Lightbulb Moment: The Power of the Pedal Tone

Inspired bass player

Photo by …smm

It’s January 2nd. A brand new year is on the horizon as I stroll through the airport, leaving my hometown once again after the conclusion of the holidays. The airport isn’t as busy as I had anticipated and thanks to my nervous and obsessive nature, I showed up far too early. Lucky for me, I’ve got plenty of time to stroll around the shops near the gate, stop for coffee, and browse the magazine and candy displays.

“The Top 10 Ways to Lose the Holiday Pounds”

“100 New Year’s Resolutions”

“7 Ways to Get Your Body Back”

“The 25 Foods You Should Never Eat”

My eyes glaze over as I stare at the floor-to-ceiling mosaic of superlative lists, how to’s and “expert” suggestions. Thanks to advertisers, copywriters, and the media marketplace, we become accustomed to categorizing the best and worst things in the world, hoping to make a clear distinction between the shoulds, shouldn’ts, and ought-to-dos. Unfortunately, we’re guilty of doing the same thing in the musical world, often trying to classify and organize something so subjective as bass lines. We see articles, books, websites, and forums that claim to give us the:

“The 100 Greatest Bass Lines”

“The Best 125 Rock Bass Lines”

“The Top 10 Most Recognizable Bass Lines”

“The Best Funk Bass Lines of the ’70s”

“100 Amazing Bass Lines”

“The Top 10 Best Bass Riffs”

And on, and on, and on.

Now I don’t have anything against these lists… they provide an excellent crash course for our instrument and yes, most of the bass lines are as great, amazing, and recognizable as claimed. “I Wish” is one of my favorites, as is “Under Pressure,” “Brick House,” and “Billie Jean.” These songs feature the bass as the hook of the song, the memorable groove that catches our attention as we hear it on the radio. We listen to these and countless others, hoping to one day have an arsenal of great bass lines at our fingertips (both literally and figuratively). The only problem is that while people constantly highlight and praise these carefully crafted bass lines, they tend to overlook a huge concept in the world of bass, not to mention a very important contribution to music in general: the pedal tone.

Is pedaling fun to sing along to? Not really, unless you like going “dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum,” (repeat).

Is it particularly catchy and identifiable? Again, no, not really, though you can still play “name that tune” or at least, “name that chord progression.”

So what’s so special about it? Well, it’s the perpetually pulsating platform for the song. The harmonic foundation that all of the other instruments ride on. It has a steady rhythm, though it takes on a level of complexity when you realize how to control the attack and duration of those beautiful 8th notes. You can pedal with your fingers, pedal with your thumb, pedal with a pick, even pedal while slapping. The choice is yours.

The pedal can swing, stay steady, or gallop. You can mute the strings to create a defined pulse, or you can play it openly and aggressively to give the music more “umph.” You can even decide to emphasize certain beats as you pedal, playing the first beat with greater force or by substituting the octave here and there. It can be found in all styles: rock, pop, blues, modern country, Americana, folk, neo-soul, and the majority of records from the 1980’s.

Pedaling a note doesn’t typically fall under the heading of “bass line,” mainly because it isn’t a line or series of notes. It’s a point—a specific place that we adhere to for one bar, or four, or forty. There’s something incredibly Zen-like when it comes to pedaling; you don’t have to worry about what comes next, because your finger is already there. Instead, you get to focus on how to play the note, how to achieve the best feel, and the fact that playing the same thing over and over again can be the perfect way to support the music. Learning how to do that is just as important as learning the bass line to any particular song.

Most importantly, the pedal equates to musical power. It often signifies movement from one section to another as the song progresses, bringing momentum and excitement with it. For example, listen to a handful of pop and rock tunes. You’ll likely find that the bass plays a specific rhythmic part during the verse and then charges into a pedal groove upon reaching the chorus. This infuses energy into the song, as if it were the musical equivalent of a shot of espresso. Matching the heightened intensity of the drums, it helps the song rock harder, the listener sing along, and the guitar player wail.

Leaving the pedal behind is equally as powerful and jumping into it, whether you’re breaking away for a fill or dropping out for part of the song. As you continue to drive one note, the listener becomes accustomed to hearing that foundation. If you mix it up by playing a fill or by accentuating the transition from chord to chord, you play with the listener’s expectations. The result: your moment of creativity is far more likely to stand out. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of steady, reliable grooving and attention grabbing moments of musical brilliance.

While writing this piece, I couldn’t help but browse through the lists of “bests,” hoping to put my finger on why we feel it necessary to classify things in such a way. Do we believe that it is essential to learn all of these bass lines in order to learn how to play bass? Or is list-making now a cultural practice? Do we only discover the things we should know and do by reviewing other people’s preferences? Sometimes we wholeheartedly agree, other times we shake our head in disapproval, and every now and then we decide to listen to something we’ve never heard before. In doing so, we open up the door to a new room and have a moment of musical discovery.

Now this is where you come in. Don’t worry about picking out the “best” pedaling bass line; instead, think of a song that features a particularly musical approach to playing bass, doing so by the ever-so-wonderful technique of pedaling. Tell us your thoughts, or simply review everyone else’s. And don’t worry, this is not a list ;-)

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Joe M.

    This really is a light bulb moment for myself as well. Such a simple technique that I’ve never really thought about, let alone, used in my playing. I look forward to sitting down and really exploring the pedal tone more. Thank you Ryan Madora, for such a thought-provoking article.

  2. melodically

    Either Miles Davis said it or someone said it about him “the hardest thing to play is nothing” and I’ve personally never encountered anyone better at not filling space than Miles. When it’s right and the chords are moving along around that note, creating all these different tensions, it seems that can be one of the tightest moments of the song or even the night! A very powerful, underutilized tool Imo. As far as the list topic goes, maybe I’m just too opinionated but I’ve never bought into it. I’m open minded but tastes vary so much (especially when it comes to the arts) that’s it’s almost arrogant to me to see “top 25 bass lines” etc. Great article and thanks for bringing the pedal back to fore front on my mind!

  3. Ryan – great points, especially about all the ways that you can think about just that one note (attack, duration, tone, etc.). This gets used in classical music quite frequently. One particular example I’m currently working on that shows how this can form a powerful base (pun intended!). At the end of the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, you play 15 measures of quarter notes on G, piano then slowly building in volume. Then, 8 measures from the end, you transition to 16th notes, and the whole orchestra spins up. That G becomes the V that leads the whole group right into the root C major chords that open the 4th movement. Looking at just the paper, you might say “how boring”. But when you are in the middle of it, and it goes from whisper quiet to full bore, it’s pretty awesome. That exact same technique can be applied in ANY genre, especially in a bridge section that then springs back into life at the head.

    Keep up the great writing. Your insights are appreciated!

  4. I have recently started playing bass every week at church, and this is really inspiring, it will help me focus more not on finding something to pau insured of pedaling, but on how I pedal, and how I use it.

  5. Wayne Renardson

    Bingo. Excellent point Ryan. BTW, we might be neighbors as I live near Lipscomb.

    Thanks for a good read.

  6. Steve

    My “lightbulb moment” for me was hearing (really) for the first time Led Zepplin’s “Rock and Roll”. I was already playing bass at that time and was always looking for the “best”/”new” basslines. One co-worker suggested I gave Led Zep a real listen (I only had ever heard Stairway). Probably the best advice I ever got on music. I got the 4th album at the local music store (it was the only one they had). I discovered an amazing band that day, but Rock and Roll’s driving bassline and groove blew me away. I realized I was able to learn the song in 2-3 listens, but I would spend a lifetime trying to play it right.

  7. Dave Holland’s playing on “Go Ahead John” from Miles Davis’ Big Fun Album continues to be one of my biggest “Light Bulb” moments. I don’t think that there’s any song where the bass said so much with so few notes.

  8. Keith M

    The pedal tone is the foundation of my playing style. Less is more. Additionally,there is true beauty and power in a single whole note: “Got to be good looking ’cause he’s so hard to see…”

  9. Henry

    I’ve always thought that the pedal tone in Eye of the Tiger was a good choice. It keeps up the tension. But he plays the changes in the second verse only and I’m not sure why.