Author: Williams, Dave

Syncopation………. can’t play with it…………can’t play without it.

In my ongoing 10,000 hour journey to mastering the upright bass, I have reencountered a barrier that may require an allocation of a few thousand of those hours to break through.

Sure, I can play quarter notes at a considerably fast BPM tempo while burying the metronome pulse and I can even double time that fairly well while keeping up with that sadistic pulsing machine that never stops. But ask me to break up the bass line into dotted quarters or into one flag eighths, or rests, or, mother nature forbid, into two flag sixteenths…..with dots and with all of it having to happen in the time you can count to four…….. or eight and then keep it going for an entire song…….. I’m out, because I’m not a syncopator.

It is a tough thing for a bass player to admit but I don’t syncopate. There I said it. Whoever they is, says “you have to know you have a problem before you can fix it” and they also say…. well, lots of stupid things but who cares what they say. I know I’ve got to get over this syncopation thing.

Digressing for a minute or two, I would like to make sure we are all on the same page regarding syncopation. What is syncopation? After doing exhaustive research on this subject (a google search) I came up with this definition - syncopation is (in music): “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm and a placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur.” Now that we are clear, let’s move forward to the story of the bass player who can’t count.

This is not a new discovery for me. I have had this issue for my entire bass playing life. As the human condition allows, I have worked around and compensated for this issue for some 35 plus years of bass playing. Hiding my shame by employing tricks like getting my bass playing friends to sit in for songs with syncopated bass lines at gigs or claiming hand fatigue and moving to straight rhythm or even making up reasons to quit the band in order not play the two or three tunes that I couldn’t cut. Obviously, I wasn’t playing in Motown bands or heavy funk situations so mostly I could get away with it and I continue to do so today.

Now, I am not claiming to be a Meyer, a Missy, or a Mingus but I can swing some, I can walk okay, I know leading tones, passing tones, arpeggios and runs and certainly can bang roots and fifths but get me to anything syncopated and up until now, I would run away. I am not necessarily claiming that this situation has driven my tequila obsession, but a guy has to do something to ease the pain while a hot bassist is sitting in and playing “All Blues” on his bass, with his band.
How did I get here? What was missed in my early training? Honestly, nothing was missed except me taking the time to develop my ear. Early on, I learned to recognize chord changes and common intervals of chords in a key and enough music theory to understand the important notes in bass parts but I never picked up or tried to pick up melodies and their timing and spacing within the rhythm. My first instrument and my only instrument for my first century of playing was a bass. Didn’t need no dang melody to make music on a bass…………mostly. This self inflicted lack of a quality music education is what I attribute as the root cause of my block with syncopation.

I’m sure it didn’t help that there is not a lot of music education in my early childhood. In my parochial elementary school in the 50’s they brought in a “professional” music school to pitch their private lessons to the students. The drill was that they passed out a slip of paper to each kid and had them give them their parents contact information and asked each student to indicate what instrument they would like to play. Naturally, they received a full list of popular instruments from excited kids wanting to play drums, guitars, pianos, violins, etc. In about week, the music school called my parents and said that it was wonderful that their David wanted to play the drums and they could assist in teaching him but that it was their policy to start every student on the accordion and that fortunately, for a short time only, they had a terrific deal on a rent to buy program on a very fine model of beginner accordions. I don’t remember what the price was but it was not going to fit in our family budget for sure. The bad news was that I missed out on some early music education and development but the good news is that I’m not currently playing in an oom pah pah band, wearing lederhosen and gigging at Oktoberfest celebrations. Aw, just kidding, I bet that would be lots of fun…………… except for the lederhosen part.

Truthfully, over the years I have learned a couple of syncopated bass parts and even a few simple melodies, more by memory than actual learning but it does indicate it is possible to get past this barrier in my development. I’m leaning towards the theory that overcoming this playing problem is about improving my chops in other words keep after it and it will come and that brings me to the woodshed…..again. As I have reported in these pages previously, I have entered into a new stage of woodshed enlightenment this year. Catching up for years of bass hacking, I am now in treatment to overcome my fear of syncopation. It didn’t start out this way. My lessons began with some work on technique, a few playing tips for ¾ time stuff and some walking blues but again, this was just another attempt to avoid the real issue of not being able to count (syncopate). My empathic (and very good) bass teacher soon became aware of these attempts to hide my deficiencies and began working on my recovery by casually slipping in exercises and tunes to play that had a few measures of syncopated lines incorporated in them and I’ve had some moderate success in playing them. So with that, we’ve moved on to a slow 12 bar blues syncopated bass line that I’m currently mostly lost on but with patience, mine and hers, I’ll get it.
Enough banter for now except to say Daylight Savings Time begins this Saturday and if you have been keeping up, you’ll know how I feel about that.

Posted:  3/7/2013

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