As we begin our journey as bass players, we are drawn to particular types of grooves. Perhaps our ears perk up with a soulful R&B line, the sound of a walking upright, or a rock tune where the bass is pedaling the roots. Many of us are intrigued by vibrant staccato grooves, the slaps and pops of 70’s funk, or by the pronounced rhythmic qualities of reggae, Latin, or African music. We realize early on that the bass is considered part of the rhythm section, where we, along with the drums and percussion, create the feel and energy that moves the band. And then we learn about chords; we figure out how to play through a blues progression by following the rules of one, four, and five, and we discover the joys of funk tunes that have a catchy, foot-moving groove that hangs on one or two chords.
If you’ve taken lessons, learned music in school, or have done intensive study on your own, you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time recognizing different rhythmic patterns and analyzing chords. Rhythm and harmony are often the focal points of a bass player’s musical education, but it happens to bypass one crucial musical element: melody.
If you find yourself at a loss as you look at the word melody, then think about your favorite pop song and try to sing along. Try to play the vocal line on your instrument and do your best to mimic the phrasing and vocal nuances. What you’ll find is that the melody moves in a very different way compared to a bass line. It doesn’t necessarily follow a pattern or have repeatedly large leaps (such as jumping an octave). It may play the same note a few times in a row, or go back and forth between two or three notes, and it probably won’t hang on the root for very long. Rhythmically, beat one is less important, for melodies may begin at any point in the measure, and the notes may be held for far longer than what a bass can sustain with a single attack.
Learning melodies can be a challenge, especially when your brain has been hardwired for bass. To make things a bit more manageable, I try to differentiate between three different musical settings: integrating melody into a bass line, integrating melody into a solo, and playing the actually melody to a song. Before diving into soloing, I suggest starting with low end and listening to some classic bass lines. Time to consult the masters!
Taking a look at some of the “bass greats,” we usually tout Paul McCartney as being a particularly melodic player, and rightly so. McCartney integrates stepwise motion and scalar lines to weave through the chords. While plenty of Beatles songs have specific patterns or grooves, many of his bass lines follow this weaving, songlike motion. By breaking away from arpeggiating chords, McCartney varies his approach and frequently uses leading tones to point our ears in the right direction. Take a listen to songs like “Something,” or to the bridge in “Lady Madonna” and make a note of how he uses passing tones and creates bass lines with scalar motion.
Another great melodic bass player is Pino Palladino. Although many of us recognize him as a killer groove player, his extensive recording credits and wide variety of live gigs have shown time and time again that he knows how to integrate melody. His work on fretless bass is unique in the sense that he adds vibrato and can slide into notes much like a vocalist would. While he does step out and get funky, many of his bass lines feature long, sustained notes followed by a cascading melodic phrase; again, this is a common vocal technique and can be heard on some of the hits he played on during the 80’s, including “Wherever I Lay My Hat.”
And one more for good measure… Michael Rhodes. As one of the most recorded bass players, Michael Rhodes is known for his Nashville session work. Countless recordings from country to blues, pop, rock, etc., feature his impeccable groove, tasteful transitions between chords, and melodic bass breaks. He uses melody to guide the listener from one section of a song to another and understands how to change range in order to heighten emotion before a climatic moment in the music. His ability to create a “hook” at the end of a breakdown verse or bridge carries the arrangement and introduces a triumphant final chorus, characteristic of most modern country.
Each of these bass players have taken a unique approach to imbedding melody into their bass lines; listening to some of their recordings can provide you with some great ideas for your own practice. Perhaps some of their melodic intuition comes from the gut, or perhaps it’s the reaction to a producer’s request on a session. Either way, the placement of melodic phrases to transition from chord to chord, or from one section of a song to another, is a skill not to be underestimated and certainly worthy of study.
Be on the look out for part two of this discussion where we’ll examine how to bring melodies into your solos and how to practice playing the melodies of pop tunes and jazz standards. See you in two weeks!