As we’ll be learning in an upcoming series on arranging music for the guitar, the bass line is an integral part of solo guitar playing. Just in case you’re new to these lessons, you should know that when I say “solo” I mean “single,” not playing a solo. We’ll be exploring the use of bass lines in arrangements throughout the upcoming Guitar Noise song lessons. You can catch a good one in the Easy Songs for Beginners lesson, Fire. I’d like to use this lesson as a starting point to explain the importance of knowing some theory, giving you a better grasp on what good bass lines are all about.
Consequently, this might be another one of those “easy” intermediate lessons, and I’d like to apologize to you for that. But, no, I don’t think I will. Instead, I’ll try to make it even more interesting to you by also throwing in a lesson in chord progressions for those would-be songwriters, and also one on chord construction in open tuning for those of you still needing a challenge. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a little bit about string muting and maybe even touch upon strumming. Did you get all that?
Today’s lesson is Simple Twist of Fate, the second track on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. You may wonder if I planned it this way, being right on the heels of Tangled Up in Blue and all, but I think that things just happened to play out wonderfully.
There’s a great article in an old issue of Guitar World Acoustic magazine on this epic album. It centers on the fact that it was written at a time when Bob Dylan was completely enchanted with open E tuning. Almost all of the songs for Blood on the Tracks were originally written in open E, and many made it to the final recording that way. To this day, Dylan will play these and other songs in this particular tuning. So let’s take advantage of the opportunity and use this tuning as a great way to learn a lot of different things.
First off, we need to discuss two important things: how to get to open E tuning and how to tune to open D. No, I’m not going nuts…just bear with me, okay? While I personally play this in open E, I do not tune my guitar to open E. Here’s why:
Now while you might think that tuning to open E would be easier since it involves changing three strings instead of four, I prefer open D because all the changes in tuning are lower than standard. In open E, your tuning three of your heavier strings up – the G up a half step to G# and the D and A each up a whole step to E and B respectively. This is just a personal choice for me. If you tune to open D and place a capo on the second fret, guess what? You got it: you’re in open E. Amazing, no?
The other amazing thing is that the chords you play are going to be the same! This is one example of the importance of being able to use your head. Suppose that you’re in a band where everyone is tuned down a half step, a whole step, a step and a half, whatever. Finally, suppose that you still want to play with your other friends who, for God knows what reason, see no reason to tune to anything other than standard – what do you do?
Well, as long as you are tuned in standard intervals, then you can throw on a capo to play with your standard friends and then take it off to jam with your band-mates. I’m not sure why people have a hard time grasping the logic of this, but hey, what can I say? If you don’t believe me, go to the above chart and add a new column, “Open D with capo on second fret.” Since you know that placing a capo on the second fret raises your note one whole step, and since E is one whole step up from D, place “E” in the “first string” box. Now go down the column and finish the rest of them. Did anyone not get a column identical to the “open E” column? I didn’t think so.
Ah, but we came to discuss bass lines and chords…
…which brings us to scales and voicings. Music, as we’ve discussed in many columns, is movement. Harmony (and much of theory) is all about the voicing of chords and, more times than not, those voicings are derived from movement. Chord progressions are movements that we hear. In notation, you can see them as well. I’d like you to look at something:
Chord #1 is a C major chord, which I’ve arranged in four voices, low to high, C, E, G and C. Strum it a few times to get its sound embedded in your brain. For the purpose of this exercise, this is “home.” Our task in making a chord progression is to start at “home” and then get back there. We can only hope the trip is interesting.
Let’s start our trip by moving the high C down a half step. This gives us C, E G and B, which is the Cmaj7 chord. Can you hear the huge difference made by changing that one note? The chord now has a very different tonal quality – slightly dissonant yet very pleasant. For lack of a better phrase, the major seventh sounds transitory. It gives us the feeling that it wants to go somewhere, unlike the C major, which is (no pun intended) currently rooted in our ears as “home.” Being able to hear these differences will help you out immensely as you work on your ear training.
Lower the B an additional half step and you have C7 (C, E, and Bb). This chord really sounds transitory; it wants to become another chord! You can literally feel the tension, can’t you? And it’s all from simply leading the high voice down a whole step from the original C major.
Tension requires release, or “resolution” as we call it in terms of chords. In this case we’re going to resolve the C7 with two steps: first, we will bring the Bb down yet another half step to A. We now have, low to high, C, E, G and A. Since we’ve all read Building Additions (and Suspensions) we know this is the chord C6. Or, if you’d like, we can also look at it as an inversion of Am7. So, bearing this in mind, humor me and grab your guitar and play, in succession, C7 (x32310) and Am7 (002010). That’s kind of a disappointment, isn’t it? Our resolution is a tad on the wimpy side…
This calls for our second step: while we lower the Bb to A, we’re also going to raise the E a half step to F and we’re going to make the G simply disappear! Now we have C, F and A, which is the F major chord. Technically speaking it is also an inversion, since the root (F) is not the lowest note.
If you want to be really persnickety, don’t think of the G as “disappearing.” Instead, think of four voices singing these notes. We have four distinct voices for the C, Cmaj7 and the C7. But in order to continue with the movement we started in this progression, the G voice merges with another voice. Since G is one step away from either F or A, it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. If you wanted to be daring, you could leave it be, giving you Fadd9 (F, A, C and G). But for the sake of getting through this particular lesson, we’re giving it up for the time being.
Listen to this whole progression up to this point. We’ve gone from C to Cmaj7 to C7 and landed on F. While F sounds like a stable resting point, it doesn’t sound like home, does it? Since we’ve gone this far, let’s see what happens when we continue to lower the top voice a half step. Changing it from A to Ab leaves us with the Fm chord (F, Ab and C). Again we’ve hit upon a chord that truly begs for resolution. So why not use our previous method and see if we can’t find two notes to affect a release of the tension we’ve created.
First, we’ll lower our top voice one final half-step, moving from Ab to G. Let’s also lower the F a half step so that it’s back on E. What have we done? Mercy if we haven’t gotten back where we started from! We’re back to C major, aren’t we?
Now play our whole progression:
That sounds very nice, doesn’t it? This is a time-honored progression that you will hear over and over again in songs. Perhaps not the whole way through – often you’ll just get to the IV and then go off on some other trip. As with all progressions, you should try to get in the habit of thinking about it in generic terms:
When you learn it in this fashion, you can apply it to any key. Are you playing in A? Then it will be A – Amaj7 – A7 – D – Dm – A. Do yourself a favor and write it out in a bunch of keys in order to prove you’ve learned something.
Now don’t get to thinking that when someone writes a chord progression, he or she goes through this long process. More often than not, the writer starts with a chord and then finds another that sounds good and goes with that as the next chord. What I am trying to explain to you is that there are reasons some things sound good! You can use these reasons not only to see why certain progressions are appealing to the ears, but, more importantly, to aid you in those times you may find yourself stuck wondering where to go next in your own songs. Just as important, if you’re trying to figure out someone else’s song, having an educated guess as to where the chord progression is going can’t hurt.
But this brings up a dreadful thought that many songwriters end up dealing with at one time or another – there is a limited number of chord progressions. And even fewer that sound good. How can I either come up with new ones or at least come up with an interesting way of doing an old one?
I hate to tell you this, but you’re not ever gong to come up with something that someone, somewhere in the past five hundred years of guitar music, hasn’t already thought of. But you can always make things interesting.
All right, then. Are you wondering what on earth any of this has to do with Simple Twist of Fate? I’m glad you asked! I’m sure that by this point in your playing you have come across chord sheets containing mysterious looking things like “C/B” or “Am/F#” or many, many other similar chords. Most of you already know that this symbol stands for a chord with a specific note in the bass. The chord is to the left of the “/” while the bass note is to the right of it. Shall we take a quick look at a few?
Do these strike a familiar chord? And while you’re looking at these, start thinking about what we’ve gone over. What is “C/B,” after all, if not a Cmaj7 chord? We have simply made an inversion of it, a different voicing where the major seventh (the B) is in the bass instead of somewhere else in the chord. Can you make this jump? How about “C/Bb?” “F/A?” “Fm/Ab?”
This is why certain bass lines work so well with the single guitar. You are creating movement as part of your chord selections. Simply put, there are interesting things going on!
Dylan’s song, through use of interesting chords created by means of open E tuning, is a terrific study on this. If you don’t want to learn it in order to put it in your repertoire, examine it as a lesson in songwriting.
It uses the chord progression we just walked through, but obviously in a different key. Here’s what you’ll find in most Internet TAB pages:
Okay, since we’ve got something to work with, let’s get started, shall we? First off, I am going to tell you (yet again) that my arrangement is NOT the same as the recorded version, even though it is close. I trust that at this point in our relationship, we’re ready to take this for granted!
Using open E (or open D) tuning gives us a full octave in the bass within the first five frets of our fifth and sixth strings. If you don’t believe me, take a look:
This means that we can have a field day using an interesting bass movement along with our chords. Because I’ve decided I want to emphasize the bass, I am using chords that will give us the greatest chance of doing so, instead of merely relying on typical open-tuned chords. For the most part, we’ll let the first and sixth strings be open and, as we just saw, we’ll find our bass notes on the fifth string while finding the other chord components on the second, third and fourth strings.
Here are the chords and fingerings we’re going to use:
First notice that I’ve replaced E5 with E. Why? I like the way it sounds. Call me old fashioned, but I almost always prefer a chord to have a tonality. And in a song like this, especially in a tuning that automatically gives you the third!
A quick note: I am using these designations to play up the use of the descending bass line. In fact, in the MP3 example you’ll hear me exaggerating those notes. But I will also be playing the sixth (low E) string as well, creating a drone effect. Now we can argue that this does, in effect, negate what I’m trying to tell you, but I hope we’re above all that. It’s just a lesson, after all.
We start with one measure of E and begin walking the bass line down – from E to D# and then to D. You can hear how we’ve created our earlier progression (E to Emaj7 to E7). Each of these chords gets a full measure of four beats.
The next note in our descent is C#. We use that to change from E to A. I also use this as a chance to alter our bass pattern from half steps to whole steps. We go from A/C# to A/B, each chord getting two beats. This takes us to the Am on line four, with A (fifth fret on the sixth string) in the bass. This chord will get four beats.
You might realize at this point that I’ve made this entire sequence very easy for you. Play the A/C# with your ring finger on the second string, your middle finger on the third string and your index finger on the fifth string. To get the A/B, simply remove your index finger. Now slide your ring and middle fingers (already in position!) up to the fifth and fourth frets of their respective strings and add your index finger to the fifth fret of the sixth string.
For this chord, you want to place your index finger in such a manner that you end up deadening, or muting, the fifth string. It’s easier than you might think – just lay your finger a little flatter and it should lightly touch upon the fifth string, stopping any vibrations. You should be able to strum across all six strings but only hear five of them. This technique is called, appropriately enough, string muting.
Many of you may have inadvertently learned how to do this when you were starting to learn how to play guitar. Back then you were probably wondering why you didn’t play your chords cleanly. Then someone told you or you figured out about arching your fingers in order to get a full, great-sounding chord. Can you believe I’m now asking you to regress on purpose?
Lines five and six, to me, can be incredibly dramatic. In line five we repeat our first two chords, one beat each this time, then switch to the A/C# for the third beat and remove our ring finger to get Aadd9/C# for the fourth beat. I don’t really have to do this, but I feel that this slight chord change keeps the momentum going.
On the final line, we have what amounts to the timeless I – V – I cadence. We let the B note (the open fifth string) be our bass and just play all of the first five strings without any fingering. This happens in the first two beats. Adding our fingers to the first fret of the third string and the second fret of the fourth will give us a B7add4 (the “add4” is because of the open first string). This will last for a beat and a half. For the last half beat, remove your finger from the fourth string in order to get Esus4 and then remove that finger to get the E that starts the next bar. You can hammer-on and pick-off for this sequence if you’d like; it creates a wonderful effect.
Okay, let’s look at (and listen to) how we’re doing this:
On Blood on the Tracks, Dylan plays this pretty much in straight sixteenth notes, alternating each stroke down and up. That’s incredibly monotonous when you’re performing this as a single performer. So let’s use a strumming pattern that will also incorporate some of Tony Brown’s wonderfully tasteful bass playing.
Remember that this is a suggested strumming pattern. If there’s anything you should have gleaned from my lessons at all, it’s that you’re not a machine. Neither am I. So when you listen to the MP3 that accompanies this lesson, remember that I will miss strokes and add strokes or notes. In other words, I’ll just be a lousy example of playing the same thing over and over!
I hope you’ve had fun playing Simple Twist of Fate and at looking at all the little things that go into making an arrangement. More than anything, though, I hope you got a start into looking at how knowing the notes that make up a chord can help you come up with interesting bass lines.
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next lesson…
Where Did The Guitar Tab Go?
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.