Exploring Pedal Tone Rhythms

Bass Player

Q: What kind of rhythms should I play during pedal tones?

A: I get asked this more often than one might think. The quick answer is to use whatever rhythm you think compliments what’s happening around you.

Of course, I’ll suggest a heavy dose of listening to hear how different players have approached pedal tones in different styles.

For those that might not be sure what a pedal tone (or pedal point) is, here is a brief introduction.

Pedal tones have been used in classical, opera, folk music, and quite often in jazz. The most common type of pedal tone is the bass pedal, wherein the bassist is basically droning on one note while the harmony continues to shift above it. There are other types of pedals that can happen in the melody but, for our purposes, I’ll assume that you’re talking about a pedal in the bass on a jazz tune.

Some examples of the use of pedal notes, check out:

  • Satin Doll
  • Dolphin Dance
  • Naima
  • Passion Dance

Pedal tones will often be notated as slash chords (ex. E?7 | D?7/E | C?7/E | etc.)

Pedal tones will often start on a consonant note and continue, as the chords above get more or less dissonant, adding to a sense of resolution (relief) when the chord comes back to the pedal or the pedal is abandoned and the bassist gets back to the changes.

Basically, we are creating just a bit of tension by sitting on one note, then releasing it when we get back to following the harmony of the tune.

Common rhythms used are varied and, unless specifically notated in the chart, up to the player.

Some common examples are:

  • Very long tones (long sustains of over a bar)
  • Whole notes
  • Half notes played on 2 and 4
  • 4 of every bar
  • Dotted quarter notes
  • Variations of all of the above

Beyond that, it’s really up to you.

What I suggest is that you focus on playing a complimentary rhythm. Complimentary to whatever is happening around you, which can be different every time. I try not to predetermine what I’m going to do beyond the initial implementation of the device. If that song often has a long sustaining pedal, I’ll start with that but, if I hear something that I think will add depth or interest to the line, I’ll give myself the freedom to switch things up as I feel it.

I sometimes make up my own pedal tones underneath a soloist (especially if we’re taking many choruses and I feel the need to break things up a bit). This can create a nice effect as they continue to play the changes melodically over top of a static note. The bass note underneath will instantly add a different flavor to what the soloist is playing on top. You also have to be aware that you are actively altering the sound of what the soloist is doing, so you have to take care to keep it musical and interesting. Use with caution.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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