The Lightbulb Moment: Turn Signals

Today’s column is brought to you by the Tennessee Department of Transportation. My usual route to and from downtown involves quite a bit of highway driving and every few days; the TDOT message boards provide a less-than-clever quote to inspire better driving habits. Apparently, plenty of drivers have been neglecting their turn signal, and the government has decided to do something about it. They’ve come up with slightly quirky sayings such as “Use Your Blinking Blinker” and “Turn Signals: The Original Instant Message.” I’ll give them points for creativity on that one. While the sayings may be cheesy, I enjoy this turn signal initiative simply because I believe it’s important to tell people where and when you’re going somewhere. This holds true for driving, and most importantly, for music.

One of the many advantages of being the bass player is the fact that we have a lot of control when it comes to leading the band. Our low notes act as the driving force, providing momentum as we pedal or bringing the band to a gentle stop as we let a note ring out and decay. We are masters of the leading tones, implementing chromatic motion or scale-based lines to take the listeners from one chord to another. It just so happens that the way we use and understand these musical tendencies is a lot like driving in an appropriate and conscientious manner. In other words, we need to be really good at using our turn signals.

First things first: timing is everything. If you’ve got the perfect chromatic line to take the band from the one chord to the four chord, it has to be executed at just the right time. Play it too early, and it’s as if you’re putting your blinker on three blocks too soon. The driver behind you will be slightly confused and annoyed by the fact that you don’t seem to know where you’re going. Play it too late, and it’s ineffective… you’ll have to stop short and abandon the line just to make it to the downbeat on time. Place it just right, and it will gracefully acknowledge the chord change and landing point. Combine this concept with appropriate note choice, and you’ll make the perfect turn signal to the band.

A great example of this comes from playing a classic leading tone line in a 12-bar blues. Use the four beats of the 3rd bar to play a chromatic line (1-2-?2-3) so that you arrive to the 4 chord on beat 1 of the next bar. You will successfully give the rest of the band a clear idea of exactly where you’re going without any room for doubt. This falls under the category of “good driving habits.” Fun fact: you can use a similar line to move from the 1 chord to the 5 chord. Begin on the 1, then play chromatically 3-4-?4 and land on the 5. This slight variation, which still follows the rule of one note per beat, is another clear-cut way to tell the band where you’re going.

Lucky for us, a four-beat chromatic line is a pretty common and easily implemented musical theme. It’s the no-brainer route that people expect to hear in certain songs or genres. To spice things up a bit, try taking the scenic route by getting creative with scale tones and rhythm. Remember that you still need to set up the chord change, so it’s best to craft a line that is both interesting and concludes with a moment of tension and release. Perhaps you’re moving from the 1 to the 6 chord, and you decide to take the pentatonic route of 1-2-3-5 to land on 6. That’s great! Or, try staying on the 1 a little longer, omit the 2, and use the last beat of the bar to play 5-?5 and arrive at the 6 on beat one. You’ll break away from the one-note-per-beat rule, and you’ll create that chromatic tension and release with a bit more subtlety.

It takes a lot of practice to intuitively know when, where, and how to place fills, but just like driving, it can become second nature once you get the hang of it. The important thing to remember is that you’re not the only one on the road. The band members driving alongside you will certainly appreciate your good habits… they may not notice when you’re signaling appropriately because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. However, they will recognize the flaws and may develop a bit of road rage if you make them stop short or run a red light. So, be careful out there and take advantage of that turn signal as you make your way to the bridge.

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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