The Three Things A Bass Line Has To Do (To Make The Band Sound Good!)
There are three things that a bass line that YOU are playing has to do in order for you to do your primary job as a bass player.
Before we dive into this in more detail, I want to introduce a diagram I created 15 years ago to help you understand the three elements of music present in songs, and so you'll understand when we talk about where the bass fits in.
We can use these ideas to help define our role in the band – which can help us choose what to play – irrespective of the genre of music we want to play in.
The Three Elements of Music
In the majority of normal band situations there are three musical elements present in just about every song. I like to lay out this triumvirate of music like this:
Let’s have a closer look at these 3 elements.
In most songs – and bands – the primary rhythmic element comes from the drum kit (which is also responsible for most of the volume too! So don’t forget those ear plugs on stage).
The Harmony in most songs is the chords that are being played. And that harmony predominantly comes from piano or keyboards and/or guitars. Horn sections can also provide elements of harmony – as could say a 3 or 4 part vocal harmony. But primarily the harmony is the chordal framework of the song and is provided by instruments that can play chords.
The melody for most songs is either provided by a singer, or singers, or by a melody instrument (e.g. a sax, or a trumpet). When your guitar player or keyboard player solos then for the duration of those solos they are taking on the melodic aspect of the song until they hand back to the singer or other melody instrument.
So Where Does The Bass Fit In?
Obviously what the bass plays is often in tandem with the drums – and together the drummer and the bass player are often referred to as a rhythm section.
But our lines also contain notes that are part of the overriding harmony. And sometimes bass players also hit melodies, or counter melodies.
So where does that leave us?
I believe the bass is unique. Most of the other instruments – whilst they have a primary role - can also take on the characteristics of another role. For example sometimes you’ll hear a drummer accenting his drum kit in the same time as the melodic instrument – whether voice, or sax or anything else.
Or you’ll hear a harmony instrument switch to providing a melodic aspect. Or providing a melodic instrument as a counter melody whilst performing their primary role.
But to me the bass’s job is to unite all three musical elements.
We’re the glue of the band.
What we play connects the rhythm to the harmony – and that connection provides the foundation for the melody. If you can incorporate that melody into your bass line as well then you’re making the separate elements that we’ve talked about combine into something that we call music – that when it’s done well has the power to make people sad, or happy, or make them dance, or tap their feet, or nod their heads, or listen for hours in an almost trance like state.
And I thought up an exercise to show you how this works.
I’ve generated a very simple 8 bar piece of music to illustrate this with.
This piece of music is 8 bars long – and features a chord progressions comprising two bars of C and two bars of F which is then repeated. Style wise we’re at a moderate tempo – 100 BPM -and it’s an 8th note orientated rock kind of fragment.
Let’s take the rhythm first. First let's isolate the drum track so we can hear exactly what the bass drum and the snare drum are doing. Here's the isolated drum track:
Here's the bass and the snare drum for the first 4 bars notated out with drum notation - the bass drum is the lower note of the two:
If I add the harmony into the mix, the easiest way to create a line that works is to duplicate the above rhythm with root notes:
Now if you watch and listen to that on the video presentation you’ll agree that it sounds OK.
Just so you can see that we have to play WITH the drums let’s try playing something that is totally contrary to this drum pattern. So I’m going to play triplets over this rhythm – and you’ll see and hear that it just clashes and sounds messy:
What I’m going to do now is the equivalent of what I did with the triplet rhythm – and play something that I know is totally contrary to the harmony and will not work!
This is what I’m going to play in this example:
All I’ve done is change the notes by one semi tone – one fret – and see what’s happened? That set my teeth on edge playing it. So even though we had a rhythm that was in tune with the drums (exactly the same rhythm as previously) – the overall sound didn’t fit because the actual pitches of the notes I played didn’t work with the harmony.
So as well as fitting with the rhythm we have to fit with the harmony.That's two of the three things that a bass line has to do.
That just leaves the third function that a bass line has.
That third function is to make the significant points of the line sound logical. Those significant points can be thought of as target notes. For this piece of music we're going to target Beat 1 of every bar.
So here's a line that is simple, but doesn't just repeat root notes AND makes Beat 1 of every bar sound logical:
Although that's a simple line, it performs the three principle functions of a bass line:
- 1. The rhythm is complimentary with the drums.
- 2. The notes played are complimentary with the harmony.
- 3. The line targets Beat 1 of each bar and makes that note sound logical.
Just to emphasize the latter point, here's another variation where the notes in each bar are complimentary with the rhythm and the harmony, but they don't target Beat 1 of the next bar:
There are two reasons why the last line didn't sound great - though if you listen to each bar individually they sound OK. Those reasons are:
- There is no connection between what's played in one bar and the downbeat of the next bar.
- The ideas I've used in each bar are foundational parts of bass line vocabulary - but crucially the approach notes built into them are wrong for the chord movements they are used on.
Understanding approach notes is a key piece of theory you need to to know in order to put good lines together. In the next lesson I'll start out by changing the above line slightly which will make it work much better - and then we'll talk about the five different types of approach note.
Hit the blue CONTINUE button to check that out .