I've been trying to play some swing bass lines, and while technically I can play the swing feel (the 16th notes with some triplets), it doesn't sound like it's swinging.

It sounds kinda boring and forced, like it doesn't come naturally to the ear.

How can I make my basslines swing?


5 Answers 5


What you seek, my friend, is "the groove". As you're discovering, there's more to it than the mechanical (or even mathematical) approach of playing certain notes with a triplet rhythm. While your approach is technically correct, I'm guessing it lacks the feeling you're looking for. That's what's known as "groove" or being "in the pocket" or (especially for drummers) the backbeat.

There's a subtle laziness that's required in order to really get that feeling of a swing, shuffle, or backbeat. With bass players, it's especially tricky because you need to both push the groove (by being dead on for certain rhythmic parts) but also get a bit lazy (in order to really capture that swing feel). Try thinking about playing the shuffle notes just a tad bit late. Even some of the downbeats can be a bit behind the beat. Your drummer is probably nailing the groove, so let him/her do it. Hit beats 1 and 3 dead on. Everything else can be just the slightest little bit late. Try to avoid being perfectly mathematical about it. Just let those other notes land a bit later.

Listen to some of the jazz and funk greats and you'll start to hear the groove. Early rock-n-rollers also "got" it. It's fun when you get used to hearing it on those old records (early Elvis, Fats Domino, Bill Hailey, etc) because some guys in the band weren't groovin', while other guys were really swinging it. The clash of styles really accentuates the rhythm. Also, all of those funk drum beats that hip-hop artists steal are all excellent examples of totally nailing the groove. (P-funk, the Meters, James Brown, early EWF, early Kool and the Gang, early Commodores, etc).

So many folks have a hard time describing what the groove really is. (Michael Jackson tried to explain it to his band as "getting outta bed on a saturday morning".) That's why it can be elusive. It's tough to explain, tougher to master. But once you hear it, you can't not hear it.


Much easier with a drummer, especially a good one.Think 12/8 time, as in basic 4 in a bar, but each beat is split into triplet quavers. Play on the first and third of some - not all - of the triplets, making the first legato and the third more staccato. Saying the old English nursery rhyme helps : "Humpty Dumpty ", to give a swing feel. Sometimes play a dead note on the 'ty' bit, sometimes an octave. If you're playing 1s and 5s, with the occasional 3 thrown in, it won't sound as good as a walking bass line for some songs. If you can't find a tame drummer, try a drum machine, or even the rhythm section on a cheap keyboard.


A simple and a very effective way to learn how to swing on any instrument is to master the shuffle/swing rhythm. The idea is instead of playing eighth notes straight as you normally would play them in a long short pattern (play the first eighth note as two tied eight note triplets and play the last eighth note as an eighth note triplet). I would start out just playing one note then once you get a good grasp of the rhythm go up and down scales playing it.

It's not too complicated and once you get a good hold of the rhythm, you can easily switch between swing rhythm and triplets. A simple pattern that I like that uses a combo of swing rhythm and triplets with beats 1 and 3 being swing eighth notes and beats 2 and 4 being eighth note triplets.

I found a good site that demonstrates what I stated above and explained it in more detail: Study Bass: Shuffle And Swing Rhythms

Hope this helps.


Swing really doesn't consist of triplets at all. When you play a lot of triplets you actually destroy the swing. It seems to me there are several elements:

  • 2-bar or 4-bar phrasing. This is very important. The moment you go into thinking 1-bar phrases the swing stops.
  • long bass notes. Classically trained players will typically play quavers followed by quaver rests. A swing bassist will play real crotchets, and he will do everything he can to elongate the notes.
  • and of course, the semiquavers (16th notes). These aren't placed on a triplet-defined sub-beat at all, they are flexible. In the bass, they usually occur on the 2nd or 4th notes of the bar, rarely both. They should be rather delayed, and flexible, as in Baroque music, but with a swing intent rather than a maestoso intent. This is where it all gets imponderable of course.

I find that Body Language helps here. Just move about in time to the music - the swing will follow naturally.


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