Bass players generally have their own comfortable “pocket”, i.e. their relationship to the absolute beat. Some players naturally play right on the beat, some slightly ahead of, and others slightly behind the beat. All these applications have their place in various music styles. And that’s exactly the point. If you want to be at ease in many music genres, you must be able to play on and around the beat. Once you have achieved this proficiency, you will better be able to musically relate to drummers and other musicians.
Here is a series of exercises that will get you not only in control of your own time-keeping ability, but will ultimately enable you to better perceive your colleagues’ sense of time. It will furthermore increase your awareness of space in music. This “space awareness” is one of the elements that distinguish mature and relaxed players from immature and rushing players.
Get out that metronome or drum machine.
Set a pulse of 50 bpm (beats per minute).
Play only one note of full duration (sustained) on each beat. If you play the note with a lot of attack (slapping works well) you should not hear the metronome beat.
If you are nowhere near the beat, try this: subdivide either into sixteenth notes (sing “sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me” etc) or eighth-note triplets to create the basis for a swing or shuffle feel (sing “trip-u-let-trip-u-let” etc).
If you are still not right on the beat, then increase the metronome tempo to 60 bpm. (A slower tempo is more difficult.)
Once successful, this on-the-beat technique is good for many styles of playing.
Observe closely your natural relationship to the beat. Don’t fret if you don’t get consistency right away. The next exercises will help.
Set a pulse of 40 bpm (more difficult) to 60 bpm (less difficult).
Now attempt to play consistently after/behind the beat. Use the beat to guide you, i.e. you react to it. The beat and your note should sound like a flam (a quick grace note). You will feel when the distance between the two is just right. Keep it there.
This technique is useful for a laid back effect.
This next step involves you guiding the metronome. Now it is your turn to play ahead of/in front of the beat.
Attempt to play consistently before the beat.
As before, the two rhythmic events should produce a flam.
Now you are the timekeeper.
This technique is good for a driving effect (from the bass).
Go back to the first exercise and check if your timekeeping has improved. It should have. That is because you are already a lot more aware of beat placement.
The exercises explained above are only the beginning of what can develop into very sophisticated timekeeping awareness. Once these steps are mastered, try variations like using different note durations and different notes for each beat. Also try the same exercises with a drummer or any other musician.