Photo by Feliciano Guimaraes
Q: I’d like to know what your thoughts are on the subtle art of variation within bass lines; the where’s and whys, and indeed, the where nots and the why nots. I believe that this kind of understanding is one of the key factors separating good bass players from great ones. I know for myself, I seem to have two overarching ‘settings’: bass lines, and solo vocab. It can be difficult varying a bass line effectively without sounding like a soloist.
A: I’m thrilled to get a conversation going here about this. I agree with your terminology as well. It very much is a art and especially when it is used subtly. This is also very much subjective. Everyone has different tastes and I encourage you to explore everything that comes to mind and then refine and tailor it to suit whatever musical aesthetic you aspire to.
Personally, I find a lot of satisfaction comes from:
- Defining the skeletal foundation of my line
- Using that as an ostinato and, finally
- Thinking in terms of a longer complete statement (usually 2, 4, 8 or 16 bars in length) and alter something near the end of that longer phrase in order to give it a sense of momentum and resolution.
I may only add one or two notes to the line or might even just simply change the rhythm or lope of one small part of the line, but I’ll alternate the phrases with my original foundation line.
I also tend to think of my basic grooves in 2-bar lengths. So, in essence, I’ll likely create a 2 bar groove and repeat that three times and then alter it in some way the fourth time around. This would give me an 8 bar phrase.
I also like to employ this with song sections. I might play every verse pretty much the same but I’ll likely add a little spice to one of the later or last verses in order to give the song a sense of further evolution. This could be a simple change in root motion (giving the song a bit of a quick reharmonization), it might be a nice accent that lines up nicely with the kick drum pattern in a new way, it might be a fill or it could even be a rest (silence in just the right moment can have a huge impact!) The possibilities are almost endless and it all very much comes down to your ears, feel and musicality.
Which brings us to an important point: keep your ears and mind open to the myriad of possibilities available to you but by no means should you force something in there just to change it up. If you don’t hear it, don’t play it. That said, it is important to play around with all of the ideas because, often, the only way to figure out what won’t work is to try it.
Try not to think too consciously about this when coming up with a bass line. It’s something that I noticed myself doing and acknowledged it, but never really tried to practice it. The more you are in the moment, in tune with you your lines and the song, the more this tends to happen naturally.
You mention that you have two modes; bass player and bass soloist. Line variation or evolution should become a natural part of your groove tendency. If you’re dipping into soloist territory, then you may be going too far with it. Again, this is subjective stuff here. I’m not saying bassists need to stand in the shadows and be felt and not heard. I’m very much imagining tasty and simple songwriter or pocket-heavy groove style lines while I write about this.
The alteration and addition to your line likely shouldn’t jump up two octaves and involve chords (although it could). It will often be the difference between playing root-5 for two verses and a chorus and then adding a b7 to that third verse. Once. A little goes a long way when we’re trying to be both appropriate and artful. However, that soloistic side can be an asset when coming up with melodic variants. Use that knowledge of melody to add just a touch of spice but keep it i the same vein as your bass line. There is a big difference between a nice bit of spice added to a great bass line and a lick or fill.
This is also where transcription and groove education comes into play. The deeper your well of grooves and lines that have come before, the more you will have to draw from in regard to both vocabulary and inspiration. I promise that this kind of thing makes itself more aware to you if you’ve learned a few dozen tunes (or a few hundred) in the style of your choice. That means note for note, not an approximation of the groove, but learning the actual bass lines.
Readers, there are likely hundreds of approaches I could have taken while writing about this. What did I miss? What goes through your mind as you are developing lines and trying to serve a song from beginning to end while trying to play both creatively and appropriately? Please share your thoughts in the comments.