Something I notice when listening to inexperienced bassists is that they often tend to line up all of their technical ideas, one after another, when creating a bass line. It’s similar to a chef using all their spices to make just one dish. Most of us will learn with experience that less is not only more but you can reinvent a simple bass line in many different ways. Bob West’s playing on “Hit Or Miss” by Odetta is a perfect example of a fresh and funky bass part that is generated with a surprising dearth of notes. His performance perfectly suits the style of the song using the most meager musical ideas, reinvented and rehashed through rhythmic variation, register change, and harmony.
West’s style of playing here borrows from the compositional form of a theme & variations where the material being performed is constantly being extrapolated and permutated from one motif instead of multiple contrasting or unreferenced ideas. The central motif of the bass line is contained in bars 4-7 and is later restated at the end of the piece in letter C.
Examining this “theme” in bars 4-7, and in the part as a whole, we find there are a lot of roots, fifths, some major 3rd -5th chromaticism, or a descending D mixolydian fill that alternately comes at the end of phrases. The first two beats of the bar are generally reserved to enforce the rhythmic 8th-note motif and beats 3 + 4 are used to segue into the next bar or chord via the major 3rd-5th chromatic walk or the descending mixolydian scale.
Most often, West uses the major 3rd – 5th chromatic walk which typically starts between beat 3 & 4 and takes us via a leading tone into the next chord or hits a perfect 5th to return back to the root – 5th rhythmic statement of the main groove accents. West, however will elongate this gesture occasionally on the G7 to create a broadening affect to anticipate the arrival of A7 or return to the D7 such as in bars 26-27, 52-53. He will intermittently use the minor 7th of the scale as well, featured in bars 19, 27, 39, 57, and 64.
West uses the descending mixolydian motif only on the D7 chord. It is typically seen on beat 4 to reach the lower A before bouncing back to the downbeat Ds of the next bar. Occasionally, he will use this idea in a higher register as flashy fill when he needs to step out a bit. Examples of this are in bars 5, 21, 34, 36, and 63.
I think there is much that bassists can learn from West’s playing in this piece that is very inventive using very common bass line ideas. His approach of the theme & variations form is very appropriate for this song because of its blues-based form, which tends to feature a fairly static, and predictable harmony. A good practice for bassists at home is to take one simple bass line, such as this one, and experiment with it. Try to play the line in as many different ways you can think of to keep it sounding new without becoming boring. With a little bit of practice and vision you can make even the most threadbare bass part sound refreshing and new.
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