Creating Bass Lines – Part 2 by Rhayn Jooste (View Part 1)
Connecting the Dots
Now comes the fun part, connecting the changes. Once you have formulated the main rhythmic pulses and nailed the changes, connecting them smoothly is the next step. This is where knowing your scales and arpeggios along with knowing your fretboard comes in to play. The axiom – Knowledge is power comes into full effect. There are two approaches to this: First, position playing and second, converting the fretboard into the key signature. I use both but generally tend towards conversion, its safer and you will generally never hit a bum note (most of the time).
Position playing is exactly what it says: staying in one position and playing the changes. It relies on you remembering box shapes. However that’s about as far as most players get. You should also get to know the names of the notes within them as well. How else will you know which notes to target? So I would suggest getting to know your CAGED system shapes, all of them!
The conversion method is where you manipulate the natural notes along strings and hopefully the entire fretboard into a key. This does involve more brainpower but once you have learnt your fretboard you never struggle for finding the right notes. e.g. G major = 1 sharp which is F# – so all F’s get sharpened (move 1 fret to the right). The best way to get used to this system is to run 1 and 2 string scales, up and down the fretboard. Then try arpeggios across 1 string. See if your brain can keep up with your hands.
A good test for both systems is the ability to playing one-string scales or box shapes in a cycle of four or five, across key centers.
Timbre and tone: This step is where you make the decision to go low or high in the arrangement of your song. Style, tempo and instrumentation will guide your choice here. One thing to keep in mind is sonic scope; the bass range is large (a standing low E wave is actually 27 feet or 8.33 meters while a low B has a wave that’s 36 feet plus). So don’t just sit on the bottom two strings, use the other notes as well. Listen to the other instruments: Are you in a band with a seven-string guitar? What about the keyboard player; what bass line is he playing? Sometimes the music calls for low bass, a lot of hard rock and metal styles do. However some styles just do not. Keep in mind fretted notes are easier to control and in, say a funk line, allow you the option of staccato notes or even percussive beats. So you would not tend to use open strings as much or would need to control them a lot more.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
So you have done all the hard work, got an awesome bass line and you roll up to the next rehearsal to dazzle the band only to be told: “Um… could you play root notes please!” or “Something simpler would be better!” What the…!
The bassist’s role in any band is a difficult tight rope between playing the harmony and keeping the groove going. Added to which you have to fit in with the other harmonic instruments, such as guitars and more importantly the vocals. Sometimes keeping it simple is key. So where do you get to be creative? Generally moments of creativity exist in certain sections or (more commonly) the end of sections or phrases where a run is needed. Possibly even when the drums finally come to a stop. However these moments are few and far between in most songs, so savor them. That’s not too mean you can’t be creative, it just means you have to channel and focus the ideas and creativity a lot more than say the guitarist, who will probably get away with long meandering solos, with wrong notes or rhythms misplaced; as its almost expected of them. This is not expected of the bass player. The bass is the foundation of most songs and needs to be steady, as all other instruments sit on top of it and rely on it for their road maps. Most vocalists pitch their note off your line through each chord. Yeah, that dratted the root note is actually quite important. So when you go wrong, so do they!
Rhythm is King
So what do you do when all you have facing you is, 16 bars of I IV V (or worse). You utilize rhythm. Changing the placement of notes with in a song structure is the difference between a song that sounds like its been manufactured and one that has groove. Find creative ways of approaching root note (that’s your walking bass line), Find ways to hold off on certain beats (that’s your funk line). Maybe the song calls for the notes to be punchy and percussive (that’s your pop and slap line). There are a myriad of ways to approach the musical situation you are in, you just need to be aware of them.
Always record your parts; that way you can step back and listen objectively when and evaluate how the bass lines sit in the arrangement. If you can, get the drummer to make a rough demo of his part so that you can formulate your ideas around what is actually being played and not a drum machine copy. Remember that your parts are important and it sometimes has to be kept simple. Bass is the foundation for modern music. The style and mood of the piece will dictate the part more than anything else but so will the knowledge you have under your fingers and in your muscle memory.
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants.
A final thought: It’s your knowledge of other players lines that will pay off the most when it comes to creating lines of your own. Bass players have been playing root notes for years, so why not use their ideas on how to approach getting it right. Find a Chuck Rainey line to crow bar into a metal song. Or maybe there is a Stanley Clarke harmonic idea that will work great as in intro. I am not advocating out right theft, as that is too obvious. What I suggest is you have a toolbox of ideas you can call on. So that when you do its a case of massaging the notes into your musical situation or key. The bottom line is by studying those that have gone before you; you will have a greater palette of how to choose the correct notes, what rhythms work best or even what tone to use. Eventually you will start to craft your own lines with little or no effort.
Example two: Enigma.
I have utilized a Sankara ballad, called Enigma, to highlight all that I have gone over in the last 2 months articles. The key is D major however the harmony is B aeolian for the most part, except the bridges, which are D, major proper.
It was originally written by the singer Gareth Jones and is primarily a piano based piece. The demo I was given had a simple bass line that always hit all the root notes and had semi quavers running through the bridges, with the B to C# slur. The bare bones of the verse part was in place I added one substitution, because the chorus chord progression is exactly the same as the verse, the arpeggio walking, the slurs and along with syncopating the bass part through out the song. I allowed the bridge part to breathe with some rhythmic spacing of the notes and added 6 string idiosyncratic ideas (2 part harmony, hammer ons and some chordal diads). The fills were added to give more interest to section changes.
The bass part syncs in heavily with the bass drum beats in the verse and is almost a feature of that section (there is very little going on around it or in its frequency) and so has to be rock steady. Arpeggios are used to distinguish the verse from the chorus where a root to fifth approach to texture was used. The chorus is a simple root note bass line that locks into the bass drum beats as tightly as is humanly possible.
I used a 6 string bass guitar on this piece as it gave me more range to my note choices from a low B to a high D as well as giving me the option for chords. Each section (and its variations) has changes in language, range, rhythms or texture to create interest and move the song along. See notes in the music for details.