Playing Along – Bass for Beginners # 4

As mentioned before, the toughest hurdle for me has always been trying to figure out what to play when all you have is the chord pattern and maybe a clue. In this lesson, I hope to show you some ways to write your own bass-lines that are close to reality, or at least they sound good.

The first thing you have to figure out is what is the role of the bass player in this particular song (remember that the “role of the bassist can vary from song to song” (Waxing Philosophic)). Are you just playing the roots of the chords, or do you have to provide a melody? Do you have to support a funky rhythm, or just play it straight.

My first quick example is the Rolling Stones Satisfaction, which of course requires the following:

Disclaimer: The following charts are the work of the author and are intended for educational purposes only.

In this song, the bass follows the lead guitar, echoing the riff and reinforcing the punchy 1-2 beat. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the bass is not playing exactly the same riff as the lead. Both the notes and timing are different. There is an extra note inserted. Now this is where some knowledge is required, as well as some listening. The chord change is D-G, and the song is in D-major (at least in my band). The guitar riff is D-E-F, so I would start by using the E to get from the D to the G (which is using The Box). But we need an extra note. It seems likely that it is either F or F#, and since we’re in the key of D, let’s try F#. Sure enough it works. You’ll need to review some theory to figure out why the guitar plays an F and the bass transitions with an F#, but it doesn’t all fall apart. Let’s just simply say that the guitar’s F makes a G7, which is a common rock/blues chord, but the bass wants to stay in the key of the song. Also note that the bass “arrives” at the G on the 1-beat, while the guitar gets to the F a half-beat before the measure. The guitarist is using “anticipation”, and it is very common for the vocal or lead guitar to use it, while the bass generally does not. Here is the chart:

Satisfaction continued

Somebody to Love

I learned this song in 1979, and I have played it and taught it to others ever since. It is a perfect beginner’s song because it is high-energy, has powerful chords, and can be adjusted to almost any vocalist who is willing to use her power. But the last best reason is that no one would ever play it “just like the album”. This song was made back when it was common to put everyone in a room and “go for it”, but the technology wasn’t up to it. So the original is very compressed, muddy, and if it wasn’t for Grace Slick, it’d be almost boring. I have listened to this song numerous times, and I still don’t know what the bass player is trying to do, other than wander around a lot. Some musicians think that this is a problem: “What should I play?” I like to think of it as an opportunity: I can play it my way and no one will ever know if it’s “right”.

Since it was David that taught me the song, it’s only right that I suggest that you read his interpretation of the song. He wrote about it in the bottom half of Pictures in Dorian Grey.

In the charts that follow, I show how I built up the bassline that goes under the verse. The verse chords are Em – A, repeated 4 times. So the simple “play the root” chart would look like this:

Somebody to Love

Notice that I play the ‘A’ a half-beat early, using anticipation, contrary to what I said above. The main reason for this is that the entire rhythm section (including drums) follows the vocals. This is a hard-driving rock song, but not a dance song, so it’s OK to de-emphasize the 1-beat on the ‘A’ measures. Throughout the song, the vocal rhythm overrides the straight-four beat.

So now that we have an idea for the rhythm, we need some more notes. Starting slowly, we look at the Box, and add the F# to transition from E to A. Notice that the way I’ve done it, I’ve cancelled the anticipation. This probably won’t work for long.

Second Line

Having listened to the album, I know that the Jefferson Airplane’s bass player is much busier than this; he’s playing all the time, almost ignoring the rhythm of the song. So I know that I could/should do more, but I disagree with ignoring the rhythm, which is strongest at the beginning of each ‘Em’ measure. So I decide to start the transition earlier in the measure so I can add more notes. Also, I realize that I can use the same transition in both directions.

Third Line

Note the similarities between this and Satisfaction above – must be doing something right!

So once you get this riff down, the next question is: “Can I do even more?” The transition already includes all the available notes between E and A, so where can we go? Well one option is to overshoot, so I added a B to the riff and started even earlier in the measure. After some practice, it worked out pretty well, but it sounded a bit muddy. That’s a lot of notes in pretty rapid sequence, so I tried it up an octave (not charted). By starting with the E on the 7th fret of the A string, you will find this sounds good, and is easier to play as the frets are closer together. You are actually using the Box, with your pinky hitting the G in the riff.

Verse line 1
Verse line 2
Chorus line 1
Chorus line 2
Chorus line 3
Chorus line 4

For the chorus above, I went through the same process. Chords first, then echo the vocal rhythm, then add transition and accent notes. Note that each phrase of the chorus is played differently. The “Don’t!!!” is one of Grace’s patented strong wails, so I accent it with a high-ish note. The “wouldn’t you” transition is lower with more “syllables”, and my drummer does a fill on the low tom to go along.

I hope that these examples show you how you can create your own basslines, adding complexity and flair by following the guidelines and tools I’ve described.

My next column will review the 1-3-5-6-7 patterns and point out a wide variety of songs that make use of it. In the mean time, I would like you to send me some specific questions about basslines and songs that you think are interesting.