Generic Genres – Bass for Beginners # 10
In these columns, I have often lamented the fact that us bassists are often the last to know what’s going on. You show up for rehearsal and the lead guitarist says “Let’s do this song” and the singer says “Yeah – I like that one.” If you’re lucky, they’ll notice that you are clueless about this song, and the guitarist says “It’s I-II-IV-V in Bb, in a sorta fast blues shuffle.” Before you even find Bb on the fretboard, the rest of the band has started playing, and so you just play root-notes until you catch up. Just as you get ready to apply the standard Blues Walk pattern, you remember that the II chord is likely to be a minor – arrgh! Now what?!? If you’re lucky you’ll have figured out a reasonable bassline before the song is over.
The point of this column is not to discuss how to play this song (nor how to deal with those bandmates!), but to realize that you need to know how to handle these situations. And even though a band claims to be “hard-rock” or whatever, they probably play a lot of different genres (consider Van Halen did Ice Cream Man and The Who did Squeezebox).
Early this month, we had the second annual Riverside Jam (pix to be posted soon!), and I realized somewhere in the middle of all that fun, that was I playing about as many different genres as I knew. I played straight rock, riff-rock (luckily I knew the riff), country, folk, ballads, and Motown. And all because I knew the standard basslines for these genres. And so do you, because I’ve outlined many of them in my earlier columns. There are some songs I know and play very well (“Moondance” and “Somebody to Love”), but on many other songs, I play a very simple line based on the “generic” genre.
And strangely, on one song that I didn’t know, I stopped playing halfway through the first verse because I knew that I wasn’t playing anything useful.
One method for defining genres is to compare the rhythm and the instrumentation; the only thing that differentiates Country from the rest of Rock & Roll is the presence of a steel guitar and/or a fiddle (plus all those worthless spouses!). But they all have bass players, so you’d best be ready for anything. Which means that as a bass player, you need to understand the basics of several genres.
So for country (including the light Eagles), you play the alternating lower-5th. For Straight Rock, you play the root with transitions between each chord. For folk, you play the root almost all of the time, because the songs are usually written for one guitar. If you know the song, you can do some simple transitions or add melodic phrases. Oddly, the slower the song, the fewer notes you play.
So you may not like a certain genre (I really don’t like most punk, perhaps because my fingers get tired of playing the root 16 times per measure), but you should be familiar with enough different styles to be able to put down a reasonable bassline. If someone wants a better performance from you, then you need to have time to work on it, but you still need to have a good idea where to start. As always, playing with others will broaden your horizons.
In the long list of genres, there are two important ones that I haven’t really covered yet: Motown and Reggae. Now both of these styles depend a lot on the bassist, and it’s easy to become intimidated (I know I do).
For Motown, which leads to Funk, the octave and the 7th are very important. Of course some songs have a signature riff or pattern (ex: My Girl), but many others depend on the 7th. Here are the signature riffs for Get Ready and James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good):
Reggae also uses the octave a lot, as well as a funky tempo (and loose knees!). Here are two reggae basslines, supplied to me by David Hodge, who graciously transcribed these while he was doing his own Reggae column.
In summary, be aware of as many different styles and genres as you can, even those you don’t like. In most towns, there are not very many bass players, and you may be asked to play almost anything.
And when you are settled into your own band, you can have a lot of fun with classic covers by playing those songs in a different style.
Until next time;