Connecting Chords: A Guide to Playing Fluid Bass Lines
Q: I would like to ask about voicing/phrases on bass when it comes to chord progressions. How should I step into the next chord when I’m phrasing the actual one? Should I try walking lines? Are there any standard licks that can bring the feel of translating to a next chord? Or they are all built on the same concept (like chromatic approach)? I started to practice arpeggios and that’s useful because I’m getting a better knowledge of the fretboard and where the notes are. But I’m still missing the continuity. What do you suggest?
A: The way I understand your question is this: you would like to connect chords in a musical way, much like a guitarist or pianist would, and you would like to be comfortable using the entire fretboard to connect chords one and two musically.
Simply speaking, when working with chords (or melodies, licks or shapes) we can connect things in one of two ways:
So as you might play a scale which has notes that are only a step apart, regardless of the line you are playing, chords connect in much the same way.
For example, if you are playing arpeggios, the notes are always a 3rd apart, but there are notes in between each note of your arpeggio that you can make use of if you know what and where they are.
Diatonic means within the tonality that you are currently in. If you are playing in F major, only notes within F major are “diatonic”.
Chromatic is approaching anything by a half step (from any direction), regardless of key or tonality.
I would encourage you to explore both, and I’m going to speak mostly about diatonic relationships here.
Students often ask me how I’m connecting chords when I comp for them in a lesson. The answer is almost “diatonically”. Even if I change the inversion to make it step-wise, it likely is still diatonic to the key.
If we write down the C Major scale and then use the notes of that scale to arpeggiate from each note from within the scale, we basically get a chord built off of each note in the scale.
Review this page from one of my books (PDF download). This is a guide for the notes of each mode in the major scale. It also includes the chord types for each mode. In other words, if you stack each of these modes in 3rds, these are the chords that you will have created.
So, if you’re looking at a chart with a CMaj7 chord followed by a FMaj7 chord, you could walk chords up the neck from one to the other, playing the appropriate diatonic chords for C major:
C?7 D-7 E-7 (or Esus(?9) F?7
You can also use a walking bass line to create a connection between chord shapes.
Or you could hold one chord, play a walking bass line underneath and use a few of the appropriate diatonic chords to connect your changes.
There are almost as many ways to successfully connect chords as there are ways to voice chords.
If the chords are a whole-step apart, you might try connecting the chords by playing the 1st, sliding your bass note up one half-step and then shift to the 2nd shape. What works and what will not depends much on the musical context and setting as well as your ability to play it musically.
We have to be very careful when taking this type of stuff out of the shed and onto the stage. The role of the bassist never changes, no matter how much neat stuff we can do. You also have to be artful so you don’t clash with the chordal instruments. If there’s a pianist and a guitarist, chances are that you should leave this stuff in the shed.
But, it is a fantastic way to explore your instrument and various harmonic connections.
When you listen to a pianist, you will likely hear that super-hip, slippery, weaving-through-changes stuff being played with their left hand (the “bass” hand). So exploration of this stuff can certainly help you with regard to how you can connect chords together as a bassist. Very helpful explorations, indeed.
You also asked about voicings. Because of the sonic range of our instrument, we are limited by what will actually sound good where voicings are concerned. Inversions work nicely, especially with the 3rd in the bass. You are by no means limited to strict inversions, though – any note in the chord-scale can sound good in a line at the bottom of a chord. Like I said, it mostly depends on context and musicality. When we play anything other than the root, we are changing the way the chord is operating (the degree of change depends on what note we play and the harmonic context of the chord in the song).
There are really no rules or tricks to speak of. It’s really about trying to understand 1) your instrument 2) harmony 3) music in general 4) how they all interact and intersect.
You have to try a million things, grab a few that actually sound cool and explore why and how to build upon that. Resist temptation to try everything all the time when actually making music with people but go nuts in the shed and explore everything. Overturn every rock and see what’s underneath. When you find something that resonates with you, nurture it.
The melodic and the harmonic approach are really the same thing (in response to the last sentence of your question). The key is to listen hard while you play. If it sounds good, it is good.
Readers, how about you? How do you approach this in the shed and on the stage? Please share with us in the comments.