The bass guitar is one of the most overlooked instruments around. Often people just refer to them as “guitars” and if they look really closely they might wonder “why are there only 4 strings on that guy’s guitar when the other has 6?”
Often if someone says “listen to that bassline”, people have a hard time identifying which part of the music the bass line is. It does take a slightly trained ear to be able to identify bass sounds, especially when the sound source is quiet or we are listening to music on mobile phones or tablet. The bass occupies a frequency range which is less audible at low volume due to Fletcher-Munson effect. More on that another time when we have our physics heads on..
So the bass guitarist has to supply to the band (and the audience) with what it says on his or her tin – bass frequencies! This is the part of the sound which is often ‘felt’ rather than heard – the stuff that makes your ribcage rattle if you are doing it right. As such we often tend to think of the bass notes as the part of the music which ‘grounds’ everything else.
If we use the analogy of a building, the bass is the foundation, the stuff which is rock solid and steady, ready for everything else to sit on.
If we think to our bass playing then it becomes clear that it needs to echo this and make sure that what we play is also rock steady and allows the other instruments to sit on top. We are talking about the bass acting as the foundation of the music. Here are 2 important concepts we need to understand:
1. Rhythmic foundation
2. Harmonic foundation
There’s a famous equation which Einstein would have been proud of:
Drums + Bass = Groove
This is what you should be thinking about when we talk about rhythmic foundation. The bass and drums provide the vast majority of the feel of a song. You can change the vocals, horn parts or keyboard parts and sure, the song will sound different, but if you change the bass and drums then the underlying soul and feel of the music will be totally different.
How do I achieve this in my playing?
You must have a good understanding of where to place your bass notes and how this affects the groove. A good exercise to practice this feel is to learn and really analyse the parts to famous songs that have a great groove. If you take songs from funk masters such as Sly and the family stone or Parliament you can spend hours digesting the parts of great bass players such as Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham. Here’s Bootsy talking you through a super simple concept relating to funk. It’s all about the one!!
After hours of practice the groove becomes instinctual and you can bet that your favourite players got to where they are because they had this ability. You have to be able to feel the groove and let it become a part of your natural vocabulary.
Here’s the important point:
The thing that will define you as a great bassist will be your ability to internalise that sense of feel.
What about bass as a Harmonic Foundation?
Harmonic foundation is a different affair in that you need to be aware of song chord structures and listen to the parts that your bands mates are playing. Often the bass will provide root notes of the chords in the song but you can drastically alter the feel by switching to a different note in the same chord (this is called an inversion). For example, if there is a chord of C in a song you may choose to hit the root note of C, or you may choose to alter the sound and play an E or G (both notes are also contained in the basic chord of C).
You need to be able to use this technique to create tension and release at appropriate times during the music. This skill is less about feel and more about developing a good ear. You don’t necessarily need to understand music theory to be able to do this but you do need to internalise and recognise the specific sound that inversions and altered chords have and work out when to use them effectively.
Put these 2 skills together and what do you have? Answer: an awesome bass player, which is hopefully what you are trying to achieve.
1. Practice playing great music and internalise the things which make it great – feel, timing and use of dynamics. Provide a good rhythmic foundation for music projects that you are involved in.
2. Learn to recognise and use intelligent harmonic techniques in your music. Provide a good harmonic foundation for music projects you are involved in.
Get those 2 things down and then you can concentrate on the other most important aspect of bass playing – looking cool. Let’s be honest, that the real reason you do it, isn’t it?!