There have been many times in my playing “career” (small joke) where I walked into a room full of musicians I sort of knew, and there was a list of songs, with words and guitar chords, and we all started to play. There were no melodies or charts. If I said I’d heard a song on the radio, I was expected to play it damn near perfect right from the start. If I’d never heard it before, I had to have figured it out by the second verse! As a novice, I played it ultra-safe and would just play a straight-4 on the same note as the name of the chord. The toughest decision I had to make was when the song changed chords. Suppose it went from C to G: should I go up to the G, or down? Before you feel overly put-upon by this, remember that the drummer gets even less!
By the way, this happened to me again this past summer: link.
Even though I was the host, the only sheet music I had was for Only the Good Die Young, which was the only song I practiced (think about it), so I didn’t need it.
If you play bass, you’re often stuck with no music or other clues as to what to play. In addition to listening carefully, there are a few important tricks to learn. I hope to teach you as many as I can.
The first two are the Box and the Walk. These two “tools” will allow you to get off the chord-root without too much risk.
The “Box” is possibly the best invention for all guitarists. It is defined by two frets, spaced two apart, and crosses all 4 strings. Here is a an example of the Box in the key of C – you’ll note that the Box forms on the 3rd and 5th:
So for the key of C, the box contains C, D, F, G, A, Bb, which are all the important notes except the 3rd. But that’s OK, as it means that it will work for most variations of either major or minor chords. Also notice that the C (root) and G (fifth) are in the box twice – this is good! Without diving too deeply into the theory (although I encourage you to learn it soon), the fifth is the note that (almost) never changes, and is (almost) never left out. So it makes sense that the fifth also sounds good when you play it. By the way, as with anything that is very safe, relying on the fifths can also become boring.
As I hinted at in a previous article, the Box is also the basis for power chords on the 6-string. Looking above, the G-D-G is the bottom of a “first form” G-chord, and the G-C-G-C, is the bottom of the “fourth form” C-chord. In many power chord rock songs, the 3rds are left out, and so the notes in the Box are all you ever need. However, thirds are important, and we’ll discuss them more in the future.
Not to oversimplify, but by placing your index finger over the 3rd fret, and your ring finger over the 5th fret, you can move very quickly between these notes. You can use hammer-ons and pull-offs to help you go even faster.
Disclaimer: The following charts are the work of the author and are intended for educational purposes only. Besides, most of this is older than dirt, and so is public domain.
So here is a simple example of a bass pattern that works for lots of Eagles-type folk ballads (and polkas too!):
So without ever moving your hands up the neck, you can play 80% of the Rock and Roll ever written (most of it being I-IV-V). Try just noodling around on all the variations you can think of, never leaving the box. For different keys, you just move the box up or down the neck.
Also, you can place the root of the song on the E-string (G above), and it will work just as well, just remember that the Bb may not work – but it might, it’s the minor 3rd!
Actually, the root can go almost anywhere in the Box, depending on how the song is built. There are many I-VII-IV songs (Sweet Home Alabama, Takin’ Care of Business), where it might be best to put the root under your ring finger on the D-string (G above, the song would be G-F-C). Again, the usefulness of the Box is that it allows you to make chord changes safely and quickly. You still have to think about what you’re doing, but you’ll always be able to get from I to IV with a little flair.
Here is the bass-line for the Eagles Already Gone which uses just about all of the box. Note the octave jump in the G-chord.
Some songs with more chords can be broken into two boxes placed on different frets. Other songs just don’t fit in the box – All Along the Watchtower for example (Am – G – F – G).
Here is an interesting discussion. As shown above, if you use the box, the transitions will usually involve the 2nd, or 7th. However, many feel that the 3rd is much better as a transition note. To quote David Hodge directly:
“Using the third to go from I to IV makes sense from a theory standpoint, mostly because the 3rd is the 7th of IV. The half step makes for an almost magnetic leading tone. There’s no doubt as to where you’re going. You just get kind of sucked into the IV. It’s similar to the logic as to why E (or ideally E7) to Am is a “stronger” progression than Em to Am.
But when it comes to “rock ‘n roll” these kind of subtleties tend to get tossed out the window.”
Which is all well and good, but most of the sheet music I read uses the 2nd or 7th, staying in the Box!
Note: the common way to differentiate between the “note” and the “chord” is that notes are named using the ordinal number (3rd, 6th), while chords are named using roman numerals (I, III, VI). Some folk use lower case roman for minors (iii = IIIminor). The chord is usually defined with respect to the key of the song (unless you’re like David, who likes to say that VII is the IV of the IV), while the note is relative to the specific chord.
Taking a Walk:
“The longest Journey begins with just one step…” very old proverb.
Most of you should know your scales, (see Scales Within Scales, etc) but let me review them as how they are placed on the bass. All we need to do is add the 3rd and the 6th to the Box. Remember that most rock music uses the dominant 7th, not the major 7th. But remember to use the major-7th if it is explicitly called out. For the key of C:
In this case, you want your middle finger on the 3rd fret, with your index on the 2nd and your pinky on the 5th. Notice I didn’t add the lower 7th or 4th, because they are hard to reach in this hand position.
Before we go for a walk, I know that a I-IV-V blues walk works best if started on the E-string, so that we can keep walking up from the IV. This could be done in C on the 8th fret as well, but let’s do it in the key of G:
To be accurate, a “walk” is any melodic sequence that is played continuously, usually at a steady cadence on the beat. There are jazz walks and minor walks, and others that just seem to fit the song. Below is a typical walk, with a little flair thrown in at the chord change. Technically, this is called a “Blues Walk”, as it is found in most 12-bar and 16-bar I-IV-V songs, which are called “Blues” no matter what the lyrics or tempo. Here we go:
As you can see, your fingers can fall into the pattern very easily. You might be tempted to use the open strings for the D and upper G. This is fine, but it’s important to teach your fingers the patterns without using the bridge (middle, index, pinky, index, etc). That way, you can play in any key. Also, you may find that you want to slide your hand up 2 frets to play the D-chord (the V, not shown), keeping the same hand position and finger pattern. An incredible number of songs can be played using variations of this walk.
That’s enough for now, you need to review, absorb, practice, and convert all of the above into your own perspective. There should be a few “Ah-ha!” moments, as well as some “Say what?” puzzles.
There are two other “tricks” that I want to mention, and since they don’t require a lot of words (but they do require practice!), I’ll outline them here.
First, learn how to read the chords from the shape and position of the rhythm guitarist’s hands. This is not a joke; I can’t play a 6-string, but I can tell a new student exactly how their hand position is wrong. If you already know how to play a 6-string, you’ve got a head start, but you still need to practice looking at those hand positions backwards. This is how you learn those songs that everyone else already knows. As I’ve discussed before, when you’re performing, it’s important to be in sync with the drummer. But when you’re learning, you need to work with the rhythm guitarist.
Second, read the bass clef of piano charts to learn specific songs. While the treble clef transcriptions are often bastardized in order to combine the chords, vocal melody, and piano melody, the bass clef usually is an accurate transcription of the bass guitar part, or at least a very good place to start.
Next time, I’ll go over some other walks and transitions, including minor chords and keys, and discuss how to create your own bass line in the process. In the mean time, I’ll be glad to receive your questions.