Dynamics and accents: Walking
Yes, accents are good. Dynamics are good. Good pitch, dynamics, note choice and use of register are the icing on the musical cake; they separate the artist from the journeyman.
Today we’re going to look at accents in walking bass. Accents are the bones of propulsion. How do we use them to best effect? What beats should be accented?
We may have noticed how difficult it seems to be to get a good walking feel on electric bass. We may have also noticed that all those recordings in the 70’s and 80’s where the upright is recorded with a transducer pickup don’t seem to have an authentic walking feel…some of them really sound terrible.
The reason for that is that transducer and magnetic pickups have the effect of greatly reducing the dynamic range of an instrument, particularly in the attack envelope. On an acoustic upright bass, different kinds and intensities of attack will change the character of the tone, adding yet another dynamic parameter, which is why, to this day, an acoustic upright bass is the instrument of choice for the job of creating a swinging, dynamic walking feel.
Walking feel on the electric can be approximated by extra attention to the problem of overcoming the dynamic leveling of the pickup. It’s possible to find places on the string to pluck it, and a good angle for the finger (or 2) to get the whole string vibrating with a good fundamental, and vary the sound from there. Pulling harder on an electric bass won’t necessarily change the sound as it will on an upright – so getting these subtle changes of sound that help highlight the accent usage is another necessary point of focus in order to get a good walking feel on electric. Changes in sound on the electric can be most easily achieved by varying the amount of “meat” passing across the string, and moving the hand closer and farther away from the bridge.
It’s good to be able to play evenly, without accent, with a steady beat; we should practice to obtain enough control to do that successfully… but, once we’re in the music, if we’re not using the dynamics element of our musical palette, we might as well be machines. There’s enough machines playing bass already…
Where do the accents go, and why?
Here are a set of suggestions for walking bass. The reasoning behind these choices is included in my book “The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass.”
In “4/4” – 2 is the biggest beat, 4 is next; the horns, piano and singer tend to be on 1, so leave them room; don’t compete on “1.” From “2,” we’re leading to the next bar and shaping the beat with the biggest accent on 2.
The exception to this is in the 4th bar of phrases, generally speaking – or the eighth, more especially – a big accent on “3” ties off the phrase and lets the music “breathe.”
In “2,” as in a ballad or a 2-beat, the accents are on 3, with a big accent on “1” of the final bar of the phrase. This reinforces the idea of “harmonic dynamics,” wherein greater emphasis is given to dominants, or other transitional and oppositional chords, with a easing of energy on the resolution. This kind of attention to dynamics on the part of the bass player can really liven up a band and inspire the performance – it’s amazing what a difference it makes.
Another handy thing about accents is that they can be used to nudge the tempo; if the tempo is flagging, or there’s a struggle going on in trying to lock the endless stream of quarter notes or whatever, accents create a longer frame of reference and the opportunity to make adjusments in the underlying pulse, which should be felt in larger increments at faster tempos, and smaller increments at slower tempos…
Feeling a fast tempo in “1” or “2” will frequently relax the groove, especially if it’s struggling. Conversely, feeling the subdivisions of a really slow tempo can help to keep it moving along.
Accents on “1” every 2 bars can help to settle a fast tempo that’s getting scrambled… also accenting overlay patterns at fast tempos, such as hemiolas and/or clave, can help a fast tempo “breathe.” More information about overlays in accent patterns is available is also available in “The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass.”