explain?

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Kink Rimson, Oct 4, 2005.

  1. I've never fully understood what this is, is it literally just playing after the beat? Or something more?
    I'm probably doing it without knowing, sorry if this is a daft question.
  2. It kind of sounds like the timing you would use when you slap. You pop just behind the bass drum in order for the pop to be heard. Or maybe it's another form of syncopation? I dunno... :meh:
  3. Lyle Caldwell

    Lyle Caldwell

    Sep 7, 2004
    Deep subject.

    A beat is not a fixed point in time. Think of it as a circle with exactly on the beat being in the middle.

    For the following hypothetical examples, assume a drummer playing exactly on the beat (in the middle). Also assume that the bass playing is consistent - if you are playing ahead of the beat, you always play the same amount ahead of the beat. Remember - nothing is ahead or behind or on the beat in isolation. It only works in a duo/ensemble setup.

    Playing ahead of the beat, the note falls within the circle, but to the left of center. This makes the bass part sound a little "pushed" but still in time. Brings the energy level up a bit. The more to the left of center, the more urgent the feel.

    Playing behind the beat, the note falls within the circle, but to the right of center. This makes the bass part sound a bit more relaxed.

    Playing behind the beat a bit can also make the bass and kick drum lock in better, since the beater of the kick happens milliseconds before the bass note, so the end result is a percussive whump followed by the bloom of the bass note.

    In practice, there are other considerations. Some basses (take a P with old flats) have very "slow" attacks, so a bassist would actually have to play slightly ahead of the beat for the note to speak on the beat. Or you can play exactly on the beat and the note speaks a little behind the beat.

    Plus, no good musician plays every note exactly on the beat. A typical drummer will keep the hats pretty much consistent, either on the beat or slightly ahead of the beat. Most kick drum parts are on the beat except when they want to emphasize a downbeat in which case that kick might be slightly ahead of the beat. The snare hits will often move from ahead to on to behind the beat depending on verse/chorus/fill, etc.

    Typed out like that it looks like some kind of formula or rules are involved, but it's just a musical feel. The more you listen and the more you play, the more it will make sense and dictate how you play.

    Playing along with drummers is the key to developing your own feel for things. Put on an old Police track - Stewart Copeland was almost always playing ahead of the beat. Now put on some old Al Green - Al Jackson Jr and Howard Grimes were almost always playing behind the beat (especially on the 2). Now put on the Stones' Honky Tonk Women - Keith Richards is always behind the beat and Charlie Watts is staying with him except for the kick drum, which ties it back to a solid beat every two bars.

    It's not a science, but its a huge part of art.
  4. dougjwray


    Jul 20, 2005
    Wow, this is harder than I thought it would be (I just ventured about four explanations and backspaced over them)!
    It just means that you know where the center of each beat is, and you're consistent with the tempo (not speeding up or slowing down), but you're playing each note in a relaxed manner, just after the center of each beat-- not far enough after to make the music sound disjointed, though.
    Hope this helps.
  5. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    Nice post, Lyle.
  6. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    It's easier to hear than explain - I have a drum machine/microcomposer that will play the same patterns "pushed", "behind the beat" or "swung" etc. etc. It will give you all sorts of variations on behind and ahead of the beat!

    Try to listen to something like this.
  7. dougjwray


    Jul 20, 2005

    I'd like to add another example: the pianist Erroll Garner. At times, he would play right on the center of the beat with his left hand (often playing steady eighth notes like Basie's guitarist Freddie Green, an uncharacteristic thing for a pianist to do), while playing WAY, WAY behind the beat with his right hand. When his right hand "caught up" to his left hand, the release of tension was very cool. Well worth hearing. ("Concert by the Sea" is a good place to start.)
    Also, I'd like to add that playing on a certain part of the beat isn't always a conscious technique, but is often an unconscious personal trait or tendency.
  8. Lyle Caldwell

    Lyle Caldwell

    Sep 7, 2004
    Thanks, guys. This is the kind of thing that's hard to type about. Normally I'd just play records and play with someone asking this question. Like telling someone how to tie shoelaces rather than just showing them.

    Kink, with what musicians are you familiar (ie, own their CDs?) It's great for us to mention Steward Copeland and Erroll Garner (and you should certainly listen to them if you haven't - there's no style that you can't learn from), but we can better help you right now if we know what you're into.
  9. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    A lot of my favorite music has a behind the beat feel to it. Something about that type of groove really resonates with me, maybe I'm just really lazy.
  10. Joe P

    Joe P

    Jul 15, 2004
    Milwaukee, WI

    I just thought of something: I've known about this subject, but reading Lyle's explanation made me think about situations where a drummer always seems to speed-up at certain parts of certain songs (or slow-down, I suppose, but I seem to only remember speed-ups). I wonder if in these situations I'm 'pushing' by playing ahead of the beat, and the drummer (plural drummers, actually; it happens in a couple spots in BOTH bands I've been playing with) is mis-interpreting this - and over three or four measures, it just turns into sort-of an over-compensating, run-away tempo speed-up!

    Make sense?

    (edit) Wow - the more I think about this.. It could really be a problem! There may be many parts inwhich somebody should be 'naturally' pushing or pulling, but the first couple times they did it, it just didn't "work-out" or "sound good" or whatever, so you 'force yourself to not do it', like it were a bad habit or mistake or something - when in-reality, it was just mis-interpreted by another musician, and made the song sound wobbly because of some off-balance half-compensating freakout that was happening...

    I'm worried now. I feel like band-practicing to a metronome or something!

    (ANOTHER edit) I'm still thinking about this!

    Any playing-together-live situation where the drummer and bassist weren't VERY aware of this -- AND agreeable as to where they want-to or mean-to do this -- ...(!)

    I mean.. this could make a musician - or a whole band - forever sound flat and amateur-ish, and the musicians involved would ever know why, or know at-all!

    Am I making too big-a-deal about this?

  11. Lyle Caldwell

    Lyle Caldwell

    Sep 7, 2004
    Not at all! You've stumbled on a key to what makes a great band.

    It's not something a drummer and bassist can sit down and compare notes on and intellectually agree on before playing.

    You and the drummer have to play together and work out the push and pull of music together.

    Granted, when drummers and bassists are very experienced, they can get a feel for each other very quickly. But your realization is the first step to becoming the kind of bassist a drummer wants to play with.

    I'm currently taking a parenthood necessitated break from music production, but I have produced a few bands. One of the biggest things I work on with a band in preproduction is the relationship between the bassist and drummer.

    Most of the time, these two players only play together at practice and at gigs, and they have all the guitars/keys/vocals happening at the same time. So they haven't really heard how they play when its just the two of them.

    So I schedule some rehearsals with just the drummer, bassist, and me. They have to be solid together. This takes time, focus, and awareness.

    I recommend doing the same with one or both of your regular drummers. Play to a click so your focus is on feel, not tempo. This means you can discover the difference between playing ahead of the beat and rushing (can be a fine line at first). If you or the drummer rush and speed up, the click will let you know. Same for dragging and slowing down.

    A lot of players think the click is their enemy. No. A click is your best freind, if you will let it be. It keeps you honest with yourself, is an impartial judge of your ability, and helps ingrain in you a sense of good time, both relative and absolute.

    A click doesn't mean you have to play sterile and machine-like. You can dance around the exact beat the same way you do when playing without a click. But until you know the exact center of the beat (which a click gives you) you'll have no basis for finding the leading and trailing edges of the beat.
    iain westland likes this.
  12. Lyle Caldwell

    Lyle Caldwell

    Sep 7, 2004
    BTW, listen to some old live Police recordings. Stewart Copeland was a brilliant drummer. But live, he often strayed from playing ahead of the beat to flat out rushing and speeding up. On the live tapes you can often hear Andy and Sting cussing him out for this.

    But when he was just barely reined in, ahead of the beat without rushing, the band had that tremendous energy that so few bands can duplicate.

    In his defense, there were a lot of massive egos and massive amounts of coke in those days. He's a much better player now, still able to tap into that energy without rushing and speeding up.

    Now, if you're into this kind of music, compare the live Police tapes with some of Sting's live shows in the early 90s, with Vinnie Coliauta on drums. A much more accomplished drummer technically, never rushing, never making any mistakes at all. Playing slightly ahead of the beat when appropriate. But never on that edge of destruction that Copeland thrived at. As a result, the Police songs as played by Coliauta never had that drive.

    Not a dig at Coliauta - he can play brilliantly in musical situations that Copeland would be a poor choice for. But that's a lesson for another thread.
    TMARK and iain westland like this.
  13. Joe P

    Joe P

    Jul 15, 2004
    Milwaukee, WI
    Good suff, Man!

    This-all is practically an epiphany to me, Lyle.

    I'm starting to think that several things that have been increasingly perplexing me - and frustrating me - may very-well be related to this.

    Many Thanks -

  14. It's just part of what gives some songs their "feel", the difference between playing the notes and grooving.

    Problems come up where as you mentioned, you intend to play ahead of the beat, the drummer follows you, hits the next beat earlier, you try to keep ahead of the beat, he keeps trying to catch up to you, end result is rushing.

    Very hard to play ahead of the beat without rushing. The drummer has to "get" what you're doing also, and not let that drag the tempo up.

    Same for playing behind the beat.

  15. Lyle Caldwell

    Lyle Caldwell

    Sep 7, 2004
    Music is hard, innit?
    iain westland likes this.
  16. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    Yeah, but...there's a difference between 'playing ahead' & rushing/speeding up(bad).
    (same, too, for 'playing behid the beat' & dragging).

    The more experienced players can hear this & adjust(or not).
  17. jongor

    jongor Supporting Member

    Jan 11, 2003
    Ever listened to Willie Nelson?

    He sings behind the beat.
  18. Sounbwoy

    Sounbwoy Supporting Member

    Aug 29, 2005
    Clayton, NC
    Me'Shell Ndgeocello plays behind the beat a lot.....
  19. theshadow2001


    Jun 17, 2004
    I don't suppose someone has a link to or would post something with just drums and bass playing behind, on and infront of the beat. Something thats obvious so I can really hear the difference. I am aware of the concept but I never realise it when it happens or if it is happening when I play or listen to music.
  20. SeanE


    Sep 20, 2005
    When I first starting recording at home and programing drums, I put together a blues shuffle and recorded a cover as a workshop for myself. It didn't sound quite right. I played it for my roommate, a drummer, and he instantly noticed that the snare was dead on the beat. That was the problem. It was too stiff. Through the glory of digital editing, we moved the snare back a few milliseconds. With 5 minutes guess and check, it was right. That's behind the beat.