Making Your Own Latin Jazz Bass Lines

Q: I’m sitting here listening to your Trios CD, which has become one of my favorite discs – if it is at all possible to wear out a CD, I’m doing it with Trios! For “Mambo for Tajrid”, “Costa Del Sol”, Corea’s “Spain”, et al, on the CD, what suggestions do you have for getting a handle on Latin jazz bass lines, as well as putting your own stamp on same? In my humble opinion, in addition to being excellent, well-constructed Latin bass lines, all of them definitely have your own stamp on them. Perhaps you could share some of your journey, ideas, re: Latin bass lines.

A: First, thank you for the kind words! I’m thrilled that you’re digging those recordings.

When we recorded that album in 2007 or so, I was very much new to the music, but I was head over heels for it! I still am. I love latin jazz, salsa, timba, and other music influenced by Latin and African rhythms. I’m a straight up junkie for afro-cuban music on Youtube. It is also very much true that I don’t really even understand it all that well. I will be the first to mix up my claves, etc.

The best thing I ever did was to stop worrying about messing up stylistically and just have fun playing the music. That and listening!
I took every Latin-style gig I could get my hands on and would ask for constructive criticism and was always open to being told what to do or what not to do. The most common thing I heard was that I was overly rhythmic and I subdivided too much. I was getting in the way of the other percussionists. The big lesson was that all of the drummers and percussionists were fitting together like a rhythmic puzzle and, when I was filling all of the holes, I was really just stepping on everybody’s toes.

So my approach very quickly became one of reduction, listening and interacting to the music around me (call and response, complementary phrases rather than a straight reiteration of ideas presented) and emulation (listening to the music on my own and paying attention to how the bassists interact with the music).

I still don’t really have a lot of that stuff internalized, but I can get by without getting in the way of the music by playing with the percussionists and/or drummer with a high level of awareness, and not having any agenda other than complimenting and reinforcing what’s happening.

The biggest challenge for me in both the performance and the reading of salsa charts was internalizing the feel. There are not nearly as many big downbeats as I was used to in other music that I was playing. Learning to really feel the downbeats internally while landing on the 4 of most bars, for example, tripped me up at first (especially when reading charts on faster tunes). At this point, I can feel the music well and don’t need to mentally mark the 1 of every bar mentally. It feels much more natural to me, primarily because I listen to the music so much.

If you are reading notation, it’s a great workout. There are a lot of dotted notes and ties. I found that reading charts in salsa bands really fine tuned my skills with actual notation reading (as opposed to jazz chord charts).

Most percussionists I’ve spoken with also say to learn all of the interlocking percussion parts. Learn the bell patterns, clave, conga parts, etc. You’ll see and understand how everything is fitting together as a unified sound. They also say to learn how to dance. If you can feel the rhythm in your body, it’s easier to translate to your instrument.

When I recorded the music you mentioned, I wanted a documentation of my playing and the guys I was playing with. I chose those musicians not only because I loved their playing but because I was already playing in the pianist’s and guitarist’s respective bands in those two trios featured on the CD. I just chose some of my favorite tunes out of their books, and we did everything in a take or two at the pianist’s house.

I mention that because that is exactly how I started learning about the music. On the gig and in the shed beforehand. I had never played any of that music before I met those guys and pretty much just got those gigs because I could read well and was new to town (so I had all the time in the world. I wasn’t busy at all yet). That also may explain my personal sound coming through in the music. I was/am fairly ignorant of the style – comparatively – and was really just trying to emulate what I had heard and felt in the music.

The key was my ability to listen and interact. I was devoid of any actual vocabulary but was quite determined to make it feel good.
Whenever I see the “real deal” in concert, I feel like I just took a masterclass. There is so much to appreciate in the music and I’ll never tire of trying to play it and do it justice. “Fake it until you make it” became my mantra with that music. I’m glad so many people dig that recording!

So, in a nutshell. Listen like crazy, transcribe and play along with recordings.

Here are a few books on the subject that I really dig:

The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro is a wonderful study of Latin bass lines and comes with plenty of music to play along with (three CDs worth) with full transcriptions and explanations of the rhythms used.

Freedom in the Clave by John Benitez is a newer book that I am loving.

Lincoln Goines and Robby Ameen also have a classic book called Funkifying the Clave. This is geared towards both bass and drumset and notates parts for each.

There are a ton of great books on how to play Latin bass lines, but the real key is listening to recordings and learning some tunes.

Here are a list of some of my favorite Latin bassists (many of these guys do way more than just play Latin bass, but I included them because I love the way they interpret the music):

  • Israel “Cachao” Lopez
  • John Benitez
  • Andy Gonzalez
  • John Peña
  • Alain Perez
  • Anthony Jackson (love his playing with Michel Camillo)
  • Lincoln Goines
  • Oscar Cartaya
  • Alvaro Benavides (check him out with the Pedrito Martinez Group)
  • Panagiotis Andreou

There are more than I could possibly name so… help me out here readers! Who are you digging? Tell us in the comments.

For those that haven’t heard this music. I don’t want to step on any toes by providing free versions of anyone else’s music so I’ll include the version of “Footprints” (by Wayne Shorter) from my Trios CD:

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.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Dylan Johnson

    Feliciano Arango!

  2. Scott F Henderson

    Fito Garcia, especially his CD “Mi Bajo Rumbero” on which every part, except percussion and vocals, is played by a bass of one kind or another!!

  3. I agree about the dancing. Growing up with this music I just feel it, and it feels good, really does. The dances make you feel even better. I definitely share your love for Latin and African rhythms.

    Just gave Trios a listen too and it sounds really good. Not sure if you posted this anywhere, Damian, but what gear did you use recording this album?

  4. This is one of my favorite recordings Damian. I think I mentioned once that it was a blue print for what I’d like to do in music and bass. So good. I’ll definitely follow some of the instruction you’ve shared here.