How To Approach Composing: A Discussion for Bass Players

Chord chart

Q: I’m in a situation where I’m in a cover band that is wanting to expand into doing original music, but they’re kind of looking to me to be the one to lead the writing as I have the most experience as far as music knowledge goes. Even though I’m well versed in my theory and consider myself an above average player, I have a difficult time with composing. Much of it seems to stem from the fact that, while you can play chords on the bass, it isn’t really a chordal instrument in the way a guitar or piano is. Also, though a bass can certainly play melodically, bass isn’t a melodic instrument the way a saxophone is. As a bass player I’ve been spending most of my life trying to stay out of the way of the melody and/or support it rather than provide it.

So I have a problem when I try to compose in that I can’t seem to get a vision for the “whole” sound of the song. It’s like I can write little snippets of 8 or so bars, but can’t get the feel to expand it into an entire song. And sometimes I have a hard time of picturing the whole piece since I’m mostly just working from a bass part I create and sometimes a drum rhythm.

I was just looking to get your thoughts on how you’ve approached composing in the past… particularly when you were the one who mainly had to provide the material rather than a situation where you’re coming up with stuff as a whole band.

A: This is a great question!

My last two albums were a challenge to myself. I had never written a single piece of music in my life before then. I was always a side man, and while I had a good ear for advice here and there, I had zero experience writing music from top to bottom. I thought that the best way to challenge myself and very likely learn something in the process was to book a recording session for my first original album and hire the guys I wanted to play with. That put the fire under my butt!

Now the hard part… I had never studied arranging, composition or anything much beyond playing bass, and teaching myself harmony, for that matter. I had/have no method for developing songs and each came together in a different way.

My songs with more harmonic movement were primarily written by exploring chord voicings and movements. Quite often, the melody came from the top voices in the chords that I was using (or at least, started there).

Groove tunes started with an idea for a groove, obviously. Much of the time, this led to me listening to a section over and over again trying to hear a functional melody in my head, which I would try to sing to myself and then transcribe on my instrument. Other times, I would simply try to noodle melodically until I came up with some kind of basic melodic line, although I still think many of these melodies still sound a little too much like soloistic ideas.

The key for me was allowing myself to come up with whatever came to mind and, temporarily, accept it without judgement. I quickly realized that if I was too critical of my ideas, absolutely everything would wind up a crumpled piece of paper in the trash. Just let yourself be corny, lame, sound too much like “X” player, etc… at first, anyway.

My next step would always be to make a bass demo of the tune (as I can’t play any other melodic instruments). I would try and EQ melodies differently than the bass lines so they would be separate in the mix and sound as much like another instrument as possible. It didn’t have to sound great, it just had to be close enough to hear what I could hear in there with other instruments in mind.

I would then load these onto my phone and walk my dog, listening to a piece over and over again, making mental notes of what worked, what didn’t, and what I wish was there. Then, I would go home and tweak things, make a new demo and repeat the process until I didn’t completely hate it.

The next step was the most important: I would invite musician friends over to play the stuff with me and record it. I would freely ask for advice or criticism. I would mention things like, “I still don’t think these changes are all there, what do you hear?”

Or “how do you hear these changes moving? Are these voicings decent”?

Anything… just lay it all out, try different feels and tempos. Something that sounds silly at one tempo may sound great at another, or lead you to a different type of groove or feel all together.

For me at least, the biggest part of the process was accepting my own limitations and moving beyond my insecurities. I gave myself permission to write a “stupid” song and see if I could later refine it into something better.

You also don’t have to complete every piece! Catalog a folder full of grooves and chordal ideas and mix and match things. Sometimes I would take two different song sketches and take the best of each and turn them both into a singular piece of music that was more functional than the two incomplete ideas.

You simply have to start and trust in the process. Take sketches and ideas and flesh them out with the band. They have to allow you to flesh some ideas out as a whole, especially if they are going to put all of the weight onto your shoulders. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know a bunch of theory, etc. They all know what good music sounds like (hopefully) and can help you to piece things together in a musical way.

Don’t put the full weight of writing “killer tunes” before you present them to the group. Let it be a band effort with you leading the charge. More importantly, have fun and don’t judge yourself in the process. Let it happen and trust in the talent of the collective to make it whole. Have fun!

Readers, I know many of you must have some experience with this. If you do, I’d love to hear your take. Please share in the comments.

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. Do you find this process easier with the extended range of your 5+ string basses or find it to be totally circumstantial? Also, a little dependent on your stance to the prior question, but would you recommend investing in an extended range bass for composition? If so – is it the more notes the better? Do we want a chap-stick so we can approach the orchestral register of the grand piano?

    Sorry for the chain of questions haha, and maybe I was exaggerating with the chapman reference ;) Thank you, great article!

    • I do find it much easier when exploring chords and melodies to do so on my 6 string, for sure. I don’t know about the chapman stick because that would also take me years to do anything but suck on. ;)

  2. Hamilton

    Great article.
    Side note edit: It’s flesh not flush. To flesh out something is to put meat on the skeleton and flush is to purge or remove. Sorry. I swear I’m not trying to be a butthead.

  3. JEB III

    A different perspective: composing is about Ideas. That is in your head and you don’t need to think about the instrument. If you can think it, someone can play it. I have even recorded tracks of “vocals” (humming, grunting, beat-boxing) anything to get my ideas across to the band. Then let the band own the tune and see what happens. And I totally agree with the idea of letting your ideas run free – don’t put on the “Critic” hat while you still have on the “Creator” hat. You can always throw out the crap later – but remember as unsavory as it may be to a composer, the simple and trite is often very appealing to “Joe Average” (he lives on my block & loves country)!

  4. Writing from bass has been a challenge for me as well. I tend to be able to think vertically more than horizontally and can usually knock out a bass groove, two rhythm guitar parts and program drums/percussion in one fell swoop and then either work up a melody on bass or guitar in a take or two. But then what I have is a fully realized verse or chorus or vamp and finding the next part of the piece can be hard. I think if I had trained on piano or had more composition schooling I would have an easier time w the linear aspect. I took up guitar originally for writing to expand my chordal vocab and give me another tool which helped as well as keeping from always writing crazy busy bass parts that tried to showcase all my ideas. Lately I have been having a great time writing and shedding w a six string bass and a looper. The six gives me enough range to get several voices to happen without changing instruments mid stream and the looper takes the button pushing and recording of the inspiration to a simple and direct place.

  5. Laurence

    I play electric Bass in a Christian Church band and I find that I stray from my written music and improvise intentionally. When I hear other b/players they play what is written. ? Is this taboo to play the way I play.