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Creating More Color With The Electric Bass

By Guest Contributor Joe Benevento

The electric bass has consistently been marked as an underrated instrument.

However, the power of its function cannot be overstated. The bass links the essential elements to any piece of music by wedding the harmonic and rhythmic aspects of a song. However, there is a timbre to the electric bass that I feel is not completely experimented with. Due to the nature of the instrument’s lower frequencies and larger string gage, the electric bass can actually have a very dreamy-like quality compared to the guitar. This allows the bass to be used in it in both a solo compositional setting, and in an instrumental solo setting. This concept certainly isn’t new. Players such as Jaco Pastorius, Michael Manring, and Zander Zon have all taken this style of playing and infused within their own vision of how their music should sound. Chord substitutions and extensions should always keep the spirit of the song first and foremost. Every technique that adds color should be used just enough to keep the song interesting without sounding too dissonant or busy. With this in mind though, here are some things that are definitely worth practicing and experimenting with to try and add more definition to the electric bass for both soloing and bassline purposes.

1. Substituting chord tones –

Our function as bassists is often limited to holding the foundation by playing the root of the chord. One of the easiest ways to start adding color into your bass playing is by substituting new chords or chord tone inversions to create new layers of harmony. Substituting chord tones will add new layers of depth without destroying with the song’s foundation. Some of the best ways to start substituting chord tones is to think in terms of relative major and minor chords and inversions. Take a chord progression such as Cmaj7, Am7, Fmaj7, and G7. The chord progression in more bare Roman Numeral analysis is I, vi, IV, V. If we reharmonize this using just relative chords and inversions, we can get the new chord progression of Am7, Am7/E, F/A, G7. The Cmaj7 goes to the relative minor of Am7 while the second Am7 moves to second inversion, and the Fmaj7 moves to first inversion. We could even go further and add a tritone substitution on the G7 and make it a Db7 chord. A tritone substitution is when you replace a dominant 7th chord to another dominant seventh chord a tritone away. By doing this, the 3rd and 7th are still consistent with the new chord. In our case before, The G7 chord spelled G-B-D-F is substituted with a Db7 a triton away spelled as Db-F-Ab-Cb (B). A good way to start applying this technique is to try taking some of your favorite pop songs and seeing how you can adjust the song’s color by substituting some bass notes!

2. Including the color tones –

This concept is intended mostly for soloing and unaccompanied electric bass. Bassists can often get trapped focusing on the root so much that it deters our soloing capabilities. Something we can experiment with to free up our harmonic imagination is to emphasize the “color” tones of a chord. When we make a chord, we stack in thirds. The third and seventh of a chord create its identity. These are usually the safest tones to solo with. However, the 9th, 11th, and 13th are higher extensions when we stack thirds even higher. Enharmonically speaking, they are the same as the 2nd, 4th, and 6th an octave higher. Combining these chords with the identity tones can give us a wider palette when crafting melodic ideas. A good way to start learning the extensions is by practicing all of your arpeggios from the root to the thirteenth. Generally speaking, the major chords always have a raised 11th and the minor chords have a natural 11th. Transcribing solos and melodies are the best way to start soloing in general, but keeping these extensions in mind can add new layers to your harmonic vocabulary!

3. Double Stops –

Double stops are when you play two notes simultaneously. I feel like they’re an underused tool in most bassist’s arsenal. Double stops can give bassists a wide range of possibilities when adding color to a piece. The double stop depends on the musical situation, but you can be very creative with how you choose to apply double stops. Triple stops can be incredibly useful in solo situations in the higher register of the bass since it lets the bass player take on a more harmonic function, rather than rhythmic. A couple ideas could be using the third and flat seventh of a chord to emphasize funkier tunes, adding a major or minor tenth to make the bass sound very open, or just simply playing the root and third together in the higher register to add some extra depth to the bass line. A couple of songs with bassist’s using double stops are D’angelo’s “Chicken Grease”, Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (Headhunters) and Anita Baker’s “Giving You The Best That I Got”.

4. Harmonics –

Harmonics are the icing on top of the cake when it comes to solo bass performance. Harmonics really allow the bass to really step in the forefront of a solo performance by giving the player access to higher frequencies. Like double stops using tenths, combining bass notes with upper harmonics can give everything from a wide, beautiful, open sound to even more dissonant chord structures. Harmonics can also work well as drones if you repeat them as harmonic themes in a solo. A good way to start incorporating harmonics is to start experimenting from songs that utilize harmonics. Although a challenge, learning Jaco Pastorius’’ “Portrait of Tracy” is a perfect example of a work that teaches the utilization of natural harmonics on the bass. Overall, harmonics are what you choose to make of them, and it’s up to you as the player to experiment and see what choices await you!

Joe Benevento is a bassist from Albany, NY. He is a junior Music Industry student at The College of Saint Rose. Follow on IG @joebeneventomusic

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