Bass is more than just a guitar with two fewer strings. It has a different tone, scale length, feel and musical role, and in many cases it requires a different conceptual and technical approach.
Guitarists who are new to playing bass will often double the guitar part one octave lower. There is certainly a place for lockstep octave doubling—just listen to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and Pantera’s “I’m Broken.”
But there is so much more that can be done with the bass guitar.
As a bassist who later took up guitar, I have developed 20 general guidelines that I live by when I play the bass. Apply them to the instrument, and hear your playing improve as they help you to think and play like a real bass guitarist.
1. PLAY FOR THE SONG
More often than not, solid bass playing requires that you exercise restraint and subtlety rather than showcase your technique and slick moves. In many situations, it’s best to work mostly with the root notes of the chords and lock in with the drummer’s kick and snare drums.
2. LEARN TO WALK
“Walking bass” originated in jazz and blues, but it has since been adopted in other styles. The term refers to a way of playing in which the bass line remains in perpetual motion as opposed to staying on or reiterating one note. The line “walks” from one chord’s root note up or down to the next, mostly in a quarter-note rhythm, with the occasional embellishment.
To achieve this, you use “transition notes” to smoothly connect the dots and bridge the gap between different root notes as the chords change. The transition notes can be any combination of chord tones (arpeggios), scale tones that relate to the chords, or chromatic passing tones.
In general, chord tones are the musically safest bet, as they sound harmonically consonant, while scale tones add a touch of light dissonance when heard against an underlying chord. The more chromatic notes that are used, the more dissonant the line becomes, as these notes momentarily clash with the prevailing chord. Whether this is a good thing or not is up to your discretion and instincts.
FIGURE 1 shows a stock blues walking bass line. Although the line is rhythmically animated, with staccato (short, clipped) swing eighth notes and a triplet fill at the end of each bar, it is fairly tame harmonically, as it uses mostly chord tones (the root, fifth and dominant seventh) with a brief chromatic run-up to the
By contrast, FIGURE 2 illustrates a jazz-style walking bass line played over these same two chords for which chromatic passing tones are liberally employed. Note the difference in contour between these two examples, the first being very angular and the second being smooth and rolling. Also note the use of “dead” notes (indicated by Xs in the notation), which help propel the line. These are performed by picking the string while lightly muting it with the fret hand.
When crafting a walking bass line, it’s best to land on the root note whenever there’s a chord change. If you’re staying on the same chord for several bars, it’s a good idea to play the root on the downbeat of every other bar or every fourth bar, depending on how grounded you want the line to
The walking bass concept isn’t just for swing grooves and can be also employed with great results in a rock context with an even-eighths feel. Inspired by Herbie Flowers’ tasteful bass work on David Bowie’s 1974 hit, “Rebel Rebel,” FIGURE 3 is a fairly straightforward example of a great way to use scalar passing tones and fills to spice up a bass line over a repeating two-chord progression.
3. LOCK IN WITH THE DRUMMER
In a rhythm section, part of the bass guitar’s role is to function as a liaison between the drums and the rest of the band. In most cases you want to make the bass and drums sound like one entity, and a great way to do this is to craft bass lines that fit like a glove with the drummer’s kick and snare drums. Using octave root notes is often an excellent way to do this, the low octave corresponding to the kick drum and the high octave hitting with the snare, typically on beats two and four, which are also known as the backbeats.
Octaves allow you to create an active bass line with an interesting, angular melodic contour without clashing harmonically with the underlying chords, as the octave root note “agrees” perfectly with the chord.
“Grooving” doesn’t necessarily mean playing the same thing over and over. John Paul Jones’ playing throughout Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” is a perfect case in point, as he embellishes the groove and stays within the bass’ role as a support instrument for six solid minutes without repeating himself once.
4. USE OCTAVES AND FIFTHS
After the octave root, the fifth is the most harmonically agreeable note you can play. Many classic bass lines have been constructed using mostly roots, octaves and fifths as the framework. The great thing about this approach is that it allows you to create a bass line that is interesting and melodic, locks in perfectly with the drums and doesn’t clash harmonically with the underlying chords. FIGURE 4 is an example of this kind of approach, inspired by John Paul Jones’ nimble playing on Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You.”