75% Complete (#3 of 4)

Create Your Own Bass Lines (Part 3)

How We Got Here

In Part 1 of this mini series we learned the following:

  • 1. Rock and pop bass lines are made up of discrete units of vocabulary. I call these devices.
  • 2. There are a finite amount of devices...you can create a career knowing just 15 to 20 devices (and knowing how to use them).
  • 3. The R-3-4-Ch/8-3-4-Ch device was demonstrated with a small number of real world examples (I could have included plenty more).
  • 4. If you analyse hundreds of bass lines looking for common devices, you'll find a reasonably small set of ideas that all professional bass players use and forms the vocabulary of the bass guitar.
  • 5. No-one teaches this vocabulary. It's the key to playing authentic sounding bass lines.

Create Your Own Bass Lines - Part 1

In Part 2 I introduced a concept called 'a two chord matrix.' The two chord matrix allows you to create a bass line by choosing devices from the matrix appropriate for the two chord movement present in each bar.

A 12 Bar C7 blues was featured in the first part of that article:

Create A Bass Line For A C7 Blues Using A Two Chord Matrix

And a 60s, rock style progression featured in the second part of that article:

Create A Bass Line for a 60s Style Rock Progression Using a Two Chord Matrix

I included downloadable MP3 files and PDFs for both progressions - if you've not yet created your own line to either of these progressions using the appropriate two chord matrix....I suggest you go back and do that.

It's just about impossible to create a 'bad' bass line provided you follow the process as I set out in those two lessons.

The reason why this is so....is what we'll cover in this lesson.



The Three Functions A Good Bass Line Has To Do

A good bass line has got three functions that it needs to do - and ideally the bass line does all three:

#1. The bass line acts as the bridge between the rhythm section (drums) and the harmony instruments (keyboards and guitars). So the first function a bass line has to do is rhythmic. The rhythm played by the bass player has to be sympathetic to the rhythm being played by the drummer.

#2. The second function that the bass line has to do is harmonic. The notes used in the bass line have to support and outline the harmony.

#3. The third function is the least talked about. As well as complementing both rhythm and harmony, the bass line also has to provide melodic drive. That means making the target notes in the bass line sound logical. Usually those target notes are the root note at either points of chord change or every bar if a chord is static for two or more bars.

Let's look at them one by one briefly.

#1. The bass line acts as the bridge between the rhythm section (drums) and the harmony instruments (keyboards and guitars).

For all the examples in this article, I'm going to isolate the first four bars of the 60s Rock Style progression. So that's two bars of C and two bars of F - though we'll change the quality of the chords for some of the examples.

Here's a four bar bass line that uses a quarter note bass line and is a kind of McCartney/early Beatles style walking pop bass line:


If you listen to the video you'll hear that the 'practice track' is an uptempo shuffle and the quarter note bass line works perfectly to connect the rhythm of the drums to the rhythm of the guitars. Note in bar 3 that McCartney uses his own version of the R-3-4-Ch device - in this instance it's the R-R-3-4 device which is a more consonant alternative which you might use in playing scenarios where the R-3-4-Ch is a little too dissonant.

Speaking of McCartney....here's a very similar bass line but this time the tempo is a little bit slower (but it's still 140 BPM!) and this is the kind of rock and roll line he might play with 8th notes:

Again notice that the rhythm in the bass line matches the rhythm in the drums and again acts as a bridge between the drums and the harmony instruments.

We could do a similar exercise with swing 8th notes, or with the kind of feel used in the 60s Style example in Part 2 of this series.

Instead, I'm going to slow the practice track down further, give it a 16th note feel and show you how similar ideas can be executed with 16th notes to again bridge the drums and the harmony instruments:


In this example the only device that wasn't included in either of the original two chord matrixes from Part 2, can be found on beats 3 and 4 of Bar 2. It's the R-b7-R-b3 device (though in the example the root notes are annotated as '8.') The interesting point to take from this is:

The bass lines in some genres can be characterized (and thus learned) as a collection of authentic rhythms plus specific devices.

An extensive lesson could be created on each of these sub-sections - we don't have the time and space for that. The point here is that devices can be played with different rhythms as appropriate to 'glue' the drum line and the harmony line together.

The rhythm of the bass line matches the rhythm of the drums - the harmony comes from selecting appropriate devices for each chord. That's the next sub-section.


#2. The second function that the bass line has to do is harmonic. The notes used in the bass line have to support and outline the harmony.

All of the device notes within devices are categorized by either their scalar function (e.g. R, 3, 5, b7, b3, 6 etc) or by another function (e.g. 'ch' is the chromatic note between the note before it and the note after it - or 'ld' would be the lower dominant approach note to the next target note).

In terms of being harmonically sympathetic, it's quite simple to choose devices that fit the chords being played.

For example:

  • A R-3-5-3 device (a simple major triad device) would fit either a major chord or a dominant 7 chord.
  • A R-b3-5-b3 (minor triad device) would obviously need to be played on a minor chord.

Where it gets interesting is devices that will fit either dominant and minor chords, or fit those two chords as well as major chords.

These tend to be devices that don't contain a third.

So for example we used the 8-5-b7-ch in the 16th note example above. If we keep the bass line the same but change the harmony to Cm7 and Fm7 the majority of the bass line will still work. Note that the only notes I changed where the F on beat 3 of bar 4 - which I dropped an octave - and I changed the two A notes on the 'and' of beat 3 of that bar to Ab notes to better support the harmony. Check it out:


Note that in that example the bass line not only fills the harmonic role - by using devices that reflect the harmony - but it also fulfills the rhythmic role and connects the drums to the harmony instruments too.

I like to think of the bass player's role in the band to be the 'glue' that binds the rhythm and harmony together to help create an organic platform that the melody (or soloist) can then sit on top of.

This line also contains 'melodic drive' and makes the target notes sound logical. We'll briefly talk about that next.


#3. As well as complementing both rhythm and harmony, the bass line also has to provide melodic drive. Which is the third function of a good bass line.

As mentioned, each of these sub-sections could be extensive lessons on their own.

Melodic drive is created by identifying what notes are the target notes and making sure they are set up in a way so that the target note sounds logical.

The way to make your target notes sound logical is to use approach notes. Those approach notes can either by added to your lines by using 'modifying' devices. Or by being hardwired into the devices you use.

I'll do a couple of quick examples to show you both. We'll go back to a simple C to F progression - and I'll use a simple major triad device to approach the root of the F chord from the C chord:

In this example the root note of F is set up by E, which is both the lower chromatic approach note and the lower scalar approach note. And if you notice, the device used on the C chord is the R-3-5-3 device, which is basic major triad device.

Sidebar: if you know any advanced approach note theory (possibly from Ed Friedland's great book BUILDING WALKING BASSLINES) you may recognize the G to E to F sequence as an upper scalar/lower chromatic indirect resolution. And you'd be right.

In the next example I've used a modifying connecting device on beat 4 of the C bar and replaced the last note of the R-3-5-3 device with the upper chromatic approach note (uc):


This major triad modification is so common that I often think of it when creating bass lines as a unique device.

In the next example I've played another major triad device. This time it's the R-3-5-R device (a favourite of McCartney's) and that repeated root note is also a lower dominant approach note:


So that's some quick examples of how approach notes can be used to make your lines sound logical. The only books I know of that deal with approach notes are either Ed's book mentioned above, or my book Million Dollar Bass Lines.

As noted, each of these sub-topics could be expanded into complete lessons. The main takeaway from all of these lessons is that if you have a foundational vocabulary of devices, know what chords they work with, know how to exectue them in different rhythms dependning on what your drummer is playing and know how to modify them (if needed) to create melodic drive....you can create good bass lines.


The Final Lesson - Why No-One (But Me) Teaches This

In the final lesson, I'll share why I think no-one teaches this....even though 99% plus of the entire bass vocabulary of rock and pop is built on devices.

When you've read through this page properly and you're ready to proceed, hit the blue CONTINUE button below to find out why no-one teaches what should be foundational material.



1. Bass lines have three functions to perform - those functions knit the band together to create an organic rhythmic and harmonic platform that supports the melody (or solos).

2. The first function a bass line has to do is rhythmic. Your bass lines should be sympathetic to what the drummer is playing. This connects what the drummer is playing to the harmony section (guitars and keyboards).

3. The second function a bass line has to do is harmonic - the notes used in the bass line have to support each and every chord. This is how the rhythm section and harmony sections are 'glued' together.

4. The third function that needs to be done is to create melodic drive - this is creating a sense of movement for the listener's ear and guiding them logically from target note to target note.

5. By using devices that both fit the harmony and fit the two chord movement at that point in the song, and by executing that with a sympathetic rhythm to the drums...you can't help but create a GOOD bass line.

6. This is foundational information that all bass players should be taught. No-one (but me) teaches this.