I hope you, the bassist-reader, find the material useful; it’s an approach to the construction of bass lines based on my years as a working bassist, taken from observation, trial-and-error experience, conversations with bassists and other musicians, and anecdotes of oral tradition that I was privileged to hear from my peers, idols and mentors. Your comments, observations, complaints, criticisms, insights or endorsements are welcome and I’ll make every effort to respond!
The secret to confidence in playing the bass—or in anything, for that matter—is knowing what you’re doing. When you’re playing the bass, having knowledge of the harmony—the chord changes—is not only vital, it’s inescapable. You have to know the chord changes. This book assumes that you know the changes, or have developed the ability to figure them out quickly. Learning chord changes—and tunes—is a great subject, worthy of a whole other book, but this book is about what to play on them; how to create bass lines, melodies, or patterns in any style. We’ll learn how to think like a composer of bass lines; how to plan ahead, and make choices that are appropriate to the style of the song.
Most music we’ll play has an underlying structure—a “form”—whether it’s a 12-bar Blues, a 32-bar standard in AABA form (or 16&16), or whatever else it might be, depending on what the composer wrote. Within that form, the harmony progresses with its “harmonic rhythm,” meaning that the chords happen at certain times every time we play through the form of the song. The underlying rhythm is very important to the choices that we make as well; the rhythmic environment determines the “style,” whether it’s swing, 2-beat, cha-cha, bossa, samba, merengue, waltz, shuffle, or any of countless variants that fall under the heading of “contemporary,” whether it’s rock, funk, hip-hop, house, new age, alternative, or whatever else.
So, what notes do we play? How do we make interesting, melodic lines, enhance the music, yet at the same time “follow the rules”—which basically means play for the music, make what we play fit the music and serve the music and our fellow players—and still be able to “make a statement,” put our stamp on the music? How can we assert a musical identity, be creative, and yet “take care of business” at the same time?
By using the hidden power of the structure of harmony and rhythm!
The root of the chord is the strongest sound we can make on the bass, and essential to our role; the notes of the chords contain a property that we could describe as “harmonic magnetism.” We are going to explore these “magnetic points” with a primary focus on “anchors” and “pivots.” Once we cover these points of responsibility, we are free to create and embellish, using “lead-ins.” As we develop these melodies, they can be enhanced further by the incorporation of dynamics; volume rises and falls with the rise and fall of tension and release.
The bass is primarily responsible to provide anchor notes at certain points in the music. Simply put: we are generally responsible to play a root in a low register when a harmony first occurs; doing so underscores to the band “this is the chord!” If we cover the basic areas of our responsibility as bass players—which involve “showing up” at definable points in the music with the right information—then we have considerable freedom in how we get to the next “signpost” or anchor point.
A “pivot” is similar to an anchor in that it communicates fundamental harmony at an expected time; however, it is most often not the root of the chord, and not at the beginning of the harmonic instance; the most common pivot is the fifth of the chord—but it can be any chord tone, depending on taste and circumstances; and its most common location in the rhythm is on the 3rd beat, assuming 4/4—or, rather, halfway through the bar. There are many popular songs built around a specific bass line; in these songs, the pivot contained in the fixed line is part of the bassist’s responsibility, but development can still occur within these kinds of frameworks. We will explore this as the book progresses.
Lead-Ins are the connecting material…these are the bassist’s creative opportunity. Once the bassist has delivered an anchor, he can employ lead-ins of a wide variety to approach the next benchmark—the pivot—and then transition from the pivot to the next anchor. Lead-ins come in all shapes and sizes, rhythmic and melodic configurations, and they are the bassist’s playgound.
As is the case in every set of rules, rules are made to be broken. It is not always the case that the bass has to play an anchor on the first beat of every chord change. As development progresses, anchors and pivots can be rhythmically displaced. Sometimes, in walking bass lines, the distances between anchors can increase; lead-ins can occur on strong rhythmic beats, pivots can be used as anchors, and lead-ins can be extended. We will talk about all of these options as the book progresses.
We are also going to cover the subject of internal rhythmic dynamics, which we would define as dynamic variation within a particular musical phrase. Tension and release is as important in rhythm as it is in melody, and the foundation of rhythmic music of all kinds is accents, where they fall, and how much emphasis they get. Bassists need to know something about the traditions that exist here, which seem to have been largely overlooked in written pedagogy, but have been transmitted orally since the first strike of a drum.
“Rhythmic Overlays” are defined patterns of accents superimposed on the rhythmic substrate, derived from numeric patterns or other material such as the rhythm of lyrics. In the section on overlays, below, we will discuss some to the sources for these overlays.
This is a term we haven’t seen before in our musical studies; it shows up in biophysics and chemistry referring to something else entirely, but this term will be used to describe relationships between musical harmonic events such as cadences (and their resolution) and the volume level or intensity with which they are played. We can define “harmonic dynamics” as “changes of volume and intensity suggested by the progression of the chords through tension and resolution.”
…to be continued!
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