" /> Google Analytics Alternative
Submit to UsFind out how to be a guest or contributing writer for SBG

Column: What Makes a Good Bass Line?

I finally learned to accept and understand the eighth note.

It only took 10 years, but I finally get it.

“What are you talking about, Mike?”

I’m taking about playing simpler, more tasteful bass lines. Bass lines that are less flair and more function. Bass lines that have a special nuance about them rather than a need to impress with hundreds of notes a second.

One Day While Jamming With Friends…

Backup a few weeks ago. I was in a rented space jamming with a few friends and we were beginning to hash out some ideas for some songs and possibly a new band. This was the first time that I had picked up my bass in a few months to jam with a group of people so,needless to say, my playing was a bit rusty and I was out of practice with playing with a group.

I plugged in and turned on the massive Acoustic stack and started playing. After overcoming the initial stiffness that comes about from not playing for a long period of time, my friend started walking us through an idea he had for a song. This was the first time any of us had heard this idea so none of us had any preconceived ideas about what to play or what direction this was going in.

He explained the chord progression, how long the verse was going for and what the feel was. We all nodded and began playing.

I noticed that I didn’t feel like showing off and playing something complicated and pretty. A noticeable shift in thinking up until that point.

I also was much more aware of my friend’s singing and the whole picture of the song. Each instrument now had a place and each of my friends was now carving out an idea.

We started playing and my compulsions were:

  • To really focus on the chord changes. Not just what chords were coming next but were the chords moving up or down, too.
  • How can I make my friend whose singing sound better?
  • Where is my opening in the song?
  • Where are the ‘accent points’ in the song?

The answer to these questions, in most cases, was to play eighth notes – or, plainly put, a simpler bass line. And you know what? It felt fantastic to play and got me thinking about bass in a new way that I had ‘thought about’ before, but never really thought about before.

Now – before anyone reading this thinks that I’ve been an ignorant bassist to the structure, feel and fluidity of a song or a jam, I’d like to say that’s not the case at all.

However, my natural tendency as a player since I started playing was to come up with the best bass line I could for the part. In my head, that usually lead to a complicated line that filled in a lot of blank spots that the guitar and drums might have been leaving open. And it worked – and still does to a degree.

But the song as a whole, rather than coming up with the bass line, was making sense, arguably for the first time.

What is “Good”?

Bass lines are very interesting things in the composition of a song.

They tow the bottom line, they bind the melody and the rhythm and can standalone as their own instrument from time to time.

But what makes a good bass line? That seems like the question has dogged bass players as long as there have been bass players.

Now, I’m no industry vet of bass playing, but 90% of bass players will tell you their purpose is to serve the song. Their musical role is to make everyone else on stage sound better.

While that may be true, that is a very general statement. There are many ways to serve a song as a bass player. Heck – many jazz bass players do it just through quarter notes that move in, on and through the chord changes. Those are good bass lines because they compliment the total sum structure of the song. But does that mean you should play walking quarter notes through a rock song? You totally could. It would sound different but probably wouldn’t be a good bass line because rock tends to be more upbeat, pumping and with a fairly limited chord structure. Moreover, rock music (generally speaking) tends to have a mash of sounds. Jazz is more nuanced and distinguishes it’s instrumentation better by comparison. Eighth notes or notes that outline the basic chord structure might be more fitting. That might be a good bass line there but conversely not for a swung jazz number.

But to that rock song, could you hit only the one? Could you gallop a bass line? Could you play a countermelodic line to the guitar’s chords? All possible as well, provided they compliment the full body and feel of the song.

If the song gives you a chord progression like this: A-E-Bb-C and an “Iron Maiden-feel”, frankly, those are your only rules as a bass player. Short of someone in the band telling you to play a very specific bass line, those are your only parameters for creating a ‘good bass line’ in aka something that fits the song well.

Good Bass Lines are Function Plus Color

A good bass line, to me, is one that serves the song and showcases your taste and abilities. Color is the word I like to use for that idea.

Geddy Lee works so well in Rush because Rush’s music is technical. Therefore, Geddy Lee could play eighth notes underneath Lifeson and Peart, but would that showcase the song? If the purpose of the song was to showcase Lifeson, perhaps. But Rush songs are notorious for their ability to showcase all three players’ abilities at the same time. Therefore, Geddy’s bass playing serves the bigger goal of Rush and showcases Geddy Lee’s fluency on the instrument.

There are other instences as well. James Jamerson comes to mind as well. Motown music in the 1960s was groove and vocally driven. The singers were expressive and the groove, arrangement of instruments and designated lines were supportive of the singer’s expressiveness and soulful in their own right. Jamerson could have played quarter notes ala like a jazz bassist. That absolutely would have covered the bottom end of the song, but it wouldn’t have supported the color, feel and expression of the song. Jamerson’s lines make sense because the lines are as colorful and expressive as the singer of the band that he was the session player for. They breathed, they stopped, slowed down, came back fast, throttled down and moved in their own way through the chords of the song and, in their own way, matched the traits of the singer’s voice.

Are There Bad Bass Lines? What Do They Sound Like?

All that being said, now the question arises: are there bad bass lines and what do they sound like?

I don’t believe there are. If it was a bad bass line, the band, studio director, producer, drummer – whoever, would have told the bass player to knock it off and it would have never been recorded.

I do believe there are uninspiring bass lines and bass lines that saddle more on the functional side than on the line of function and color. These are the bass lines that serve the role. They are there and nothing more. They support the song in the truest possible way, but they get lost. They’re forgettable and we as bass players and music listeners don’t tell our colleges “Hey – check this out!”

I think that is where we are with music right now from the perspective of the bassist. We’re at a point where bass lines are not the focus, are downplayed and as a result, you have players serving the song more than trying to impart color and personality into the mix. Moreover, it might fall on the shoulders of producers for not playing up bass in recordings and, actually, bringing the bass more into sonic focus like the guitar or vocals. Maybe there’s great work but we all simply aren’t hearing it for one reason or another.

Why Famous Bass Players Are Famous

Why do we look up to Geddy Lee?

Why do we look up to Victor Wooten, Jack Bruce, Mike Watt, James Jamerson and countless other bass players from 1960-1990? Why have these hundred-some-odd bassists become the bass players to idolize, learn from and model our playing over? Why do they stick out in our minds more than Chester Hansen from BadBadNotGood?

Those hundred some odd bass players successfully merged function with color. Their work supported their musical project and they were able to showcase their talent and knowledge of the instrument better than their peers – and it was caught on tape.

The older I get the more and more the idea of music, not just bass playing seems like a riddle. What is the ideal balance in a band? What is ‘good’ and what makes ‘bad’. Maybe there isn’t an answer (there probably isn’t) but it’s always worth periodically exploring as bass players what our role in the musical spectrum is under a sharp microscope.