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Melodic Bass Lines

We’ve all heard about “chordal scales.” Chordal scales are useful; they contain the chord tones—we really need those!—and a set of neighbor and passing tones that will sound reasonably and reliably good. Chordal scales are emphasized in a lot of teaching methods. Are they the basis of what we need to know as bass players? Do we make our lines out of chordal scales?

Maybe not.

Consider this line:

Bass Major Scale

Sound familiar? It’s so familiar to us that we could call it the “Bass Major Scale!”

But is it a “scale?”

I would prefer to think of a scale and its contents as the primary source for harmonic construction, chords, and progressions; it’s the “mother lode” for harmony. The scale is a terrific source of melody, but melody is more than that, as we will explore, and our bass lines need to be melodic in order to provide direction and drive. One of our most important functions is to lead the music into the next chord, or to provide color and interest in the chord we’re on at the moment. If our thinking in the construction of lines is limited to the notes in the scale, we never would have played the line above.

Can we make a harmonic system from the “bass major scale?” Maybe—but, good luck with that! It’ll be weird.

So, if it’s not a scale, then—what is it?

Anchors, Pivots and Lead-Ins

There’s another way of thinking about the construction of bass lines—it’s a “system” that a lot of players use instinctively, but I’ve tried to give it a name and develop a coherent theoretical approach that accounts for the existence of the “bass major scale.”

According to my way of thinking, this is not a “scale” at all, but instead, it’s an “Anchor” (root in a low register) followed by a “Lead-In” (directional melodic material, containing harmonic and/or non-harmonic tones) to a “Pivot” (the primary “oppositional tone” to the anchor, most usually the fifth of the chord or scale), followed by a lead-in back to the anchor.

I’ve written a book on this subject and we’ll begin serializing it here in the next column. For those who want to get a jump on this, or find these ideas too compelling to wait for the column, the book is here

We’ll cover a variety of subjects, including dynamics, rhythmic overlays, ornamentation of chord tones, rhythm, dynamics, and eventually technique in columns to come.

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Share your thoughts

Seán Eric Harris

I always think of this in terms of functional walking basslines in jazz. Through conceptual jazz harmony, this all works.

When I play C, E, F, F#, G, to kinda' lead me from the Cmaj to a G7 or something, F# is functioning just like a leading tone triad might in a major key. I'm borrowing from the key of G to give the line a lineal momentum to the next change. Being as that I am the bassist, the lowest instrument, I have certain advantages I can use! By doing a line like this, I can INSINUATE what I consider a “suggested harmonic movement” that the listener's ear instinctually understands. I do not disrupt the overall harmony of the ensemble though.

This is essentially a study in jazz comping technique, using passing chords, inversions, substitutions, etc, but you can do it with only the bass notes. I think this is a lot of what can give a melodic bassline like you're talking about its momentum, and it's all already based in sound, proven harmonic movement. No need to think of it as a “Bass Major Scale” or similar.

Jon Burr

I agree completely.

I'd take it a step further, though, and suggest that the line creates direction melodically; any harmonic justification is incidental and/or unnecessary. Approaches to targets work great, whether they're chromatic, diatonic, a mix – or various melodic devices… and they don't need harmonic justification to establish momentum and direction. The point is how -and when- they resolve.

Melody exists in its own self-contained stream, and consists of harmonic tones – and opposition to them… melody has a life of its own, loosely related to harmony, and has tension and release contained in it independently.

“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions…” -unknown author


loved this: “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions…” -unknown author #jazz


hey john, great to see you still doin it………..we used to show up at jam sessions in nyc, in the 70,s.

I,ll be listening.


hey john, great to see you still doin it………..we used to show up at jam sessions in nyc, in the 70,s.

I,ll be listening.

Bill Harrison

Jon, I bought and studied your book. There’s a lot of good stuff in there and it’s always good to have a fresh perspective on the “thinking” aspect of constructing bass lines. To me, there’s also a lot of instinct and experience involved in trying to balance the pure functionality of outlining harmony with creating a counter-melody that offers a little fresh perspective (and perhaps musical commentary) on what’s happening in the ensemble in the moment.