From Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen, rock guitarists have understood the value of knowing how to craft bass lines. Whether you want to write bass lines for your songs, fill in for a bass player on a recording (as Jimi and Ed did), add some movement to the bottom end of your guitar playing or pick up some bass-playing skills, you’ll benefit from knowing some rudimentary bass line–building skills.
But the value of this goes even further. Learning to play bass is just one of the many things we as guitar players can do to make ourselves more marketable. More bands are searching for bassists than guitarists, so you’re more likely to get a steady gig if you can handle bass basics.
Similarly, say you’re a solo performer. The ability to incorporate meaningful bass lines into your solo guitar arrangements will make your performance more interesting, which generally translates to a more favorable audience reaction—which in turn results in getting hired again.
In this lesson, we’ll explore some useful patterns and techniques for building bass lines in a variety of genres. The focus here is on rock, but we’ll get where we’re going by taking some useful detours through country, R&B, blues and jazz, genres where bass line skills are essential for guitarists.
Learning to play bass lines does not necessarily mean you need a bass guitar. As previously mentioned, the lowest four strings on the guitar are tuned just like a standard four-string bass. For the purpose of this lesson, we’re only going to focus on a standard-tuned six-string guitar, although a standard-tuned seven-string may also be used to emulate the popular five-string bass, as both have a low B string.
The role of the bass line is twofold: to support the harmony and the rhythm. The most obvious approach to any bass line is to play the chord root on the downbeat of each measure. If, for example, you’re given a G-Em chord progression, you could opt to play just a G note under the G chord and an E under the Em chord (FIGURE 1). You’ll often hear this type of bass part in folk and old-time country songs. Although this is a serviceable approach, most audiences will grow bored with the sound.
The next step in building your bass lines is to add a perfect 5th to the part. The root-5th pattern is perhaps the most common bass line approach in modern music. The pattern has two forms: the root and the 5th above (FIGURE 2A), and the root and the 5th below (FIGURE 2B). Many players, upon hearing the phrase root-5th, think of country music, and while that’s certainly a popular outlet, it’s not the only genre in which the root-5th pattern is often used.
Check out FIGURE 3 for a little taste of bossa bass—another classic application.
Although you can get a lot of mileage out of the root-5th pattern, there are five other tones from the major scale that are just dying to make beautiful music. The country-bluegrass example in FIGURE 4 takes the root-5th pattern introduced earlier and adds short bass runs every two measures to color the foot-stompin’ rhythm that dominates.
The same concept works in pop tunes as well. In FIGURE 5, the bass lines descends the A major scale in support of the I-IV (A-D) progression, hitting every scale tone along the way. At the same time, notice the root-5th movement under both chords: The first bass note under the A chord is the root (A) and the last is the 5th (E): The same goes for the D chord. The first note is the root (D) and the last is the 5th (A).
Of course, you don’t have to constrain your bass lines to an ordinal nature—that is, playing the tones in step-wise scalar motion. FIGURE 6 is a simple folky fingerstyle I-V (A-E) progression; the chords in parentheses define the harmony.
In a similar vein, FIGURE 7 uses ringing drones over the bass line to create a modal progression borrowed from the Dave Matthews school of accompaniment.
Looking for a more rocking sound? Jimi Hendrix played a lot of bass lines on his arsenal of Fender Strats, in addition to often playing bass on his records. Whether doubling the bass in songs like “Hey Joe” or wielding his substantial R&B chops in tunes like “The Wind Cries Mary,” Jimi always had a handle on the groove. FIGURE 8—a classic R&B comp pattern with a built-in bass line based on major pentatonic scale tones—is similar to the accompaniment used in many of Jimi’s tunes.
The classic boogie bass line is an absolutely essential tool to have at your disposal. Played sometimes with a straight-eighth feel and at other times with a touch of swing, it’s been used in some of the all-time great rock and roll records, such as the classic Elvis Presley hit “Jailhouse Rock” and the Eddie Cochran tune “Twenty Flight Rock.”
There are three common boogie bass patterns you should know:
1) a major triad plus the 6th and octave root (FIGURE 9)
2) a major triad plus the 6th and b7th (FIGURE 10)
3) a major triad plus the perfect 4th, chromatically connected to the perfect 5th (FIGURE 11)
The first example is best used over chord progressions composed of major triads. The second works best in a bluesy setting where dominant 7th chords comprise the harmony. The third version is something found primarily in swing styles (think Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats).
A good exercise is to try playing a standard 12-bar blues form using each of these boogie patterns. All three are movable patterns, so to play over the I-IV-V changes of the 12-bar form, simply move the pattern to the root of each chord. You’ll need a slight adjustment when you reach the final four measures, however. This is because the V and IV chord changes occupy one measure rather than two, and you need to account for the turnaround in bars 11–12. FIGURE 12 shows one option for the final four measures of a boogie line in the key of G.
Through the years, the blues has yielded many memorable bass lines with which guitarists should be familiar. The first one presented here (FIGURES 13A-B) borrows from the major pentatonic sound of the boogie bass pattern in FIGURE 9 and can be heard in such classics as B.B. King’s “Woke Up This Morning (My Baby’s Gone).” FIGURE 13A shows the line in a box pattern, and FIGURE 13B leaves room for a slide leading into the major 3rd. Start that slide a half step below (b3rd), and you have the classic minor/major blues tension.
The second blues bass line is a boogie pattern popular in the Chicago blues West Side sound. FIGURE 14 shows the root-octave-b7th-5th pattern as used over the I-IV-V changes for a 12-bar blues in D. A popular option when playing this pattern on guitar is to add string mutes à la Stevie Ray Vaughan. The number of muted strings you hit isn’t important; it’s all about the vibe. As long as the correct bass notes ring out in the rhythm, you’re doing fine.
The final blues pattern fills the space in a slow minor blues. The venerable root-5th-b7th pattern (FIGURE 15) is heard in myriad minor blues, such as B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”
THESE LINES WERE MADE FOR WALKIN’
More than guitarists in just about any other genre, jazz guitarists need a strong command of bass lines. For many years, pianists were the chosen accompaniment for vocalists in jazz duos, and they would play both the harmony (right hand) and bass line (left hand) to fill out an arrangement. When the guitar crept into a jazz accompaniment role, the players had to develop bass line skills to fulfill the left-hand duties of pianists. Soon, the ability to walk a bass line while simultaneously playing the chords became an essential skill for the jazz guitarist.
The foundation on which jazz bass lines are built is chord inversion. Since basic harmony in jazz centers around the 7th chord (whether major, minor, dominant or diminished), there are four chord inversions available for each chord. The bass notes in those inversions account for four of the seven scale tones available for the bass line.
FIGURE 16 is a bass line using only the chord tones of a ii-V-I progression in F major. Though this works, it soon sounds like elevator music if you limit your bass line to only chord tones. So the next step is to integrate scale tones into the line either by addition or substitution.
The bass line in FIGURE 17 takes the same ii-V-I in F and injects some scale tones for added color. If you’re at all familiar with jazz bass lines, however, you may note that FIGURE 17 still doesn’t sound very jazzy. That’s because jazz bass lines get their tasty tang from chromatic leading tones—notes that don’t belong to the chord’s associated scale.
In FIGURE 18, the B natural on beat 4 of measure I, which functions as the major 7th of C—a tension tone that wants to resolve to the root—leads beautifully into the C7 chord. The following chromatic walk to the 9th (D) lends a jazzy flavor before the jump to F# (#11th), which sets up the change to Fmaj7 in measure 3.
Finally, as a guitar player, your job often is to supply the harmony, so you need to intersperse chords throughout the bass line. FIGURE 19 does that very task using the exact same bass line found in FIGURE 18. From an execution standpoint, the key to pulling off this technique smoothly is to play the bass note between chords with the same fret-hand finger that will play the bass note in the next chord. Alternatively, you can play the bass note between chord voicings with the finger that played the bass note in the chord preceding the note. Use whichever method is more comfortable for you.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For ideas on how to approach and incorporate bass lines into the musical styles or genres that you play, listen to the bass players in your favorite bands. Then listen to bass players from other styles and try to adapt some of what they do to your own compositions. As you do this, be sure to analyze the harmony in order to determine where and how the bass notes fit in. This will help you create cohesive layers of sound that will get your listeners’ attention. With practice, your overall rhythm skills will improve, and you’ll find yourself sitting in the pocket much more frequently.