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Chord Voicing on Bass

Bass Chords

Q: I know you have covered bass chords before, but what I was wondering is about the actual chords, not the progression played as arpeggios. I try playing chords my guitar buddies have shown me, and they sound awful on bass but great on guitar. What chords played on bass sound good?

A: Bass players are somewhat limited with their chordal choices (as compared to guitarists or pianists) because of the range of the instrument. This is especially true for four string bassists.

Because the range of the instrument is so much lower, it’s much easier for a chord to sound muddy if it’s got too much information in it, or if there’s too much dissonance.

Of course, this is all a matter of taste but, generally speaking:

The higher in range the voicing is, the better it will sound.

The fewer notes the chord has in it, the clearer it will sound.

Of course there are exceptions, but I tend to stick to a voicing that has two, three or – at most – four notes. I know guys (I’m looking at you Janek) that have five note voicings used in songs, but most bassists who use more than three notes in a chord are also voicing them pretty high up on the neck – and, often, with a high C string.

Here are some personal tendencies I have when playing chords on the bass.
I tend to avoid the 5th unless it is altered somehow (flatted or raised a half-step). The perfect 5th is a “gimmie” because most chords use the perfect 5th) and doesn’t necessarily help to spell out the actual quality of the chord. It just makes it thicker.
I focus on the root, 3rd and 7th to get across the quality of the chord.
I may use extensions if they are a written part of the chord voicing (unless it sounds too crunchy or dissonant) – tensions work best on the top of the voicing on bass, usually.

I’m sure many of you may have specific voicings that you like that go against one of my “rules”. I do, too. these are general considerations.

What I like to do is to go through a tune in the Real Book and explore two or more possible voicings for every chord in the tune. Really explore what notes are available to you and in what combinations they sound best on your instrument.

Much of this goes for soloing as well. To a certain extent, it’s harder to get away with the kinds of upper-structure lines that many other soloists use, on a bass guitar. This is specifically due to what I mentioned earlier about the range of the instrument and how that lower end frequency resonates (and interacts with the music).

On the lower end of the fretboard, you are usually better off staying pretty inside the harmony (chord tones, safe scale tones) while the higher in register you play, the more you can get away with when exploring the upper-structure stuff (#11’s and so on.)

I hope that helps!

Readers, what’s your approach to this? Share your tips in the comments.

Photo by Carlos Paes.

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