There are times that our bass part is already firmly established and it’s our job to simply perform a solid rendition of it – gigging in a cover band involves a lot of those instances or playing the worship setlist on Sunday. But there are other occasions when we have some latitude to reinterpret or even create our own bass lines. Doing so can be daunting for those that don’t do it regularly. We often find ourselves defaulting to figures and lines that are firmly within our comfort zone and that we’ve probably played a million times prior.
I’d like to share some ideas to hopefully inspire different approaches and possibly lead to bass lines that serve our music in more creative ways.
But first, a preface:
There are very rarely right and wrong musical choices. Much more frequently we encounter more effective vs. less effective musical choices, and that distinction is often dependent upon context. It’s a subjective thing, but is informed by listening to a broad range of well-crafted music. The more we do, the better we can discern the most effective approach we might take with the tune at hand. Ensure that your bass line isn’t creative to the detriment of the song! Cool? Ok—let’s dive in!
The importance of leaving air in a bass line can’t be overstated. Well-placed rests provide contrast and make where we are playing much more impactful. Context is key; where in the measure or section can a rest be placed without things falling apart – or can you possibly even lay out for an entire section? That will differ from song to song, obviously. Pay particular attention to the cadence of the vocal. Which leads us to…
Lead Vocal Awareness
Bass lines that reflect an awareness of the lead vocal or melody are often the most musical. It can be cool to create a bit of a rhythmic tapestry with the vocal (where the bass figure might land on rests or pauses in the cadence of the melody) or conversely, it’s sometimes interesting to play a brief unison line with the melody. The latter, when done well, is quite cool (and when not done well – not so much). Refer to my preface above!
Drummers frequently employ this concept, “moving” an established rhythmic figure ahead or behind by a quarter-, eighth- or sixteenth-note. Same figure, but changing its placement within the measure can have a dramatic effect on how it feels.
It can be interesting to inject beat displacement – preferably into a longer phrase where the “correct” rhythmic motif can be established – to change things up. This can be extreme and overt if you’re playing jazz fusion or prog rock, or more subtle and understated in a pop or worship tune.
Perhaps experiment with displacing a figure in the 3rd or 4th measures of a 4-bar phrase. Make sure the rest of the phrase solidly reinforces the normal placement or your bandmates might rebel!
I often encourage bassists to have a basic familiarity with the idioms of a broad range of musical styles, i.e., knowing what defines a particular style rhythmically, harmonically and sonically.
Armed with that knowledge, it can be cool to subtly inject a certain stylistic approach to a song that otherwise doesn’t fall into that genre. Think a dash of reggae into a folky singer-songwriter tune, or maybe a hint of Latin into a gospel piece. If done with restraint, most listeners won’t be able to identify the specific genre influence, but they will enjoy the creative vibes!
This is the term I use to describe all of the phrasing considerations: dynamics, note duration, vibrato, slurs/hammers, register, etc.Applying good and lyrical phrasing with any of the above approaches will help your bass line emote.
Some of you are thinking, “Finally—we’re gonna talk about gear!” :^)
While employing effects is also a valid way to explore creativity, I’m actually referring to context-sensitive note choice departures from the root note. These can involve (usually) diatonic non-chord tones (think fills incorporating 2nds or 9ths, 4ths, 6ths and/or 7ths), inversions (usually playing the 3rd or 5th under a chord vs. the root), pedal tones (holding one note under multiple chord changes), or walk-up/walk-downs (usually involves roots and inversions to create a bass line that ascends or descends under chords that typically aren’t ascending or descending in kind).
If done incorrectly, these departures will likely sound like mistakes to your bandmates and listeners. I find it helpful to make judicious use of the upper register (especially above the 12th fret on the heavier, lower strings) as harmonic tension tends to work better in that range vs. low on the fingerboard, while keeping to the heavier strings will keep some thickness in the tone.