The Lightbulb Moment: Arrangements For Bass
String arrangements, horn arrangements, flower arrangements, what does it all mean? The answer may seem pretty obvious but there’s more to it than meets the eye. String and horn arrangements refer to what the respective sections are going to play on a piece of music. Flower arrangements are what you may or may not be allergic to if you find yourself sneezing uncontrollably at your cousin’s wedding. They are also carefully curated bursts of beauty designed to express someone’s taste and aesthetic — just like a musical arrangement. If you’re a bass player and are looking for ways to further express yourself, you may want to take a stab at arranging.
Creating your own arrangement of an existing song is a great way to explore your instrument, challenge yourself musically, and establish your personal voice. If you’re someone who has anxiety about writing original music or simply doesn’t feel inspired to do so, arranging may be the way to go. There are plenty of people who have made their voice heard simply by doing covers — Joe Cocker is best known for reinterpreting songs by The Beatles, the early days of hip-hop featured artists primarily rapping over samples from ’70s funk tunes, and most bass players are more familiar with Jaco Pastorius’ version of “The Chicken” than they are with James Brown’s.
A great way to get started is by focusing on the “copyrightable” aspects of the song — the words and music, the melody and harmony. Bass players are notorious for just knowing the bass line as a pattern or for only playing the root note of the chord. Think of arranging as an opportunity to challenge yourself and prove the stereotype wrong. Learn what the notes are, figure out the chord qualities, and work out the melody.
Next, try seeking out other people’s arrangements to find inspiration for your own. For example, take a listen to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye and then by Donny Hathaway. Hathaway’s band adds hits, sneaks in a few transitional chords, and plays it with a slightly different feel. Search a bit further and you may discover versions by John Legend, Amos Lee, Michael McDonald, and even U2. Needless to say, many people have put their own stamp on this song and you can too!
Then, you have the option to write an arrangement for a band or for solo bass.
Coming up with a band arrangement can be particularly invigorating — it puts you in the position of leader or “artist.” You may decide to take on the melody while being accompanied by the other members of the ensemble. Or, you may decide to reharmonize the chords, add solo sections, or change the feel from rock to rhumba. As long as the other players are willing and able to follow your direction, you’ll be able to realize your artistic vision.
Another way to approach arranging is by adapting a song to solo bass. If you’ve never done this, it’s an exciting, informative, and creative exercise. It forces you to maintain the integrity of the song while playing with and to the limitations of the instrument. In other words, it’s a good way to stretch your ears, hone in on melody, and perform a different function. And, if you’re feeling particularly bold, you can take a crack at implementing different techniques such as tapping. This kind of arrangement requires you to be flexible, both mentally and physically and has become quite popular in the world of bass.
At the end of the day, the fun thing about arranging is the notion of freedom and creativity. You don’t have to be tied to playing exactly like the record unless you’re specifically trying to do so. You’re allowed to take liberties, adapt a song to fit your voice, and find enjoyment in the creative process. If your particular arrangement involves Guns and Roses, Orchid by Black Sabbath, or even Roses by Outkast, then you’re bound to create something quite beautiful.
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!