Untold Secret to Melodic Bass lesson: Rhythmic Overlays – Accents over the substrate

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.

One way of developing rhythm is through the use of accent overlays on the substrate. Overlays can come from the rhythm of the song’s lyric, or some other song or nursery rhyme, or some grouping pattern such as hemiolas, triplet arrays of different sorts, or through traditional rhythms like the “second line” rhythm (“hand jive”), or the various forms of “Clave.” For our purposes, we’re going to avoid enumerating all of the rhythmic patterns and traditions that exist from around the world; we are going to focus on some devices used in Jazz.

Nursery Rhymes

One interesting source of phrasing input is the rhythmic schemes found in nursery rhymes or childrens’ songs. An effective way to employ this technique is to sing the song in our head as we’re playing, and use it as the source for our accents and phrasing.

Notice the different size accent marks in the following examples. This illustrates the concept of accent layers that we mentioned earlier in the book; these different levels of accenting serve to highlight the phrasing implied by the song rhythm overlays.

Here are a few examples that were shared with me by Harold White, Horace Silver’s drummer when I was on the band back in 1978:

“Shortnin Bread”


And here, the accent scheme applied to other notes:


Notice how the phrase “ties off” on the 3rd beat of the 4th bar.

Using these kinds of schemes to provide an undercurrent of structure accomplishes two objectives; the first is, it provides interest and variety in an accompaniment part; and the other is it gives the player a “plan,” a sense of objective while playing, increasing confidence and the ability to bring additional energy and personality into the performance, thereby inspiring those around him.

“Shave and a Haircut”

Harold suggested another little song as a template for accent overlays:


Try creating a bass line while superimposing its accent scheme:


Using the rhythm suggested by the lyric of the song is yet another way to add phrasing. I’m going to take it easy on my publisher and not include examples, for which they would have to pay license fees; but, you can imagine for yourself how it would sound and feel to think of the lyrics of a song like Cole Porter’s “I Love You” while playing a bass line… the lyric itself suggests an internal dynamic scheme for the bassist.


Hemiolas are groupings of 3 overlaid on a duple substrate, creating a feel of rhythmic suspension:


Triplet Arrays


Second Line (and Clave)

The “Second Line” rhythm got its name from its use in early Jazz processional bands in New Orleans; it is the rhythm played by the second line of drummers in the drum corps:


Here it is overlayed on the rhythmic substrate (the “Elvin Jones” groove): (next page)

Here is a possible way to incorporate it in a bass line:


Occasionally, the groove is structured entirely around this rhythm:


Second line is one form of Clave, similar to the Cuban “Son” clave—it’s the same rhythm, except for the placement of the accent. There are many variants of Clave in the various cultures of the Caribbean and South America, which comprise displacements or restructuring of the rhythm. Here are a few different forms; all can be used as overlays over jazz rhythm.

We should point out that the traditional bass lines in the Latin styles using Son Clave are not built on the clave rhythm; the clave rhythm is played on the claves, a pair of wooden sticks; this sound and rhythm is the unifying anchor of these Latin styles. For our purposes here, we are including them only as resources for accent overlays in the creation of jazz bass lines.


As we have pointed out earlier, the Clave (which is Spanish for “key”) is played by a percussion instrument dedicated to it. The style depends on it, as do the musicians who use it as a point of reference to keep the band together. For our purposes, we will use the various rhythms sporadically as overlays on the substrate, and intermittently at that, although these structures are also used in composition for thematic purposes.

To be continued next week: “Harmonic Dynamics”

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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  1. lorenzini

    what is a substrate? you begin with a word that you never define once, and is a word that can’t even be Googled to find the definition.