I think everyone has their own approach to writing the correct foundation for a song. Yes…I said “writing.” Every time we play a bass line we are indeed writing, composing, creating, etc. No matter how you slice it, that IS what we do. I have often tried to come up with some explanation other than, “I just feel it.” So here is my latest attempt at breaking down the process that goes on inside MY head when I first play a song…particularly, a new song.
First of all, playing a bass line is not just about dazzling the listener from the beginning. It’s completely about the song as a whole, conceptually.
First of all, playing a bass line is not just about dazzling the listener from the beginning. It’s completely about the song as a whole, conceptually. Of course, there are many types and styles of songs, but my approach to playing (for example) a mid-tempo rock ballad is one that can be applied to many different types
The intro of a song of this genre can be played at many dynamic levels. It can be very powerful or gentle; busy or sparse. If the intro begins at a low dynamic level, you probably will want to wait to play until somewhere later in the song. You might enter at either the pre-chorus (if the song has one) or the first chorus. At that point, you might want to consider playing in the mid or high octave, playing the root note for the duration of each chord. Another approach would be to sensitively play a subtle, melodic line that doesn’t interfere with the vocal melody. Remember, less is always more when playing fills around the melody of the song.
Depending on the arrangement of the song, if there is a re-intro (we call it a “turn around” down south) between the first chorus and the second verse, pay attention to the intensity and attitude of the song. This will help you determine whether or not the re-intro should be played aggressively, moderately, or lightly.
Typically, by the second verse the dynamic level will be considerably louder. A kick drum pattern should be established between the bass and the drums by now. The element of the song that helps me derive a suggestion for the kick drum pattern for the song lies in the rhythm of the lead (vocal) melody. A lighter option for the second verse is to play longer bass notes sustaining over the kick pattern, only playing a new note when the chord’s root note changes (we call this “playing the changes”). This works very well when the song doesn’t need to be too big dynamically, but the need for a backbeat from the drummer is obvious.
By the second chorus, the dynamic level is usually at a moderate place, a full groove is established, and a snare hit (or alternate snare) is on all 2’s and 4’s. The object at this point is to maintain restraint to the best of your ability – just hold the groove together. Don’t play any fills, runs or busy transition licks. Let the song simmer in the groove so that everyone feels secure and the pocket feels good. You may want to maintain a simpler pattern leaving a significant amount of space in your pattern so that the song can “breathe.” Often, I lift off the notes right when the backbeats “hit” so that the snare can be clearly heard (drummers love this…). I think you will find that its very effective, but you have to do it consistently over the duration of a four or eight-bar phrase.
In typical song form it’s probably about time for the bridge to happen (if there is one). If so, try to determine what the lyric is saying. Is it a tender, introspective moment, or is it a declaration/proclamation of intense emotion? If it is a lighter moment you may want to either drop out completely or move to a mid-to-high octave, playing very sparsely, rhythmically. If the bridge is “big” dynamically, determine if eighth notes would suffice to build the section, or perhaps a combination of the chorus kick pattern with a slide-off added in to every other bar. You just have to go on your feelings for the song and try things as they come to you.
At this point, there might be a guitar/keyboard solo in which you need to maintain a dynamic level that keeps the energy up but not too busy, which allows the soloist to soar above the foundation. Remember, the solo is for the soloist, not the bassist. Your job is to be the foundation.
The last chorus is probably coming up by now. It might break down to just drums and vocals so you might want to lay out completely until the appropriate time to re-enter. Again, this will have to be your call (or the arranger’s call) in the moment. When the band re-enters try playing the lowest root notes you have and play them with thunderous confidence in whatever driving pattern you feel is needed. You may feel inspired to play a nice melodic “step-out” line to complement a phrase or a musical moment, but be careful to choose the most tasteful opportunity to do it, always thinking ahead about the correct root note to land on at the beginning of the next phrase. If you make a mistake and miss the correct root after your fill, it can cause quite a train wreck, completely killing the momentum of the song.
The end of the song is crucial; the big moment IS the last thing people remember about a song. If it is driving, then drive it to the end! If there is a ritard leading up to the end, always follow the drummer for the tempo cues. Definitely make sure that you have a clear line of sight to the drummer (if possible).
This approach is just a suggestion. It’s a song-format concept that I have developed through many years of listening and playing new songs on sessions and at live, spontaneous gigs. My way may not always apply to your way, but I am simply offering it to you as a place to start. There may be a few things here that are new to you. If so, I hope that you find them useful. Remember that listening sensitively to every part of every song is critical when creating a bass line.