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Sans Drummer

My musing time this morning was taken up by responding to a question on the Churchbass email list about what to do in a group when the drummer isn’t available. My flippant answer was bass solos but I did try to be a bit more helpful.

You can certainly adjust your playing to add more percussive elements. The classic bass player legend in this regard is that slap bass was created when Larry Graham was holding down the bass chair in a drummerless duo: ‘… Larry compensated for not having a bass drum by “thumping” the strings and made up for not having a snare drum by “plucking” them’ (https://larrygraham.com/bio). I’m sure that could spark some debate but the fact remains that there are numerous ways for the bass to fill that gap. As part of a group, others can contribute too – for example, a guitarist can add in strums of muted strings to enhance the beat.

I’m cautious about the idea of a digital solution. You can use some kind of drum machine but unlike the real thing, it is never going to speed up or – being fairer to real drummers – it can’t contribute to the ‘conversation’ about tempo and feel that happens among live musicians. Unless everyone in the group has been diligent with their metronome practise, it is harder than you might think to keep in time with an ear-less box (and that’s without figuring in the effect of the congregation). It is definitely something to try out as a group before going live.
The String Project has recently been exploring some live beatbox loops. That’s a group of competent, experienced musicians who have spent plenty of time rehearsing and performing together and it’s still hard. It can be done but it is a new skill, taking the precision needed in the recording studio, subtracting the opportunity for overdubs and trying to maintain the energy of being rooted in the here and now.