The First Piece Of The Bass Line Creation Puzzle
In the previous article I told you about how I got sacked from the first real band I was in.
If you’ve not read that article yet, it's linked at the bottom of this article.
The TL:DR version: back in the 80s I auditioned for a band, but got sacked because I couldn't create a bass line spontaneously at a rehearsal.
You need four distinct pieces to solve this puzzle - and it is a puzzle, it's not a "talent" that you are born with and that only a few people have the ability to do. I discovered these pieces of the bass line puzzle over a period of 20 years or so.
The first puzzle piece I'm going to talk about is something that I call a device. I didn't invent that name by the way, I came across it in an improvising book called ELEMENTS OF THE JAZZ LANGUAGE by Jerry Coker. At the time I read Coker's book (the late 90s) it never occurred to me that, just as there is a language for jazz improvisors that can be codified into different devices - and thus practiced and understood - there's also a language for those of us who want to create and play bass lines.
And that language can be codified.
At the tail end of 2010 I was asked by some of my private students to teach them some "Jamerson" based on the Standing In The Shadows of Motown book. I started out doing so, thinking that I would do what most educators do.
Namely lifting some grooves. Transposing them to different keys. Creating rhythmic variations. And so on.
Only it didn't pan out like that.
As I started diving into the transcriptions in SITSOM I noticed recurring ideas in Jamerson's bass lines. Things like his use of root note and lower 5th. Or his use of R-5-8 or 8-5-R to create some vertical movement built on strong chord tones.
I ended up identifying a relatively small number of these ideas - which I think I started calling devices - and put them into that Course. And when that was finished I thought I was 'done' with devices.
Except that as I transcribe bass lines from other genres I started to notice these ideas occur there. E.g. root and lower 5th is used a ton....Radio Radio by Elvis Costello has a great example of it. And R-5-8/8-5-R? You can find that all through the bass lines of Hotel California (The Eagles) and Pinball Wizard (The Who).
At this stage I still thought devices were just a cool part of bass lines.
However I was asked if I could teach some students how to create bass lines like Tommy Shannon (Stevie Ray Vaughan). Or Rocco Prestia with Tower Of Power.
And while analyzing the playing of these guys I discovered that 95% plus of what they were doing could be understood by applying "device theory."
Ultimately this is the first piece of the bass line puzzle.
There are a finite number of devices - one of my students (Rick Rosenbloom) came up with the concept of device families which consists of a primary device idea and then variations that can be used to fit different chordal situations (in Puzzle Piece 3 we'll talk about chord progressions).
And most professional name players that you've heard of (so Shannon, Rocco, Bruce Thomas, McCartney, John Paul Jones, Jerry Jemmott, Carl Radle, Berry Oakley, Bernard Edwards, Randy Meisner, Dee Murray) have got a core vocabulary of just 20 devices and device families that they use in their lines.
For sure there are more.
And these devices can be made more complex with a sub-class called modifying devices.
But to create bass lines....if you KNOW these basic 20 devices plus the related variations from the device family, you are well on the way to creating really good bass lines. Either in your practice space. Or spontaneously.
Devices are the first puzzle piece....once I'd identified the core vocabulary, the next step was to work out how to put the core vocabulary together.
That's the second puzzle piece and we'll look at that in the next article.