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Peter Lindemere B.Mus PGCE. Bass Teacher.

Bass teacher based in Hampshire

4 - 6 string electric fretted/fretless bass and double bass. 25 years experience in music, teaching privately for 20 years. Studied music with some of... read more > >


Peter Lindemere B.Mus PGCE

Developing Timing And The Inner Clock

25th January 2012



Developing Timing and the Inner Clock

Part of the job description for being a bass player is to provide the harmonic foundation for the chords, melody played  or  vocal line sung above the bass line and to provide the metronomic and rhythmic link between those and the drum kit – hopefully bridging the gap in a creative and interesting way. Being a major part of the rhythm section, part of the bass player’s job is also to lock in and compliment any drum pattern played and provide good time keeping.

So before we move on to picking hand techniques, there are a few things to consider about timing and how to improve your rhythmic awareness – to become precision conscious of rhythm in fact.

Many students often confuse the difference between beat (pulse) and rhythm, playing on the beat is not the same as playing rhythmically – a beat is a regular pulse, whereas rhythm is the way a beat is broken down and subdivided. The speed at which the beat or pulse occurs is the tempo; this is measured in beats per minute – BPM. For instance, a slow blues might be played at 60BPM, whereas a dance track might normally be played at 120 BPM or faster. Some jazz tunes can get up to speeds of 300 BPM!

Metronomes and drum machines

All of the following exercises should be practiced with metronome, this will allow you to alter the tempo that you are working with as you need and really focus on your timing – it will also give you a personal bench mark of where your ability is and goals to achieve by playing material faster and more accurately future.

For those of you who have not come across a metronome before, it is basically a small electronic device that emits a loud series of clicks or beeps to a set pulse – this can be subdivided and set to different time signatures. This pulse is measured in beats per minute as mentioned above; a normal clock for example has a second hand that clicks at 60 BPM. Depending on its type, the metronome can be set anywhere between 30 to 300 BPM – it is a must for learning to play with accurate time keeping.

I would recommend using a metronome that has a “click” sound as opposed to a “beep”. The reason for this is that when you are playing accurately (and get your bass / metronome volume levels balanced correctly) you will get the sense that the click has disappeared; if you go out of time, either in front or behind the beat, the click will reappear. Portable electronic metronomes are fairly cheap and there are a variety of free metronome downloads available on the internet for computers.

The old style triangular shaped mechanical metronomes that use a weighted pendulum are also useful, especially those fitted with a bell that can be set to different time signatures; this can really drive home where beat one is (the down beat) when the bell rings for the first beat of each time signature selected. There are a few draw backs with this kind of metronome – they can be expensive, they need winding up, they need to be on a completely level surface or the pendulum will swing out of time and the bell can become tiresome with prolonged exposure!  However, they are an extremely effective learning tool and they look great!

You can also use a drum machine, if you have one; if you do not then basic models can be purchased reasonably cheaply, especially second hand. There are also a lot of free drum machine downloads available on the internet for computers.

Working with a drum machine is a good way to improve your time keeping and your sense of how the bass interacts and locks in with the drum kit, or different parts of the kit, e.g. how a bass line might fit with the bass drum or snare pattern. However, when it comes to building up the inner clock and developing a very accurate sense of rhythm and pulse, then the metronome has the advantage of total focus on the beat without distraction – the metronome wins, hands down.

Most electronic keyboards come with pre-programmed drum patterns in different styles that can be useful. Keyboards can also be purchased cheaply, more cheaply than drum machines in most cases, they also have the advantage of letting you play and hear chords – a distinct advantage!

Things to practice with the bass and metronome

There are many ways of improving you timing and building up your inner clock, from working with metronomes and drum machines, to playing along with recorded material on CD, to, of course, playing along with other musicians – which is indeed one of the main desired results of learning to play in time.

However, metronomes and drum machines should really be regarded as training aids, you should not rely solely on these devices alone to build up your inner clock and develop a good sense of time; you should also practise alone – e.g. just you and the bass – and be aware if you are speeding, slowing down or playing consistently / inconsistently – tapping you foot as you play will help with this.

One approach is to play an exercise, say five or ten minutes with the metronome and then repeat the same exercise without the metronome – recording yourself at this point is a good idea; it can be really effective just to take a step back and analyse your playing – the bottom line is that you will begin to notice the difference between playing with the guidance of a metronome and playing on your own; eventually the gap between the two should become insignificant. A good sense of rhythm and pulse should come from within; it should be part of you as a musician.

Another approach to this is simply to tap your foot when you are practising on your own, try as many tempos, exercises, scales with different rhythms and bass lines as you can – your foot will tell you a lot about your timing. Switch from right foot to left foot, or right heal to left heal if you get tired. Playing off beat notes or syncopated patterns between your foot taps can be another very effective way of improving your feel of time.

In practising anything with the bass and a metronome, whether it might be scales or bass lines, start slowly - a good starting point is 60 BPM, focus on every click and make sure that whatever you are playing is exactly on the beat and rhythmically accurate (unless you are practising pushing or pulling the beat of course – more of that later!).

Begin with going through as many different rhythms as you can on just one note (loop each rhythm, or rhythmic groups for a long time – really get into the groove and just enjoy syncing with the metronome or drum machine!), very slowly against the metronome clicks and build up your speed gradually as your accuracy develops – this applies to more advanced students and beginners alike, as this is a really great way to set your bench mark BPM ceiling (without mistakes!) and improve it from there.

The reason for this is that at slower tempos you will have to fill the gaps between the metronome clicks more accurately as there is more time for things to go wrong! I have seen students who can play something as complicated as Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee fairly accurately at speed come unglued when they have to play it at half speed – it is all about string control and accurate timing – fast playing is purely a bi-product of accuracy, which will only be achieved through slow and accurate practice, sometimes fast playing is not as accurate as you might think!

On the other hand it is also good to test yourself against faster tempos to find your ceiling, or limit as a player – if you can play two octave scales fluently in any key at 120 BPM you are doing well, as this is roughly grade 8 level. If you are not able to play like this then do not become discouraged, it is things like this that give you a real goal to work for as a musician. If you can play something perfectly at, say 100 BPM, then challenge yourself; come back to it every day and build up the tempo by 1 BPM – in twenty days you could be playing the same thing at 120 BPM!

Get used to counting out loud with the metronome; this will strengthen your internal clock, you may also have to count your band in one day!

Analyse you playing as you go through any exercise - if you are making any mistakes stop and ask yourself what the problem is – is it the picking hand? Is it the fretting hand? Find the fault and put a frame around it. By that I mean repeat it over and over at a slower tempo until it is no longer a problem that will cause you to make mistakes – this might mean using very slow tempos and a lot of repetitions, but it does work!

How slow is slow? The answer is as slow as something can be played perfectly without making mistakes!

For instance, first set the metronome to 30 BPM and play single 1/4 notes (crotchets) on the clicks to get a feel for the pulse. Then play a scale with 1/8 notes (quavers) and then 1/16 notes (semiquavers) at the same tempo. This is the same as playing 1/2 notes (minims) and 1/4 notes (crotchets) at 120 BPM, the difference being that you have to keep the timing accurate without the aid of a click on every beat. This is a very good way to build up your internal clock. Tap your foot to find beats 2, 3 and 4 after counting 1 with the click of the metronome, count them out loud as well – this can take some trial and error as it can be quit challenging, but the results are very effective in improving timekeeping.

When practising an exercise of this nature and in fact  all exercises in this book, try to accent (play more loudly) the first beat with the click, this exaggerating technique can have a profound effect on you sensation and internalisation of time as well as helping you to concentrate on that all important beat one – the down beat. You can then move onto accenting other beats within the bar to see how this will affect the feel of a bass line or scale.

Different settings on the metronome

Another way to use the metronome that will help with improving the inner clock and internalising good time keeping is to practice with the metronome clicks set on beats 1 and 3 – set between 30 and 60 BPM.

Setting the metronome to beats 1 and 3 means how the clicks are counted; for clicks on 1 and 3 you would count the gaps between the beats as 2 and 4.

Alternatively, you can set the metronome clicks on beats 2 and 4 set between 30 and 60 BPM. Again, this is purely how the clicks are counted – For clicks on 2 and 4 you would count the gaps between the beats as 1 and 3.

By setting the metronome to beats 1 and 3 you will get a strong feel for the down beat – beats 1 and 3 are exactly where the bass drum would fall when a drummer plays a rock groove for instance. This is why practising scales with 1/8 notes (quavers) or rock bass lines this way can be very effective – try accenting (play slightly louder) beats 2 and 4, as this is it is where the snare drum hits would fall, this can give the 1/8 note (quaver) pulse a real sense of drive and forward momentum. It is also easier to count in the clicks on beats 1 and 3, as well as playing off beat or syncopated bass lines to them.

On the other hand, if you set the metronome (or rather counting the clicks) on beats 2 and 4 you will get a more off beat feel from the pulse that can give you a good sense of swing (a triplet feel). This is a great way to practice walking bass lines or scales in 1/4 notes (crotchets). It is also a very good way to practice funk bass lines as these will sometimes miss beats 2 and 4 allowing the snare drum hit to cut through, creating a tight locked-in groove. Counting yourself in is a little harder, as you have to count beat 1 and 3 in between the clicks – a good way to do this is count 2 and then 4 with the click and try to put 1 and 3 in the gaps, this will take some practice, but you will be surprised at how this will change the feel of using the metronome.

Pushing and pulling the beat

This brings me on nicely to the concept of pushing and pulling the beat. It has often come as a surprise to many students that I have taught when I explain that you can not only play exactly on the beat, but also behind or in front of the beat as well. This is very much a “feel” thing, as we are talking milliseconds of difference in timing when pushing or pulling the beat. The effect itself should not be looked upon as speeding up or slowing down the overall tempo, in fact the tempo stays the same; it is all about accurate note placement either if front of or behind the beat.

When human beings get together and play music, no matter what the style - pop, rock, classical, funk or jazz etc. There will always be slight deviations in timing between the members of the ensemble and the way that individual lines of music are played, sometimes the tempo can alter – very often the case with classical music. If there were no deviations in time, everyone would sound like a computer or a mobile phone does when it plays music – absolutely accurate but devoid of any feel or life – robotic in fact. It is these slight deviations in front of, or behind the beat that puts meaning, expression and emotion – basically the human element – into music.

When it comes to playing or singing melodic phrases, timing is not always static – musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jaco Pastorius, Charley Parker or singers such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald (the list is endless) were all masters of manipulating the timing within phrases for emotional effect.

If you hear a band playing and it feels like the music is dragging unnaturally, then the chances are that several members of the band may be playing too far behind the beat. On the other hand, many beginner bass players, when learning new material, often go into panic mode (a common problem) – the need to do well and progress outstrips the moment, hence they end up pushing the beat - rushing bass lines as they feel that they need to keep up and over compensate by playing slightly too fast – relaxing and trusting your motor patterns (finger / hand movements and control) is usually part of the cure.

A lot of funk tunes will use a very relaxed and laid back bass groove that ever so slightly pulls the beat and just sits behind the drums; listen to players like Bernard Edwards with Chic or any James Brown number to get a feel for this effect. On the other hand if you listen to a driving rock bass line with a strong eighth note pulse, or a walking bass line to a fast jazz tune you will definitely notice the forward momentum created by the beat being slightly pushed by the bass player.

When I am playing a funk bass line for example, I always like to get the feeling of being led by the drums – the drum hits will always happen just before my bass note, almost imperceptibly so, but this is what creates a laid back groove – “In the pocket” as they say.

How can you practice pushing or pulling the beat? The simple answer is just by trying it. Begin with playing single staccato (played as short as possible) 1/4 notes (crotchets) exactly on the beat of each metronome click, this will enforce you sense of timing and give you a reference point.

When you are secure playing a single note accurately on the beat against the click, gradually begin to push the note timing forward ever so slightly in front of the click. You are not increasing the tempo at this point, otherwise you would end up out of phase with the click – it is more a case of anticipating the click and placing the note just in front, this will give your note a sense of forward momentum, the feeling that you are leading the click – this is pushing the beat.

After practising this for a while, begin to relax yourself and the timing of the note so that you return to playing exactly on the beat – then try to get the feeling of being led by the click, hear the click first, relax still further and then place your note fractionally behind the click – this is pulling the beat.

Repeat this exercise with 1/8 notes (quavers).

Next, pick something simple that you can play accurately like a scale, or a bass line that you know well and practise either playing ahead or playing behind the pulse of a metronome. Start very slowly, between 40 and 60 BPM – this will be slow enough to really let you hear the difference in timing. Remember, you are not playing at a faster or slower tempo than the metronome; it is all about accurate note placement. This will take time to master, but you will be surprised by the leeway in time that you can play against the beat, but do be consistent – if you are practising pushing the beat then try to stay the same amount in time in front of the beat, the same for pulling the beat.

Things to practice with the bass and drum machine

Practising with a drum machine is a little different and can offer other timing awareness exercises than the metronome; the main thing is that it gets you used to how the bass interacts with and locks in with a drum pattern to create a tight groove.

For example, you could play a bass line that locks in with just the bass drum pattern alone; begin with just one note playing with the bass drum and then try using something more melodic like a scale fragment or an octave pattern. On the other hand you could miss out playing on the bass drum altogether and focus on the snare pattern; practising slap technique pull–offs can be very effective in this respect. Another part of the drum kit to focus on is the high hat pattern; if it is playing in 1/16 notes (semiquavers) for instance, you could repeat this pattern with a bass line or scale with the same rhythm. The toms should also not be overlooked; if they are playing a descending pattern for example, you could experiment with a descending bass line with a similar rhythm. Each part of the drum kit can be focused on and assimilated into practising suitable bass lines or technical exercises to fit.

One major advantage that the drum machine has over the metronome is in offering different styles or flavours of patterns. For example, playing a Latin bass line or Bossa Nova with the right drum groove will greatly enhance the feel of what you are playing. The same holds true for a reggae, jazz, rock or dance style of drum pattern; practising with these different patterns will help you get into the spirit and play with the essence of each style and at the same time improve your rhythmic awareness and timing.

Things to practise without the bass

There are many times that you will be away from your instrument, but this does not mean that there is nothing you can do to improve yourself as a musician and increase you perception of time. There are a whole host of things that you can practice without the bass that can have a profound effect on your instrumental skills and your rhythmic awareness. One of the simplest, but highly effective non instrument practice routines is visualization – Jaco Pastorius commented on his teaching video that he did most of his practising away from the bass, just by thinking about it.

Visualization (mental practice)

The power of imagination can be a very useful practice tool, in that you can visualize your hands performing any action and hear in your mind the sounds from your instrument as they do so. This could be any playing action such as technical exercises, intervals, scales, arpeggios, triads, 7th chords, bass lines, melodies and importantly, improvising – for example, in your mind you could consider which fingers to use and on which strings you would play a scale and improvise with it, creating patterns and phrases in any style that you wish. You could also focus on feeling the dynamic levels (volume), shift patterns, accurate picking and fretting actions, as well as what these patterns would look like on the fretboard and notated in written music – the most important thing to practice when you use visualization is to imagine it in strict time to a metronome – the more you try it, the more effective it becomes!

Try to visualize intervals on the bass and how they would actually sound, see the finger patterns and what they would look like on the fingerboard – play them in perfect time in your imagination!

 If you hear a bass line or any kind of melody (whatever the instrument / vocal line might be) on the radio or television that you have not heard before, try to imagine how you would finger the patterns on the bass. The results can often be quite interesting when you do get back to your instrument and try it for real!

Another good time to use visualisation is when you are walking. There is a very simple explanation for this; whilst you are walking your feet are behaving much the same as a metronome – each step can be measured in beats per minute. A slow leisurely stroll is on average 80 - 90 BPM, normal walking speed 100 - 110 BPM and a fast walk would be roughly 120 - 130 BPM. These are, of course, very broad estimates with a great deal of overlap, but you get the idea; as you walk at a steady pace your footsteps provide a steady beat that you can visualise playing anything on your instrument along to. Imagining walking bass lines comes to mind – well it would wouldn’t it! However, scales, arpeggios or any kind of bass line or melody can be visualised being played in your imagination as your feet provide a metronomic accompaniment, this is very good training for the internalizing a good sense of time.

If you have a gig, an audition, or a recording session looming on the horizon visualization can be a very effective tool in preparing the mind for the event and relieving feelings of stage fright or performance anxiety. Take yourself through the performance and visualize yourself performing everything flawlessly in perfect time – see your hands and fingers working perfectly and efficiently producing the ideal sound. This technique can work best when you are lying in bed just before sleeping – this is also particularly effective when learning new material for performance.

Singing / vocalising

There are very few things in music that will help you to improve your ear training and internalise harmony, melody, timing and rhythm more effectively than singing. I always say to my students – if you can sing it, then you can play it (even if it sometimes may take a while!). Using your voice is of prime importance (you do not have to be a great singer), even if it is only in a basic way, such as saying note names out loud, singing the interval number (scale degree) of scales or arpeggios, verbalising rhythms or counting along with the metronome – these are all effective ear training techniques that will improve your sense of time as well.

There are many opportunities to use your voice when you are away from your instrument (as long as it does not disturb others of course – you might not want to start practising intervals in a restaurant or at the cinema!), these are the times when you can practice vocalising rhythms, or rhythmic groupings, singing intervals, scales, arpeggios, melodies or bass lines; they all are great ways to internalise musical values and improve your sense of time.

Bear in mind that developing your voice to the point of singing backing or lead vocals will make you a more versatile and employable musician – it will always improve your chances of getting band work!

If you are listening to music, when the opportunity is there, you can try not only singing along to the main vocal line and backing vocals, but to every other part as well. Try to sing or vocalise the bass line, guitar riff, keyboard part or any other instrumental line. As you do so, concentrate on your timing and the rhythmic subdivisions of each part as well as considering which intervals are being used and what scale they might belong to – this is also where visualization comes in; as you should also imagine playing each part on your instrument.

(You should of course vocalise what you play when you are practising with your instrument at every opportunity, this will help enormously in educating your ears and with becoming more fluent on the fretboard – more of this later!).

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