Bass solo! Bass solo! The bandleader points his finger at you, giving you the okay and hushing the rest of the band. Great. Now what? We’re not the guitar player… we haven’t worked on Hendrix licks or memorizing the solo section to “Freebird”. We can’t just crank up the distortion or create mesmerizing soundscapes with our pedals. We’re the bass player and we’re hard wired to keep it low and keep it groovy. So where do we start? How do we reorient our musical brain and step into solo world? Ah ha… the melody.
In part 1 of this series, we began our discussion by focusing on a few players who integrate melody into their bass lines. We mentioned Paul McCartney and his weaving, scalar movements, Pino Palladino with his lyrical hooks and vocal tonality, and Michael Rhodes’ keen usage of melodic lines to enhance the arrangement of a song. Now we’ll shift gears and focus on using the melody when the spotlight is on you, particularly when it comes to solos or playing the “head” or vocal line of a tune. Lucky for us, all of these melodic concepts fall hand-in-hand, so let’s get started.
Before jumping right into a solo, we’ll start with the melody of a song. If you’ve never attempted a melody before, don’t get frustrated if it takes longer than you expect. I’d like to think that you use another set of ears when picking out the melody; it exists in a different sonic space compared to the bass line. Begin with a song that you’ve heard many, many times before… one that you’ve sung along to millions of times or one with a chorus the routinely gets suck in your head. A nursery rhyme, Christmas carol, or hymn is also a great “ground floor.”
Listen to a recording of the song, get the melody in your head, and try to figure out some of the bass part. Don’t worry about getting the bass line note for note; instead, try to figure out the chords and the key of the song. Once you know the tonal center, you’ll have a clearer idea of where the melody fits in. Now, turn the recording off but sing the vocal line in your head. Jump into the higher register of your bass (I suggest going above the 10th fret) and try to match the notes. You’ll probably discover a few things: that the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees are primarily used (if the song is in a major key) and that the rhythm is far more variable. Identifying the notes that are used in the melody can sometimes be the easy part… mimicking the articulation, emphasis, and phrasing can be more difficult.
As an instrument, the bass isn’t particularly well designed to play melodies—guitars, saxophones, violins, and even trombones are better suited. Do your best to pinpoint how a note is approached and whether a glissando or slide is used. Perhaps one note bends into another, a trill is involved, or the note is sustained with vibrato. The decay is equally as important; some notes decay naturally, some descend, others are followed by another quick phrase. This comes from trying to mimic a vocalist’s natural approach to a melody.
If you’re working on an instrumental melody (such as the head to a jazz standard), listen to different players’ interpretations and focus on what you like about their phrasing. Sometimes, it can be confusing when you sit down with sheet music or a Real Book. If you’re reading the music while listening to the recording, you may discover that certain liberties are taken—the rhythm, notes, and arrangement may be slightly different. Each artist, be it vocalist or instrumentalist, will approach the music with their own sound and unique interpretation.
Although most records feature bass players “doin’ what they do,” many bassists have released solo efforts that spotlight their melodic and technical ability. These can be useful practice tools, simply because you can get a feel for how another bassist tackles a melody. Here are some listening suggestions for both upright and electric players’ approach.
- Ray Brown’s “America The Beautiful” (Walk On)
- Brian Bromberg’s “Shining Star” (Wood II)
- Marcus Miller’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” (Silver Rain)
- Jaco Pastorius’ “Blackbird” (Punk Jazz)
- Victor Wooten’s “Amazing Grace” (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ Live Art)
After listening to a couple of examples, pick a song and work on the melody. Having a few tunes under your belt can certainly come in handy. It’s a great option if you’re called upon to solo, or if you’re put on the spot in front of your family, friends, or bass playing community. Once you get comfortable learning some melodies, you can begin improvising and integrating them into your solos; that will be the focus of the final part of this series.
In the meantime, what are some of your favorite recordings of bass players taking the melody? Share your list in the comments.