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Artistic Freedom With Bass Lines Pt. 1: How Freedom Much Do You Have?

How do you play the bass line to ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by the Grateful Dead?

It’s an innocent enough question but one with many answers. All of which can be right.

Songs like ‘Scarlet Begonias’ or many songs like the Grateful Dead, Phish, Umphrey’s McGee and even many jazz acts can have many different ways to play through that song. Keeping with the ‘Scarlet Begonias’ example, Phil Lesh claims to have never played the same bass twice and the Dead as a collective band have openly said that they don’t play the same song twice; each show and song is it’s own standalone entity.

So imagine for a moment you’re a beginner bass player and you’re very concerned with learning some Grateful Dead songs accurately. How do you approach the challenge when

  1. Phil Lesh himself has changed the bass line each time he’s played it
  2. The tabs and transcriptions online are so-so and don’t play, look or feel accurate to the bass line
  3. There are many different versions to learn from (the 8 minute version, the 13 minute version, or maybe the 25 minute version)

Moreover, should you even worry about having the bass line down as accurately as Phil Lesh is playing it?

Let’s take a moment to explore this idea.

Difficult Bass Lines: Difficult to Hear, Difficult to Get Down “Right”

The fact of the matter is that some bands have many versions of a song and don’t subscribe to playing the same song rote each time it’s performed. The bands listed above are examples of this, but jazz artists can fall into this category as well at times. As can other non-jam band rock acts.

So when faced with multiple lose interpretations of a bass line, what’s ‘right’ and how should you tackle it?

From my own personal experience it begins with first:

  1. Understanding the root of the bass line and then
  2. Understanding the context that the bass line sits in

Keeping with the ‘Scarlet Begonias’ example, the bass line for the verse, chorus, bridge and solo of the song according to the studio version can be a little murky to listen to. The bass pokes in and out and you can hear snippets of Lesh’s groove, you can feel the groove that the song is trying to communicate and you can also hear the chords that the song is cycling through.

Moreover, Lesh’s playing style is very distinct. Lesh’s playing has been characterized as playing everywhere except on the beat, counterpuntal, and one that toggles in and out of a lead and purely rhythmic roles fluidly.

With all this in mind, and given the reality of the studio recording of the song, in this case, you would have immense leeway to create your own bass line to this song. The tricky element becomes making sure what you interpret comes out and stays true to the original style and recording. In this case, you would have a lot of creative freedom to interpret the bass line and make it fit in your way. Playing a singular rote bass line might not be possible or make sense (unless you felt compelled to spend a few bucks on transcription software that could pull those pieces and parts of the bass line out of the song for you and give you a close-to-rote version of that particular line)

Should You Feel Bad You Didn’t Get the Exact Bass Line Down?

The long and short is no. Because in circumstances like this, it’s very hard to hear the original cut. There’s not much that you the eager-to-learn bassist can do about the recording out come.

For songs like this, it should be embraced that the ‘true spirit’ of the bass line was a jam. It was a fluid, improvised work built on a few motifs and within some distinct changes that stays up to the interpretation of the player in between those key parts. In a sense, many of these bass lines and songs are written like jazz pieces: they have a head (the main body of the song), a section to improvise (either a distinct solo space or a jam that goes on after the rote ‘song’ part) and the only guiding principle of what you the bassist can and can’t play comes down to the chord changes, the feel of the song and whether or not the band leader – or even just someone you’re playing with – tells you overtly not to play a certain thing.

Listening is, and Forever Will, Be the Key

Now I do caution that beginner bassists might have the most trouble with this concept. Listening, not just listening to what’s being played, but listening for the chord changes, those recurring musical motifs in songs, using good judgement all while remaining tasteful and true to the original ideas and feeling of the original bassist are key. Many beginner players don’t have these skills yet. Which is fine. Like anything they come with practice and dedication to the craft.

– – –

Bass lines will never be as forward or as in you face as guitar lines on the whole. Bass lines tend to be more nuanced, often more felt than heard and can get lost in professional mixes. But should these realities stop us from trying to learn these bass lines – even if it means coming up with our own in their place while working to stay as true as possible to what could have been the intentions of the original bass player? Music is a derivative art form, meaning new art often comes from modifying and re-interpreting the existing work of others. In many ways, devising a new bass line in a place where one isn’t heard is you creating new art from existing work. Again, is it the original, probably not. But who knows – maybe your interpretation of Phil Lesh’s bass work might surprise even Phil Lesh.