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Ask Damian Erskine: Bass Line Stylings

How can I make my bass lines more interesting without feeling like I’m playing too much? I feel like when I try and do a little something to add flavor, I’m just forcing licks into the music and over-playing.

A: Yeah man, there’s definitely a fine line to be drawn. There are a million ways to add flavor to the music without over-playing.. Here are a few things to try or think about while playing.

One way in which many players have added a little color to a line without necessarily adding “licks” is to incorporate chord tones. For example, adding a 10th on top of your root note (the 3rd of the chord an octave up) in a choice spot can be very effective

In my opinion one of the coolest ways a bass player can add flavor is by simply playing the bass with more musicality. Really trying to make a solid line SING as opposed to making it busier.

As an exercise, I used to pick ONE note on the bass. I would then play that note and ONLY that note for 10 minutes or so. Using a combination of various right and left hand technique, see how many ways you can play that one note. Start the metronome and make that ONE note as funky as you can! If you can make one note funky, imagine what you can do with a whole bass line!

Consider these options for coloration (and try and think of more! get creative with it!).

Muting

  • You can mute the note a touch by letting other fingers of your left hand lay lightly on the strings
  • You can palm mute with your right hand
  • You can mute with your pinky back by the bridge
  • You have an infinite number of note lengths available to you depending on when you lift your left finger off of the note.

Tone

  • You get a different tone with every finger of your right hand
  • You get a different tone with every part of every plucking finger on your right hand
  • You can use pinch harmonics
  • You can (depending on the note your playing) often lift your left hand a bit and get different harmonics and/or overtones with your left hand on that same note simply by means of pressing down less or more.
  • You can get a different tone depending on where your hand is placed when plucking with the right hand (back by the bridge, over the neck and everywhere in between

Style

  • You can add vibrato with your left hand
  • You can slide over the fret a bit and get a nice effect
  • You can not pluck at all, but rather hammer a note for a different sound
  • Play the note by striking the string with the nail of your plucking finger (flicking down) instead of the meat of your finger.

There are also options in regards to subtle rhythmic enhancements.

Pull up a track of your favorite drummer. Now listen to their snare drum! You will hear a lot of very soft, but effective ghost notes. A drummer can really spice up a groove by adding little flavorful taps on the snare drum in between the big WHACK of the 2 and 4 (or whatever it is they may be playing).

Bass players can achieve similar effects with their right hand. The key is to be subtle and not over-power the groove. Lock in with the drummer and really try and play his groove. The music will still be locked, but you may find you are really coming up with some interesting rhythmic ideas and variations!

You don’t want to play BUSIER, but rather, with more finesse and pocket.

You should start to get an idea of HOW MANY WAYS THERE ARE TO PLAY A NOTE!! You can do wonders with the way you approach a bass line and how you play it. A lot of musicality can be added to a line without adding more notes by simply experimenting with your instrument and learning all of the different ways in which you can play ONE NOTE!

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