STEVE SCHMIDT Lessons in Bass Line Construction

Lesson #1 - The Role of the Bass Line
This is the first in a series of lessons whose focus is on constructing bass lines. The goal is to introduce players to the basic elements of music; to explain why the bass plays a particular note at a particular time and the effect that bass lines have on a piece of music. While most of the examples in the lessons will be drawn from rock music and blues (my particular genres), the basic principles being explained are applicable to any form of music featuring a bass line, whether played on an electric bass, acoustic bass, or other instrument. The lessons presume some minimal knowledge of music theory: mostly that one know the names of the notes (A, B, B-flat, etc), can find those notes on the bass, and have some notion of time (quarter-note, half-note, measure). Other concepts are introduced as needed, though not always in great detail, and if you have not studied music theory a good book on that subject might also be a good thing to read while learning to play bass. Examples will be given in TAB notation because of the ease of transmitting it over computer networks, although it is wise to learn to read standard music notation as well.

The first thing to understand in constructing your bass lines is the role that the instrument plays in the music. In almost all musical forms, the bass has two important functions to fulfill. First, the bass defines the chords being played and guides the movement of the music from one chord to another. This role is usually shared with a guitar or a piano. Second, the bass provides the rhythm of the music being played. This role is usually shared with the drums. Because it links the two functions of rhythm and harmony, the bass is often the instrument around which the rest of the music is organized. This lesson begins with a very brief discussion of chords, and then follows with a discussion of rhythm and how the bass defines it. Lesson 3 will take up the subject of chords in more detail.

All music is organized into chords. A chord is a set of three or more different notes being played simultaneously, with one of the notes being the root note of the chord and the other notes defining the type of chord being played. The job of the bass is to indicate which chord is being played at a given moment, and this is most easily achieved by playing the root note of the chord. For example, the song Dancing with Myself by Billy Idol is organized into 8-measure verses and choruses. In each of these 8-measure patterns, an E major chord is played in the first two measures, a A major chord is played in the 3rd and 4th measures, a B major chord is played in the 5th and 6th measures, and the A major chord again in the 7th and 8th measures. In each measure, the bass plays 8th notes on the root of the given chord:

(all notes 8th notes)
   E                                                 A 
  Well I've been all around the world, and there's    Every type of girl
               But your     Empty eyes seem to pass me by and leave me
Dancing with myself...              oh oh oh oh
This is a very simple bass line, but it fulfills both of its intended roles. First, it clearly indicates what chord is being played at any moment in the song, by playing only the root note on each beat. There is a very large amount of music (dance music, heavy metal) in which most or all of the notes played by the bass are just the roots of the chords being played by the band, and some very powerful bass lines can be written this way.

Secondly, this bass line gives a simple and clear rhythm to the song: an even rhythm of 8th notes. If you sing this bass line to yourself, you probably sing it as "dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah", with the same stress, or accent, on each beat. Other bass lines supply different rhythms using the root notes of the chords. For example, the bass line to the Police song Message in a Bottle also uses only root notes, but uses a very different rhythm. Over the verses, the bass line repeats this two-measure phrase:

   e    q  e  q. e  e   q  e  q.  e  e
          Just a castaway....        Island lost at sea, oh...
where the chords are C# minor, A major, B minor, and F# minor, and they change every half-measure. This rhythm stresses beats 1, 2, 2-and, and 4-and, by playing notes on those beats and holding notes, or resting, on the other beats. (Count each measure as 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and, providing 8 beats for the 8th notes to fall on. The accented beats are the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 8th of the 8th notes in the measure.) However, the chorus uses almost the same even 8th note beat as the Billy Idol song above does:
     e  e  e  e  e  e  e  e   e  e  e  q  e  e  e
     I'll send an SOS to the world....
where the chords are A major over the first bar, and D major and E major over the second bar. By varying the rhythm used over the two parts of the song (along with variations by the drummer), the bassist adds considerable variety and style to the song, even though he hasn't played any notes except the root notes of the various chords.

Both of the above songs are organized aroud an 8th-note beat; that is to say, the smallest unit of rhythm is the 8th note. No 16th notes are used in the rhythm figures. Most popular music nowadays is written to 8th-note beats, although dance music and funk music uses 16th-note beats, and jazz musicians write music in a number of different beat patterns. To generate a rhythm, the bassist (and drummer) simply choose which beats to accent and which beats not to accent. In the Billy Idol song, all notes receive the same emphasis. In the Police song, however, some are emphasized, or accented, and others are not.

As a bass player, you have four tools at your disposal to provide emphasis, or the lack thereof, to a beat. They are:

  1. Play the root note of the chord being played on a given beat. This is the strongest, most emphatic note you can play.

  2. Play a note on the beat, but not the root note of the chord. This is still emphatic but not so much so as the root note.

  3. Don't play a new note on the beat, but carry over the note you were playing on the previous beat. This de-emphasizes the beat, because the bass isn't adding a new sound on it.

  4. Rest: play no note at all. This is the most de-emphasizing thing you can do on a beat.
The most important part of writing a bass line is deciding which beats to emphasize and which beats not to emphasize. In particular, deciding where to use rests to de-emphasize a beat is essential to constructing good, solid, supporting bass lines. Sting, the bass player for the Police, is an excellent bass player to listen to if you want to hear the creative use of rests in bass lines. You can see the rests used in the song Message in a Bottle above: by placing a rest on the 4th beat of each measure, he makes the use of the root note on the 4-and beat even more emphatic than it would ordinarily be. Sting is a master of very simple, very elegant bass lines that add a lot to the music he's playing, and every beginning bass player should listen to a lot of his music to hear how he does it.

Which notes should you emphasize and which should you not? This is a question which can only be answered by you as the artist, and the drummer, who is your partner in determining the rhythm of the song. There are some general guidelines that you can use to help you select your rhythms, however. The most important is that you should usually play the root note on the first beat of each measure. Since this note defines the start of the measure, and since most chord changes occur on this beat, it is important to determine the overall rhythm of the song by placing a strong emphasis here. Almost all bass lines you'll ever see place the root note on the first beat of each chord, and on the first beat of each measure even if the chord has not changed. In doing so they set a general pattern for the music. Other beats in the rhythm of the song can either highlight this pattern, or contrast with it, depending on the amount of tension you want to have in the rhythm of your song. A second guideline is that you should stick to one basic rhythm pattern for a fairly long period of time (8-16 measures at least) in order for the rhythm to be heard, and felt, by the listener. If you change rhythm every two measures, then the audience won't have time to detect the patterns you're playing, and won't be able to feel the patterns in the music, or the changes in those patterns which are what makes music interesting.

There are a number of basic rhythms that are common to many types of music. One of the most common rhythms in jazz is the quarter-note rhythm. Like the 8th-note rhythm, all the beats are even, but the notes played are quarter notes, and the first beat of each measure is emphasized by playing the root of the given chord under it, while other notes are usually not the root notes. An example:

(all notes are quarter notes)
   C major                   D minor     G7
Note how the root of the chord is played on the first beat of each measure; although for the two measures of C chord, a different C is played. Note also that none of the notes on other beats are the roots. By playing the root on the first beat, the bassist strengthens that beat just enough to provide a recognizable rhythm, and also defines the chord changes.

Another beat that's common to many forms of music, including country and western music, polka music, and klezmer music, is the following beat. Like the jazz beat above, it's a quarter-note beat, but instead of playing notes on all four beats, it rests on beats 2 and 4 to de-emphasize those beats and strengthen the 1 and 3 beats. (Quarter-note beats are counted 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4). It might go like this:

(all notes are quarter notes)
   C major                   F major                     C major
where again, the root is played on beat 1, a different note is played on beat 3, and no note is played on beats 2 and 4. If you sing this to yourself, you'll probably sing it "dum (rest) dum (rest) dum (rest) dum (rest)", highlighting the difference between the accented beats and the rest beats. Note how different this rhythm is from the following one:
   C major       F major        C major
   h  h   h  h   h  h   h  h   h
which is exactly the same except that there are no rests: each note is a half note rather than the quarter notes above. This beat is dull and monotonous compared to the one above, which has a distinct up-down-up-down feel which is added by the rests. Let this serve as an example of how powerful rests can be in creating rhythmic bass lines.

A variation on this beat that's used in a lot of pop music is the following one. It's actually an 8th note beat, and instead of emphasizing beats 1 and 3, it emphasizes beats 1 and 2-and. For simplicity, I'll show it here with all root notes:

   C major                F major       G major
   q. q. q   q. q. q   q. q. q   q. q. q
Beats 1 and 2-and are emphasized by the root, beat 3 is slightly de-emphazised by carrying over the note from the 2-and beat, and beat 4 is strongly de-emphasized by resting on that beat. Lesson 2 will feature a song using this beat prominently to give you more of a feel for it.

There are hundreds or thousands of beats out there for you to listen to: rock beats, jazz beats, swing beats, shuffle beats, rap beats, reggae beats, calypso beats, and many more. Rhythm is a very difficult thing to talk about abstractly: it's something you have to experience and feel before you'll be able to play it. The best solution is to put on your headphones and listen to music. Hear the bassist and drummer, and hear the rhythm they're playing. The interaction of the bassist and the drummer to create rhythm is probably the most single important element of popular music (at least most bass players seem to think so!) and it's the single most important skill for a bass player to have. (Or, as Jeff Berlin is fond of saying, "You will never be hired to tap.") To develop rhythm, you have to listen to other people who have it, and also to a few who don't. It comes with experience, and there is no way to teach it in a purely academic way.

The last comment about rhythm to make is that sticking strictly and rigorously to a single rhythm, with no variations, is boring. Good rhythm sections find a way to maintain a basic rhythm while occasionally providing slightly different accents, or extra notes to highlight a particular half-measure. This is where the partnership between a bassist and drummer is most important: as one player departs from the basic rhythm to add accents and fills, the other player must play solid and steady so that the first player can come back to the basic rhythm. Listen to your favorite bands and hear when the drummer departs from the basic rhythm and when the bass player does, and hear how they come back together again to provide a steady and familiar yet not boring pattern. When a bassist and drummer have played together long enough to know each other's styles and habits, they can play complicated and difficult patterns together without losing track of the basic rhythm they're playing (and, more important, without the listeners losing track). This is why it's important to find yourself a live drummer and play with him/her regularly: you need to develop these give-and-take skills, to keep a rhythm going with a partner, varying it in time and in accent without losing the basic thread of the song. You can't do this with a metronome or a drum machine, for the obvious reasons. It's what makes the rhythm section the heart and soul of any good band.

Lesson 2 will talk about playing notes other than the root notes; which ones to play, where to play them, and what their effect is.

End of Lesson #1. [Schmidt - Bass Line Construction: Lesson #2] [BassWork Index]
This lesson is copyright 1993 by Steve Schmidt. Permission to distribute this lesson without charge is granted, provided that it remain unaltered, including this notice. You may not charge money for the use of this lesson, and you may not alter the terms of this license.