Untold Secret to Melodic Bass lesson: Pivots

This lesson is derived from Jon Burr’s The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass. Be sure to check out the complete method book in downloadable PDF, Kindle Book and the all-new paperback formats.

Last week we talked about “Anchors”.

We introduced the idea of “Pivots” as “the primary oppositional tone to the root (or anchor). Here is some more discussion of the idea of “pivots.”


Where do we get our pivots?

The overtone series is a good place to start our search.

The structure of music roughly emulates the overtone series; big intervals on the bottom, chords in the middle, scales on top. The overtone series is derived by subdividing a string, or vibrating air column, by its series of rationic fractions. As it vibrates in whole, a string simultaneously vibrates also in half, thirds, fourths, fifths, et cetera, all the way up to infinity in theory, although in actuality the series is constrained by the limitations of the materials. It is interesting to observe that these notes, when played, are referred to as “harmonics.” Another interesting thing about this is structure of the resulting intervallic array, and the notes produced. The notes are: one octave up, an octave and a fifth, the root two octaves up, a third, the fifth again, then a note somewhere between the sixth and seventh, then the root again, then on into the scale:

Example 11

I have found that this series is an excellent guide for judging the appropriateness (or the “safety”) of other note choices for a bass player—particularly for the “pivot,” which we can define as the “primary oppositional note to the root.” The first stop out on the overtone series —after the octave, which can also act as a pivot—is the fifth.

Roots and fifths

Bass players have put their kids through college playing roots and fifths. The fifth is the most common pivot (although there can be others). It’s a harmonic tone, but in the realm of the bass, it’s less harmonic than the root, and can be used to “oppose” the root in the creation of bass parts; to go back and forth to, creating a pivot.

Example 12

What can we observe about this example? What is going on rhythmically? We’re looking at the most common, default bass part known to man—the basic “two-beat” bass line… yet there’s more to it than meets the eye. Where does the pivot fall? In this example, it’s on the third beat. This is the most common location for a pivot, whether it’s the fifth of the chord or not, especially in the context of a “two” feel; it’s halfway to the next anchor. We could describe the third beat as a rhythmic pivot.

In the following example, you can see a larger accent on the third beat of the fourth bar. This is an example of accent layering; there are accents in the previous three bars on the third beat, but there is a larger accent in the fourth bar, indicating the end of a phrase. Not all accents are created equal… we need to incorporate accents as a matter of course to add dynamic interest to a groove; it’s an integral part of the creation of “feel.” However, there are larger units of phrasing occurring as we go, and using a greater degree of emphasis to indicate these larger units adds depth and dimension to the development, and brings a larger sense of form and shape to the performance. Awareness of the power of dynamic development using accent layers is a potent tool in the bassist’s arsenal of ideas.

We will explore different accent schemes later in the book; there are no hard-and-fast rules as to the beats on which they should occur. The accent schemes as they are depicted here are useful, and acceptable as a starting point; but, the message from this should be simply to use them, experiment with them, and become aware of their communicative power.

This is an example of a four-beat (“walking”) line consisting entirely of roots and fifths:

Example 13

Here’s another line with the pivot falling on different beats and registers, another way to create variety and interest while using only roots and fifths. Some great bass players use these kinds of lines as the primary elements of their style. Given the fact that these lines contain the anchors, and opposition to the anchors as represented by the pivots, they can be described as melodic, in a very basic sense.

Example 14

What happens now if we drop the pivot down in register?

Example 15

This is an interesting effect! I was instructed by the Brazilian percussionist and teacher Van der Lei Periera that playing the fifth below the root was essential to the style of the bossa nova; there’s an underlying “lope” created by the recurrent accents on the pivots. Before we go on, try that same exercise, but put the pivot up an octave. Is the effect stronger or weaker?

A low note on a strong beat is an accent, by default; the lower the note, the stronger the accent, within limits; notes below a certain point lose their punch. (The notes available on the bass are within the range that produces the effect.) A pivot in a low register has a stronger oppositional effect than the fifth above the root. Strength in opposition is good, musically speaking, because it increases contrast, and that is usually desirable. Stressing opposition notes or harmonies is a standard interpretive technique, taught widely in classical pedagogy, and one of the primary building blocks of dynamic performance.

Here are pivots that are not the fifth:

Example 16

Example 17

Continuing next week with Lead-Ins

In case you want to see more right now… The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass is available as a pdf download or as a Amazon Kindle book. And now in paperback edition!

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