It’s a 2 part puzzle.
Piece 1: The Physical Piece.
Knowing the music/instrument/part so well that you’re not thinking about what to play next / what you just played. The goal is to use as little active energy to make this happen as possible; you want as close to zero attention on you as possible so that (as near as you can get to) 100% attention is on the groove/ensemble/music/song.
This can only happen when the physical demands of what you’re doing are as easy for you to do as the easiest thing.
(I stole that from Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, by the way.)
If you can hang with the physical part… you get piece 2:
Piece 2: The Mental Piece
Ohhhhhh dang. This is my eternal struggle/goal/nemesis/teacher/friend/obstacle.
If you can physically play the shit, now you have to be able to focus on the groove enough to make it lock. Pitfalls include:
- Messing up and getting down on yourself for it
- Killing it and congratulating yourself for it
- Worrying about making a mistake
- Getting excited for the part up ahead where you get to rip your bass fill
- Wondering if you’re locking in
- Congratulating yourself for locking in
- Doubt: Is this good? not good? Too fast? Too slow?
- Over-confidence: I’m killing it. I’m fucking great. Did they hear that? I rule.
During the course of a gig or a session, I will hit all of these. If this was a checklist, I’d have it DONE in the first song.
When you’re in the groove, like, deeeeeep in the groove… there’s a security and comfort as simple and sure as when you’re playing a C vs a C#. You just know it. You’ve got it. The things that rock the boat are all the things above.
If you’re still not sure if you can physically execute the line you need to, there is a very real and reasonable reason to be worried. That will rock the boat.
This Zen koan of a tightrope can only be walked if you’ve rehearsed to the point where you are easily capable of playing the part.
To play the part and stay in the groove requires 100% focus and attention on the groove WITHOUT the self-aware/self-congratulatory/self-criticizing voice showing up.
That’s why playing through mistakes is so important but - on a deeper level - it’s not just playing through mistakes. It’s completely forgetting the mistake. It’s letting it slide by like it never happened. If you’re still bummed on the mistake, it will be a chain-reaction potential train-wreck scenario.
It’s another reason why band members are so important. They can help pull you back to the groove and focus with some good sympathetic, positive energy… or can send you on a tailspin with the evil eye, or - even worse - on the band stand scolding. Ooooh… that’s hard to bounce back from.
How can you focus on the groove more?
Practice forever so that you feel prepared for the musical challenges the song/band/situation demand from you.
Play the simplest part you have to in order to get your focus on the groove, and away from you and your playing/success/failure.
Don’t embellish until your ear is hearing the embellishment. If your brain starts to go “this is too repetitive - do something” or “is this a cool line? Should I change it? Is this OK?” ignore it. Do not give in to that evil voice!! Only change when the music wants to change.
In practice, play to human drummers, if possible. If not - find well crafted and human-like drum loops or your favorite recordings. Listen to the grooves, and try and mimic how the players you hear are locking in.
Try and avoid noodle practice and practice without a metronome/time-keeper. These hours invested can be very detrimental to your knowledge of beat/meter and keeping your place in an actual piece of music.
Whew. There’s more.
This question is EVERYTHING about bass playing, and only gets more exciting the more you play, the more players you play with, the heavier the drummers you get to make music with, etc. etc.
If you ever want another burst of quasi-spiritual-groove-related earnestness… just throw up that bat signal!! Thanks for the heads up, @PamPurrs and thanks for this thread.