STEVE SCHMIDT Lessons in Bass Line Construction

Lesson #2 - Beyond the Root Note
In the previous lesson we discussed the two main functions of the bass in music: defining the chords and providing rhythm. In this lesson, we're going to talk about using non-root notes to provide a motion from one chord to the next, which gives a song a sense of direction, and about some ways to make the bass line a little more interesting than a sequence of roots.

The bass lines in the last lesson used predominantly root notes to define chords. When the chord changed, the bass line leapt from one root to the next, like so:

(all notes are 8th notes)
   E           A            E           A            E
The movement from one chord to the next is rather abrupt. By making the movement from one root to the next in a couple of steps, rather than in one large leap, the bass line can provide a sense of movement and anticipation to the music that isn't present in the simple examples earlier. You can also play something other than the root note for change... The simplest way to do this is to add a single note, on the beat before each change, which is in between the two roots, usually just below the higher one. For example, we might play this:
(all notes are 8th notes)
   E           A            E           A            E
In this figure, we play the note G# (a half-step below the A) as a transition between the E and the A. Such a note is called a leading tone, or passing tone. It gives a sense of movement to the bass line which isn't present in the first line. In addition, playing a non-root note on the 2-and beat, and the 4-and beat, reduces the emphasis on that note slightly, providing a contrast with the new root note coming in on the 3 and 1 beats following.

You can play a single passing tone, or, if the chord changes are farther apart, you can play more than one. For example, consider this bass line:

(all notes are 8th notes)
   E                        A                        E
Here, there are 8 beats between chord changes, and we can use more than one of those beats to move from the E to the A. We might alter the last three notes of each measure as follows:
(all notes are 8th notes)
   E                        A                        E
Here we use a sequence of three leading tones to move us from the E to the A. In this particular case, we've used three notes each a half-step apart to make the transition. There are other possibilities. In between the E and the A are 4 notes and you can use any or all of them in making the change. We'll take up the choice between the possible sequences in a later lesson; but it would be possible to use any of them in an appropriate piece of music.

The following bass line, from the theme song to the movie Stand By Me (I can't remember who the original artist was, unfortunately), demonstrates a bass line that moves between 4 chords, using passing tones to get from one to the next. It also uses the dotted-quarter note rhythm, emphasizing the 1 and 2-and beats with root notes, that we saw in lesson 1.

          D major                   B minor
   e  e   q. q. e  e   q. q. e  e   q. q. e  e   q. q. e  e
   Oh I   won't be a-  fraid, no I  won't  shed a tear, just as
   G major      A major      D major
   q. q. e  e   q. q. e  e   q. q. e  e   q. q.
   long as you  stand, stand by me.
This line is one of the simplest and yet most powerful bass lines in popular music. It has a lot of features worth noting. First, it uses the same rhythm in each measure: two dotted quarter notes on the roots, followed by two eighth notes, or a note and a rest. (Note that the vocal line is singing essentially the same rhythm.) Second, the dotted quarters are always roots, which emphasizes those beats more strongly than the eighth notes, which are not roots, but are leading notes, leading towards the root of the next measure: A to C# to D for the D major chords, D to C# to B for the B minor chords, B to A to G for the G major, and G to B to A for A major. See that, while the leading tone is usually between the two root notes, it doesn't have to be: for the G major to A major transition, with only G# as a possible in-between note, the author chose instead to go up to the B, then back down to the A. This is still called a leading tone, although it's not quite the same as the others, because it fulfills the same function: it warns of an upcoming chord change, and gives a pointer in the direction that the chord is going to move.

A third thing to note is that the leading notes are played each measure, regardless of whether the chord is changing or not. So in measure 6, we play A-C#-D to move from the A chord to the D chord; and in measure 7 we play A-C#-D again even though we're staying on the D chord. The sequence still points to the root of the chord, so why not play it again? By doing this, we make the bass line a little more interesting, and we give it more of a sense of movement than it would have if we just played D all the time. Playing leading sequences is one way to add movement and emphasis to a song that isn't changing chords at all. For example, here's the bass line from the Doors song LA Woman:

(All notes are 8th notes)
   A major
repeat ad infinitum :)
This song stays on the same A major chord for 50-60 measures in places, but the leading sequences in the bass lines give it a sense of motion that would not be present if the bassist just played 8th-note A all the time. Although the Doors had no bass player (Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player, used a second keyboard to play the bass parts) for their last few albums a studio bassist was used, and I believe that this line was played on a bass, rather than on keyboards.

Another thing that can be done to add interest to a bass line is to play two different versions of the root note. This idea is the mainstay of funk bass lines. For example, if you were playing a D major chord, you could play the following line:

(Slap all notes on the A string with the right-hand thumb: pop all notes on the G string).

   D major
   e  e  s  s  s  e  s  s  s  s  s  e
D-------------------------------------|    Repeat as needed
This line has a lot of things to note about it also. First, all the notes are root notes, but the line uses a low one and a high one to provide variety. Second, this line uses a 16th note rhythm: look at the 16th rests in the line. They follow the popped high note, which increases the impact of the pop. Also, the fifth through ninth notes don't start on an even 8th note. 16th note rhythms are counted "1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a"; the first four notes start on numbers and ands, but the next five start on "e"s and "a"s. This gives the line a much more syncopated, funky feeling. It also makes it harder to play correctly: you'll probably have a hard time reading this rhythm if you haven't played it before. Work it out very slowly, counting aloud, until you have it down, then gradually work up the tempo. Larry Graham, of Sly and the Family Stone, and later his own band Graham Central Station, was one of the first bassists to play 16th note rhythms, and was also one of the first to slap and pop. If you're into 16th note rhythms, you can get a lot of inspiration from his lines.

You can also combine the ideas of playing different roots and playing leading tones into one bass line. The following line is from the song Purple Haze, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Noel Redding on bass. (At least, this is how I play it in my band. I think the recorded version is a little different.)

  E #9                         G7          A7
   e  e  e. s  e  e  e. s   e  e  e. s  e  s  e  s  e
Note the use of the octaves on the E and G roots. This matches the drummer's pattern: where the bass is playing the lower note, the drummer is playing the bass drum and where the bass is playing the higher note, the drummer is playing his snare. For the A7 chord, the bass doesn't play the octave note: instead, it plays D-D#-E leading back to the low E for the next measure. (The drummer plays a drum fill while this is happening, so there's no need to keep playing the octave: he won't be matching it anyway.)

To conclude this lesson, I'll give you one more bass line. It combines all the ideas we've talked about so far: using roots to define the chord, using rests to de-emphasize particular notes, switching from one rhythm to another when changing from verse to chorus, and using leading tones to add movement when the chord isn't changing. This is the bass line from the Police song Roxanne, and again Sting is the bassist. Observe how the root note is played, but never on the first beat of the measure: in the verse, the bass is resting, while in the chorus either the previous root is tied over, or a leading tone is played on the first note. In the verses, the bass is a little bit behind the chord changes: in the chorus it's a little bit ahead. It makes for a very interesting line, and demonstrates that there's no such thing as a hard and fast rule (at least not for Sting).

   G min         F maj       Eb maj       D maj        C min
   e  e  q  h   e  e  q  h   e  e  q  h   e  e  q  h   e  e  q  h   
Roxanne..      You don't have to put on the red light. Walk the street for
   F maj              G min
   e  e  q  q  e  e   w   w
A-------------------|---|-r---|  repeats
money...   You don't  care if it's wrong, or if it's right.
          Bb maj                                         F major
   q  e   e  e  e  e  e  e  e  e   e  e  e  e  e  q  e   e  e  e  e
  Roxanne........                                 Roxanne....
                                      G minor
   e  e  e  e   e  e  e  e  e  q  e   e  e  e  e  e  e  e  e
   e  e  e  e  e  q  e
A-----------------3--1-|-1--  repeats
Lesson 3 will talk about chords in more detail. We'll talk about a few different types of chords, and about using chords in constructing your bass lines.
End of Lesson #2. [Schmidt - Bass Line Construction: Lesson #3] [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.