The role of the bass in most ensembles in most musical styles most of the time is foundational. Most bass players play the roots and fifths on the underlying harmony much of the time, with the primary focus on groove, “feel” and rhythmic concept.
More accomplished bass players manage to find ways to enhance their role through the incorporation of melodic elements and rhythmic development in between foundational anchor points. As overall musical development in the composition, song or piece progresses, development can offer more opportunity to the bassist to introduce melodic and rhythmic elements other than roots and fifths on the first and third beats, or whatever the pattern of the style environment is.
It can actually be musically destructive for the bassist to hang on to strict foundation as development occurs in the rest of the ensemble. It is essential that the bassist learn ways to introduce non-foundational elements into their bass lines.
It can also be musically destructive for the bass player to abandon the foundational or to otherwise disregard the obligations of his role in the ensemble. Good taste and a sense of duty are good qualifications for a bass player; the bass is a dominant voice in any band, and some compassion, gentleness, and courage are also needed. Although foundational bass is a supporting role, it is also one of leadership; the bass has more influence over the harmonic and rhythmic development of the musical moment than any other voice in the band. When the bass player is taking care of business, the band can soar. When he’s not, the band as a whole will suck, no matter who else is in it. The bass player is like the catcher on a baseball team, or the mother in a family – not the boss or the star, but quietly setting the direction and pace from behind the limelight.
The bass can also be a solo voice, but we’ll talk about that in some other piece.
In this presentation, we will look at foundational parts, walking bass, and ostinato (repeating phrase) or pattern bass parts.
Part One – Bass-ic Bass
I. Basic Foundation – roots and fifths
A. Basic 2-beat
B. Roots and fifths in other rhythms
1. Bossa/basic rock
4. Basic funk
The rhythmic configuration of the foundational bass part is the cornerstone of any rhythmic style; the point of this presentation is not to catalog these styles, so we’ll leave it there for now and go on.
II. The Power of the Pickup Note
The “pickup” note – the note played before the root – has the power to set the feel for the whole band. Its placement hints at the rhythmic substrate.
A. Quarter note
The quarter-note pickup adds emphasis and reaffirms the basic feel
B. Eighth Note
The eighth note pickup adds emphasis, although less than the quarter, and affirms whether the substrate is straight-eighth or swung. The degree to which it is accented is another variable
C. Sixteenth Note
The sixteenth note pickup can indicate an underlying even-sixteenth substrate, as in funk, or underlying double-time, either straight or swung
D. Anticipated pickups
1. Dotted Quarter
2. Dotted Eighth
3. Dotted Sixteenth
3. Triplet quarter
4. Triplet Eighth
5. Triplet Sixteenth
We should add here that pickups can be confusing – especially the last few examples – to the rest of the band. An effort to subtly imply a triple-time swing feel, for example, through the use of a single pickup can be easily misinterpreted as an incorrect entrance by the other players; a sense of appropriateness is useful in playing these. The point is, there is power in the pickup note.
III. Added and Other Pickup Notes
We begin to explore melodic development here in looking at additional pickup notes. There are also other pickup notes available beside the fifth of the chord; any of the rhythmic examples above can utilize a single pickup note other than the fifth. Other notes can be:
A. Chord Tones
1. From the current chord
2. From the next chord
B. Neighbor Tones
C. Passing Tones
D. Escape tones and Appoggiaturas
1.Escape tones are derived by step and resolved by leap to a chord tone
2.Appoggiaturas are derived by leap from a chord tone and resolved by step to a chord tone
E. Changing Tones
Changing tones are notes above and below the target, played in either order before the target
The root appears before the bar line, before the chord changes.
IV. Accent Patterns, Dynamics and Phrasing
The bass player has tremendous power to add life to the feel and shape to the phrases – to add lift to the entire performance – through the use and choice of accent patterns and dynamics. There can be several different levels of accents applied, and their proper distribution can add shape to a phrase.
A. Phrasing a 2-beat bass part
The appearance of the root in a low register has the effect of creating an accent. It is possible to vary the accent pattern by delaying the appearance of the root, through the use of rests, by using pickups on strong beats, or by the insertion of other notes.
Part 2 – The Walking Bass Line
Walking bass lines can be derived from a number of sources.
I. Roots and Fifths
Before a recording session once many years ago, the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods looked at me, pointed to himself and said “Thirds and sevenths” and then pointed at me and said “Roots and Fifths!”
II. Chord Tones
III. Melodic Ornamentation
For greater depth on this subject, please see the accompanying presentation “Another Look at Melodic Construction.”
1. Neighbor Tones
Tones a step or half-step away added between a particular chord tone
2. Passing Tones
Tones a step or half-step away added between 2 different chord tones
Non-chord tones derived by leap and resolved by step
4. Escape Tones
Non-chord tones derived by step and resolved by leap
5. Changing Tones
Two or more non-chord tones, beginning a step or half-step either above or below a chord tone, which then skips to another tone, usually a major or minor third away, on the other side of the chord tone, then resolving to the originating chord tone by either a step or half step.
Approaches are a series, pattern or sequence of notes reaching further back in time from the target than the earlier examples.
7. Pedal Points
These are relatively static events that gives the harmony another sound, and can make it appear to “float”
Here is an example of a walking bass line incorporating all of the above elements:
Part 3 – Ostinato and Pattern Bass Parts
Some composers write their compositions around a defined bass part – a particular bass line. In many instances the composer – or the other players – depend on the part, and need to hear it to keep their place, or feel that the composition depends on the part for its integrity.
In other instances, it might be effective for the bass player to create their own pattern or ostinato as a compositional technique.
In the above instances, some variation is possible without compromising the integrity of the structure, but it is essential to have an analytical understanding of the pattern to see what makes it work and what has to be there before attempting to change or vary the part. What needs to be there? What doesn’t?
Another effective thing the bass can do is to make a positive melodic statement, then either repeat it or follow it with a variation, then play the original statement. This creates a formal underpinning which adds another compositional element underneath whatever else is going on.
Written & prepared by Jon Burr ©2003 jbQ