Exploring Vertical Harmony in Bass Playing
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.