Horse With No Name – Bass for Beginners

Feb20

This Bass for Beginners Lesson is meant to accompany David’s Easy Songs Lesson on the same song (Horse With No Name). As you will recall, this song has a simple driving bass line, with a couple of frills thrown in.

Before we get to the charts, let’s discuss the dynamics. Dynamics is the art of changing the energy level during the song. The simplest method is volume, but you can also introduce dynamics by changing the complexity of the arrangements (add harmonies or brass), change the vocal range of the melody, embellishing the chord progressions (adding sixths, sevenths and other notes to the basic chords). In the recording business, it is usually the job of the producer to take the songwriters chords, lyrics, and melody, and determine how to build a complete song out of it, and to make it energetic and fun to listen to repeatedly.

In this song, the bass provides an indication of the energy level of the song. At the beginning, there is no bass at all. The guitarist sets up the rhythm and the singer starts to tell the story. Halfway through the first verse, the bass comes in fairly strongly, suggesting that this is not just another boring ballad. As the song progresses, the intensity of the bass increases and decreases to provide almost a tidal change in the song. Since there are only two chords all through the song, changing the energy level is the only method to break up the sections of the song. The band “America” also uses the addition of harmonies and some minor changes in the guitar strumming, but the bass provides much of the “control” for the song.

Okay, time for some notes about the notes involved! The two chords are Em and Dadd6add9 (read David’s column about that one!). Let’s break down the parts of the chords:

Em = E G B

Dadd6add9 = F# A C# E G# B D

As played on the rhythm guitar, the C# and G# are left out of the Dadd6add9, so we can either choose to add them back in or leave them out. Since the G# “conflicts” with the G in the Em, we’ll leave that one out as well. We’ll decide about the C# later.

Now let’s check The Box. First, in order to give us some extra flexibility, let’s decide to play the ‘E’ on the 7th fret of the A string. So the Box gives us the following notes, from lowest to highest: B C# E F# A B D E

Assuming we want to play this somewhat like the album, we know that the bass line goes E for four beats, F# two beats, something lower for two beats, with those last two beats serving as a little riff to return to the E of the E minor. As you can see, a good choice for the lower note would be ‘B’, and indeed that is correct. Using the Box, we would guess that the C# would be part of the return riff, but it doesn’t sound right. But D is another available note (10th fret, E-string), and it sounds fine. (So I guess we’ll pass on the missing C#) Here is the chart for 90% of the song. Note that the eighth notes are played with a “swing feel”, and you can read how to play in swing in the Guitar Noise Music Guide about swing eighths. Essentially, you break the beat into even thirds (triplets) and play just the first and third triplet.

A note about a “driving” bass line. This is where the bass player seems to be playing ahead of the song. This makes it seem like s/he is trying to make the song go faster (but doesn’t), which adds a bit of tension and energy to the song. Probably the best example of this is in Radar Love, where the bass literally drives the song. This is a subtle skill, but it’s a good one to practice.

Midway through the later verses and/or chorus, the bass player throws in a riff to fill the space left by the lyrics. The lead note is fairly high, and by testing and listening to the 5th (C#), 7th (E), and octave (F#), you can hear that the lead note is the octave F#. Using the F# box (starting on the 9th fret), the riff is fairly simple, although you’ve got to be quick to get back to the lower E.

There are two other sections in the song. First, there is a instrumental solo section, where the bass player wanders around a bit. I am not a fan of these types of solos, preferring the melodic or walk-oriented approach, but that’s OK. Since this song was written a while back, it’s possible that the producer wanted to include a “psychedelic” aspect (“Horse?” I can be so naïve!), or perhaps thia “lost and wandering” section is a reflection of the “lost in the desert” motif. You can play just about anything here so long as you stay in key and remember to return to the E occasionally.

The second section is at the end of the last verse. Here the songwriter chose to extend the verse to accommodate the last phrases, which are important to the story. This is a subtle method for building tension in a song, as it depends on the listener to have gotten used to the song, and thus be expecting the chorus after a certain number of measures. By extending the verse over where the chorus should have been, it brings extra attention to those lyrics. Starting with the phrase “Under the cities…”, the song builds a crescendo, and it continues to move upward melodically, with strong harmonies. Here the bass goes along, playing these notes twice per measure: E F# G A. As you can see, the G and A are the minor-3rds of the Em and F#m chords. This is a “neat trick” about paired minor chords (think about Am and Bm in “Moondance”), you can slowly walk up the entire scale, alternating between the two chords: E F# G A B C# E F#.

That’s all for this song. I hope you have fun with this.

Liner Notes

“A Horse With No Name” by America is a classic folk-rock song written by Dewey Bunnell. This song bears some resemblance to Neil Young’s folky acoustic rock. Ironically, back in 1972 “A Horse With No Name” is the song that replaced Neil’s “Heart of Gold” as the number one single in America.

About Dan Lasley

Dan Lasley learned to play in bands while in college near Chicago, where he played keyboards, bass, and "slide-pots"(sound board). Builder of his own fretless bass and designer of 400W/channel amplifiers, Dan continues to stay involved with sound engineering. He is also the mastermind behind the Riverside Jam.

Comments [1]

  1. Thank you! Bass players appreciate this sort of lessons.

    By the way, what a cool song!

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