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Tempos on drummerless casuals gigs

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by matthewbrown, May 14, 2018.

  1. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    I get calls fairly often for casual dates without any drummer on the gig, and I lead a trio that often works without a drummer. These are straight-ahead standards gigs. I've noticed a tendency in BL's to call tunes at tempos faster than they can solo on them. They do well enough on the head, but as soon as the solos begin, things begin to drag, and I'm working very hard to keep the tempo from dropping. Sometimes the tempo lags in spite of my best efforts. Sometimes it sounds like I'm constantly rushing, when I'm staying as close as I can manage to the original tempo as it was called.

    When I'm BL, I try to call the tunes at tempos the players can accommodate, starting with myself. In fact, I prefer not to take solos when there is no drummer, because so few players I can find locally accompany a bass solo in such a way that it works very well. Are there any strategies that anyone has tried that have been effective in this kind of situation?
    saabfender likes this.
  2. Cheez

    Cheez Supporting Member

    Apr 13, 2009
    Texas/Louisiana border
    I play in a 4 piece swing band (clarinet, 2 guitars and bass) without a drummer and we seem to do well staying tight and in time. I think the trick has been for all of us to be aware that there is not a designated time keeper (besides me). We talk about it and practice changing roles. I'm sure a trio is more challenging, especially if you don't play together regularly.
    matthewbrown likes this.
  3. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    I find drummerless duos are very common here in LA, probably because the pay makes sense for only two musicians and drummers tend to need a larger venue for both their instrument and their typical volume. Duos are probably my favorite gigs because I can focus on just interacting with the one other player.

    That said, I'd have to say that I don't typically have this complaint about my partners. Most of the people I enjoy playing with I enjoy because our time works well together. Sometimes the time varies but we're both listening so we go together, and usually a tune's tempo doesn't vary much.

    I have experienced the same thing you're complaining about, in both directions... someone really wants to speed up or slow down from where the tune was counted. In most of those cases, once the tempo gets to where the "culprit" wants it, I find it usually it stays there if I let it. As a bassist, I feel a responsibility to maintain the groove, and to a lesser degree, the tempo, but IMO, it's not worth "pushing" the other players to maintain the tempo because it ruins the groove and keeping a good time-feel is more important than the specific tempo. If it feels good, it IS good, even if it wasn't as intended.

    TLDR: I tried dictating the tempo and have moved on - I usually aim for a good time-feel and let the tempo settle where it wants to be. The one exception I can think of is on ballads because if the band is continually slowing down, nothing can really save that tune except more rehearsal. In that case, we're just not ready for ballads yet.
    G-Z and JRA like this.
  4. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    what else is there? i think the other BL's to whom you refer are just not 'getting it'! it happens.

    i've played lots of gigs with a pocket-size drum machine through one of the amps making a closed hi-hat sound on 2 and 4. doesn't make a lot of difference whether the audience hears it or not --- it's a natural finger snap! --- helps keep the soloists/horn players honest!
    matthewbrown likes this.
  5. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    A more aggressive attack helps the band hear your time. Slap on two-beat rhythms, dig in and snap the strings on straight four (may demand higher action).

    If a BL calls it at 210 and can only play it at 180, he's screwing everyone, including the audience. You need to talk it over and decide who's gonna be in charge of time, and if you're a better judge than he is, convince him that it'll be better if he trusts you to handle it.
    Groove Doctor and matthewbrown like this.
  6. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    Yeah, on the last gig, which was with pickup band, I pulled out my fretted electric so I could punch through more. BL called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (with no drummer or pno?). I slapped most of my way though the solos with a steady ostinato. that made the guitarist happy. :)
  7. I have an informal agreement with the stronger players in one of the drummerless bands I play with that if I start slapping every measure for a phrase or two of the song (and it's not my break), I'm trying to get everyone in line either with the lead-off tempo or with the current groove. When that starts their eyes are on me and we are together within a few seconds based either on sound or body language. It seems to work.
    Cheez and matthewbrown like this.
  8. As a longtime tempo police myself—I shift to playing ahead or behind the beat to push/pull the tempo—I can say that any time it didn’t work, was due to the others not being able to hear me well. If they can hear you, and they are pros, they should be able to react to what you are doing. If they can’t hear you, you will just dig in harder (to no avail) and end frustrated with blisters.

    My rule of thumb to make sure they can hear me, and I don’t overplay: set my volume and EQ to perfect, then add 10%.
  9. Carl Hillman

    Carl Hillman

    Jan 1, 2010
    The tempo is where the tempo is counted off. You have to be an immovable, swinging, force of nature.

    If whoever you're playing with can't hang, you aren't doing them any favors by slowing down to accommodate them. How would someone with weak time even know they were dragging if you slowed down to match them?
    Think of it as "tough love".

    Just keep practicing with a metronome every day, and play with supreme confidence. If your gigmates are actually listening to you, and they realize that the time is diverging, they will eventually figure out that they can't quite play at the tempo they counted off, and may actually think about what the tempo SHOULD be before they count off the next burner.
    Last edited: May 14, 2018
  10. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    If i am pumping out a tempo that others are struggling with, i may reign it in a little bit as long as the other members are receptive to it. To me that is the supportive move. But if they are consistently counting off too fast tempos, then it may be time to talk about who counts of some of the tunes.

    In a perfect world the count is perfect and the tempo never strays, but i've found most situations less than perfect in this regard. I'm OK straying from the count a little if its the line between sounding decent or like total poopie. The most important thing is that the band, quickly, falls into a groove with each other.
    matthewbrown and Cheez like this.
  11. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    My tip: play with guys who can hold their own when it comes to time, and don't get lost when you start soloing. If all the tunes start sounding the same then you have another problem. Some guys think they're ready for drummerless when they're not.
    RBrownBass and Carl Hillman like this.
  12. I'd agree with this in practice -- literally in practice. But in a performance, especially if you are subbing, you get what you get. If after a few bars it's obvious that people aren't going to make the pace, it's often better for the audience watching the performance if the bassist can as subtly as possible settle on the groove. But a little communication before the show can prep band members to look to the bass player when the hints go out and get back in line.

    And it's not just based on hearing, but also having them watch your hands. An acoustic double bass can easily be overshadowed in volume by the horns and if present the piano or other louder instruments, but vision is a stronger indication of tempo. This is why it's important not to have the rest of the band staring at the charts, instead observing the body language of everyone else in the band.
    Tom Lane likes this.
  13. This stuff used to frustrate me a lot. What I realized a bunch of years ago, is that when this comes up, it's much better for my overall well being to just try and play with the musicians on a particular gig, even if that means speeding up or slowing down. I'm not claiming to have perfect time - far from it, but, for me, it's way better to acknowledge internally that one of my bandmates is rushing (or dragging) and go with them than to stand my ground, play too hard and possibly wreck the groove by trying keeping the tempo the same. Just my $.02, as always.
    Last edited: May 15, 2018
  14. Sometimes it's just nerves of the gig that messes up a count in.

    Clicking or Tapping the tempo to the BL to get into their head has worked well in these situations. It allows the BL to count the song in, or to discuss differences before starting the song. Better communication on stage sorts these things out real quick.
    matthewbrown likes this.
  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Agree - but I would clarify this to mean in relation to each other. I've played drummerless with some really great players who rush, and some less that great players who rush. Ditto with the other side of the beat, although around here players who drag are not as common.

    Some BLs rely on me to keep the time because they need someone who won't flex, who acts as a temporal guardrail for their content; the ones with sketchy time probably do this because it makes them feel safe from their own unintentional habits. Some BLs rely on me to keep the time because they like to play against the time on purpose, and that only works if the thing they are playing against doesn't vary. Some BLs have such great metronomic time that they are looking for some freedom and breathing variance from the rhythm section. I think it's important to know which is which and play accordingly.

    In the end, I think it's good to be able to hold tempo whenever we decide that's what the music wants. Other times, it may want to collectively breathe if that's what the music suggests. The important thing, no matter which path is taken as regards the original tempo, is that we do what we do on purpose and not by accident.
    mtto, Tom Lane, Seanto and 3 others like this.
  16. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Actually, the OP indicates that the other players can play the head in time, but slow down when soloing. In that case I think one of two things can be happening: 1) A player that just always plays behind the beat requires a rock solid rhythm section that doesn't follow the "behind the beat" player. I have experienced piano players that follow the soloist and entire beats can get lost; 2) someone who is playing too many notes and too many prepared patterns. One of the hardest things for beginning players to grasp is that the band is not going to slow down so they can get all 19 notes of that prepared pattern in. Learning to aim for the end of a phrase and make sure that hits in time is a challenge for many players. At any rate, in that case as well, the rhythm section needs to charge on at tempo, forcing the soloist to keep up. Hopefully, after the next guy starts playing a measure and a half before the trouble soloist has finished his pattern, and this keeps happening, maybe he'll figure out he needs to play less.

    The other phenomenon, which the OP does not explicitly describe, but which happens a lot, is when the whole group's tempo moves from where the tune started. In most cases, it's better to go with the group in that case. But this is in my mind distinct from when a single soloist drags when soloing.
    Carl Hillman and matthewbrown like this.
  17. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    I would work up a solo set with the material you use on these gigs and try to play at a cafe or someplace simple regularly. Once you don't "need" the other players their indiscresions will be less of an issue. Also, while "listening" is pushed hard as an important skill (as well as the lame "conversation" metaphor) - these are situations where your material is generally "to be listened to" and "not up for discussion".
  18. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    Agreed. My own time feel tends to be to play ahead of the beat whenever I sense someone dragging the tempo. I recently played a gig with a player who I've played with a number of times. He knows all the tunes, and plays well, but he is always behind the beat; that's his style. In this case, the BL was increasingly annoyed -- but he hired him knowing this was his style. And by calling uptempo tunes he didn't help matters. In fact, it did nothing to improve anyone's mood, which is hardly conducive to having the fun your supposed to have on a casual gig, IMHO.
  19. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    Very often 2) someone who is playing too many notes and too many prepared patterns. !
  20. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    And without listening to what's going on around them, so they have NO IDEA that the whole band has already left them behind.

    How can you sit there in the midst of a bunch of music, and not be aware that the chord you're still laboring through has already left the station? ARRRGGGHHH. Beginning banjo players are the worst, in my experience.

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