Q: I’m struggling with the thought process behind coming up with bass lines. What advice would you give for ways to approach and think about constructing lines?
A: This is another question that is ripe for comments, as everyone probably has something unique to them going through their minds when developing a bass line.
To start, a lot of what you come up with should be based on your surroundings: the sound of the room, the energy of the band, the style of the song, and so on. However, you may find you have one line you play on a specific song every single time, regardless of the outside influences, or that you change it up slightly every night for any number of reasons. So there’s no real “formula” here, other than the core ideas of playing bass discussed in this column over the years.
The list starts with what might sound like a cliché any more, but is the core:
Serve the song!
Worry less about coming up with a great bass line or the world’s hippest line and just focus on playing what you would want to hear there if you were listening in the audience, or in your car (and not as a bass geek, but as a music lover).
Simple is usually better…
Of course, this can change a bit depending on the style of music you are playing but, even in the noodle-fest of fusion groups, often the contrast that a solid bass line can have against a wall of notes coming from everyone else can be quite effective. I often find that if the drummer and/or bassist simplifies while the rest of the band is shredding, it is often much more listenable to me. If everyone is soloing or shredding the entire time, the audience is likely to be unable to hang for more than a few tunes.
If it’s inherently busy music, don’t just go crazy but consider the contrast your line can have against what is happening.
…But not always.
Alternately, sometimes a slightly more busy line can positively contrast very simple music. It all really comes down to taste. I don’t know one person that has ever listened to Joni Mitchell’s “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” and said, “Man… if only Jaco would have chilled out, that track would’ve been great”. Jaco is a good example of a guy that really knew how to sit in a track, even when he was playing a lot of notes. You always have to play with taste and be careful not to step on peoples’ shoes – musically speaking.
We’re bass players. The time and feel has to come first, then the notes. One note played with impeccable feel will feel better than the hippest of diminished licks scattered throughout your line.
Get the heads bobbing, basically.
Here are things that have served me well, whether it is with on stage, in the studio or in rehearsal:
- How does the line feel against what everyone else is doing? My priorities are the drummer, vocalist and primary harmonic instrument (guitar, piano, etc.)
- Is the amount of harmonic information I’m adding helping or hurting the tune and vibe? Roots and chord tones or upper structure harmony? Decide and then go there.
- Am I playing from my ego or my ears and heart?
- Leave some breathing room. These days, I try to approach live playing much like my studio playing. To me, that means making the track sit properly and leave some space.
If we’re talking note choices…
It is good to really understand chords and how they are constructed, but it is probably more important for you to fully explore what others have done before you and cherry pick things you like from bassists you enjoy listening to.
When we first learn to speak a language, we learn by speaking with others and emulating what they do. If we hear a word we like or a phrase that expresses a thought well, we tend to perk our ears and make note of it – or ask it to be repeated and practice using it to incorporate it into our vocabularies. Music is no different.
I’ve had some students say that they don’t want to transcribe because they don’t want to sound like anybody else. They’re afraid that if they spend time trying to copy someones licks, lines or playing style, that they will never develop their own voice. That, of course, is complete nonsense.
We must learn what others have done before us in order to develop our own vocabulary. It helps to gain an understanding of our instrument, the shape of a sound, the approach to a line, and helps us to define what we like and don’t like – another part of developing our own voice.
You may speak in a unique way, but it is rare that someone develops a unique voice that people want to listen to without having learned a ton of tunes and without having explored other players we liked and emulating certain things about their style.
Our musical voice generally comes to us slowly and (usually) only through exhaustive exploration of our instruments and how to play them well.
Regarding note choice, here’s my list:
- Don’t fear the root. The root is our job. We are there to define the foundation of the harmony happening around us (the roots of the chord) and assist with rhythm. We are the bridge between the drummer and the rest of the band. Don’t try and be a guitarist or piano player unless it’s for a very specific and intentional reason.
- Don’t fear the quarter note, half-note or whole-note. Be careful of over-subdividing. Sometimes, it has a really cool effect, but always ask yourself if what you’re doing is helping the song or hurting the song. If the crowd, bandleader and bandmates love a Rocco- or Jaco-like thing on a tune, then go for it. But if you’re making the song hard to dance to or stepping on toes, it’s no good, no matter how cool you may think it sounded. Don’t be that guy. Check your ego at the door.
- Eliminate “repetition”. If a line feels very repetitive, consider other leading tones to move between chords. For example, throwing a 3rd in as you move to the IV chord, for example, can be very cool and – especially if used sparingly and with intention – will never feel over done or out of place.
- Add some color. If I want to color a chord or add some spice to a line, consider utilizing other notes from the chord scale and, possibly, some chromatic approaches. My thought process might be something like, “Hmmm… what if I did a 3 note chromatic approach to the b7 on that dominant chord, and then did the same thing a 4th lower and landed on the root of the next chord? The symmetry of the line might be cool and the notes should all be cool enough.” And then I’ll try it. If I like it, I’ll remember it and maybe pick a spot here and there. If I didn’t like it, I’ll remember not to do that again.
- Be brave. Never be afraid to experiment or make a mistake. The biggest problem with learning how to make music is that nobody wants to play with you until you can speak at their level, which makes it hard to learn. I say, screw that… do the best you can but don’t be afraid of music. If you don’t like something, chances are that others didn’t like it either, and it won’t happen again. That said, be careful on the gig. I’ve known guys who say, “well, there are no mistakes” and used that as an excuse to play a lot of stupid stuff that wasn’t even close to appropriate or sounding good. You have to use your judgement and always make it your goal to make good music and make it better every time you play.
You’ll probably notice that I didn’t give any examples of sample bass lines or talk in depth about how to approach this chord or that. There is a ton of that on the web, including here on No Treble. I also believe that you should transcribe lines and work out the problems for yourself (it has more of an impact that way).
Instead, I tried to convey the idea of getting your mind right on the process. I hope that helps you start this journey.
As I said, this is a perfect discussion topic for the readers here on No Treble, who always add so much to these columns. Readers, what have been your approaches to figuring out bass line construction? Please share in the comments.