Thoughts on Bass Lines

One of my students recently asked me how to write a great bass line. I told him there was no easy answer. The truth is, a good bass line is a moving target, totally dependent on context and intent. The way bass lines are crafted is what really sets the bass apart from other instruments and defines its role in a band. It's what separates a good bass player from a "guitarist playing bass".

And no one wants to be one of those.

A good bass player can craft a line that leads a listener through the changes smoothly, create a groove that works with the drums to support the song, and never distract from the melody. A good bass player makes everyone else in the band sound like they are doing more than they really are, but never sounds busy himself. He can make the guitar player sound like he is playing something different in verse 2, even when he isn't.

The bass line defines the genre of the song. In other words, the bass player is the one that gets to decide if a song is country, funk, rock, or disco. If the chords are C, F, G, and the bass player plays a classic root/5 country groove underneath it, it's a country matter what anyone else is doing. If the bassist plays slams home the root on the 1, and syncopates a line through the rest of the measure, it's funk. If he rides the root with eighth notes, suddenly it's a rock song. The rest of the band is helpless to change it, no matter how much they turn up the distortion or pile on the sixteenth notes.

That's the awesome power of the bass.

Of course there are all kinds of ways to mix and match genres, and exceptions to every rule. Listen to different genres and listen to what makes them distinct. The most important thing to remember is that the bass in NOT A LEAD INSTRUMENT. That is not it's role. The fun part of playing bass is locking in with the drummer and creating a groove that supports the song and moves booties.

*Photo by dcJohn


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