Exploring Vertical Harmony in Bass Playing

Bassist photo by Enric Juvé

Photo by Enric Juvé

Q: I have never studied an instrument aside from bass. In watching countless guitarists pick up my bass and rip out some cool lines (and the left hand of pianists), I’ve realized that I’ve never really found an effective way to internalize “vertical harmony”, and thus my lines lack coherence as a whole. How do you suggest I familiarize myself with the bigger picture of a phrase and inject some intention into my playing?

A: By vertical harmony, I assume you mean vertically on the staff – stacked chords and voicing – as opposed to linear lines.

There is a very important thing to remember when listening to a guitar player play a bass line on your bass (or when listening to any melody driven instrument). Bassists spend a vast majority of their time – especially in the developmental phase – worrying about solidifying the time-feel and focusing on root motion with very little embellishment outside of pentatonic patterns and basic chord tone usage. Horn players focus very much on learning and playing melodies and solos. Guitarists and pianists focus on melodies and chord voicing.

The reason guitar players play different types of bass lines on a bass is because they are used to weaving through the harmony in a melodic way, without having to focus on spelling out the harmony in it’s fundamental form.

Bassists are responsible for anchoring the harmony and tend to get chastised for straying outside of our roles much of the time. This isn’t a bad thing either – somebody has to do it! But, I’ve always found that I just love the way guitarists approach bass playing. It’s just so… melodic! (Paul McCartney, anyone?)

I will say though that you have to be careful not to stomp around in anybody else territory on the band stand.

The absolute best way to internalize and explore this kind of melodic approach is by fully exploring what others have done before you. That means transcription and analysis. Simply learning a dozen bass lines that appeal to you in this way will slowly but surely alter the way you approach and hear you lines. Continuing this kind of work will only enhance your mind and ear to this type of playing.

Additionally, exploring harmony as a soloist – and consciously getting away from “root based” thinking – can also serve to revolutionize the way you approach a melodic line.

Another thing that guitarists and pianists have in common is that they deeply explore chords and voicing on their instrument. And it’s not just “how to play a C-7?5 chord” but also how to use the voicing in a musical way while moving from the previous chord and to the next chord. Exploring chordal voicing on a bass can be a fantastic way to see things in a new light. I would learn some basic shapes first and get comfortable moving through changes but eventually, you’ll want to explore rootless voicing. No one said that every chord has to have a root in it!

There’s also voice-leading – the practice of moving through chord changes while only making slight adjustments to your voicing. For example, if you have an A-7 moving to a D7 chord, you can simply play a two note voicing which moves very little. G and C for the A-7, moving to F? and C for the D7 chord. One note moving a half-step and yet, you’ve played two chords for changes moving by a 4th!) This type of work can really help to evolve and shift your perspective – and melodic abilities)!

Transcribe, transcribe, listen, practice, try things out, explore freely and with your ears wide open. You’ll find all sorts of interesting things on your journey.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I feel like I have another person inside me that wants to bust out and play bass till the windows blow out .But I’m stuck at a lowest level on my amp. and cant turn it up living in apartments.
    It drives me crazy when the lady below me bangs on the wall and I’m trying to be considerate as possible and practice at a level that will not bother anyone in the middle of the day, but it seems they have nothing else better to do but complain.
    My Peavey Minx Bass Amp. is set at one what else can I do to please these people.
    It is affecting the outcome of my playing and don’t know what to do, headphones are a option but I’m stuck in a position where I cant move around very much. Plus I don’t have any other place to go to practice, this truly sucks.

    Doc. Hoc.

    • Get you a JamHub and a very nice pair of headphones (old school pioneers or sony are excellent) make sure they cover your entire ear and also have separate volume knobs for each ear. Plus a 20 foot coiled headphone extension cord.

      • Thanks Troy,

        I did buy some headphones, a bunch of Radio Shacks are closing down and I bought the best they had with volume controls on each ear and good cushioned ear piece, they cost $75 but I paid $20, the cord is not long enough so I need that extension. Have you ever forgotten your hooked up to the amp and walk off after laying down your bass, I did one time, its not happening again.
        Plus I moved my amp. on a cushioned chair to get it off the ground from vibrating.

        I need to move everything next to my computer because it don’t move so I can learn more bass riffs and songs and not have to walk away from my desk top computer.
        I had to look up JamHub cause I had no clue what it was and found this, http://jamhub.com/what/index.html

        Hopefully I will be able to cut loose and not hold back anymore, I hate that.
        I cant slap or pop a string at all and its driving me crazy.


    • B.T.

      Get a pair of nice headphones?

      • B.T.
        Thanks’ I have a new set from Radio Shack , if anyone has a Radio Shack by them their closing down a lot of stores and selling things very cheap , everything must be sold .
        I paid $20 bucks for a $75 set of real nice headphones , pretty gold plug, soft ear pieces.
        It was 2 jacks for different equipment.

        But I hear you have to be careful with headphones because too much loud sound can cause tinnitus , a ringing in the ears at all times, I don’t need that I already have chronic pain in my spine and cant use a guitar strap, it takes a lot of patients dealing with never ending chronic pain.

  2. Steve Carriere

    Umm…what do headphones have to do with vertical harmony? Seems like an odd place for these comments.