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Artistic Freedom With Bass Lines Pt. 2: Where You Don’t Have Creative Freedom (or As Much, Rather)

In part 1 of this two part column, we looked at exploring bass lines that were difficult to hear, difficult to make out and how you the bass player should interpret playing and approaching those lines. We also explored how much artistic creativity and freedom you have when making a ‘new’ bass line and what to keep in mind when you do so.

In this second part, let’s look at some instances where it might not as alright to exercise to much creative liberty with a bassist’s bass line and original work.

When Not to Int

Some songs, naturally, have a bass line that is clear and defined. Let’s look at ‘Sir Duke’ by Stevie Wonder for example:

As one might expect, this is a difficult bass line and very iconic. It’s a line and a song that are both iconic in their own right and, as one would expect, fairly rote. The listener of this song is expecting it to be played a certain way and the original bassist, Nate Watts, wrote a bass line that is just as perfectly fitted and just as iconic as the song itself. The result is that the bassist trying to learn this song can’t – or even shouldn’t – exercise a great deal of creative liberty since the song itself is so meticulously pieced together and each part is reliant on the other to make the song as complete as it is.

Now, creative freedoms here don’t necessarily include just flat out re-imaginations of the bass line. In this capacity, your creative freedoms when learning and performing someone else’s work might only extend to adding a few notes flourishes leading into a bar or another idea, a slide from one note to another or some additional accent placed on some notes. Far from the full-scale re-imagination of a bass line like we discussed in part one.

Stevie Wonder’s music is just one example, but there are certainly others in different capacities. Take Pantera, for example, a influential groove metal band that thrived during the late 80s through the 1990s. With air tight riffs and very scripted portions of songs, there isn’t a lot of room to experiment or play around. Metallica is another example. Many of their songs whether we’re pointing to a song early on in their discography like ‘Hit the Lights’ or something a little later like ‘…and Justice for All’, both songs are fairly scripted and demand from their bass players (Cliff Burton and Jason Newstead respectively) that they play in lock step with those riffs and motifs for the greater good of the song. You, the bass player learning those songs, are also expected to perform in such a way.

Your Own Bass Lines: Rote, Fluid or a Mix of the Two

But as you’re reading this you’ve probably realized that you’re not playing in the (now defunct) Pantera, Metallica or for Stevie Wonder’s band. But you are a bass player who plays something somewhere whether in a band or as a solo performer. If you’re playing with a band there’s a good chance you’re guiding how you decide to make your bass lines work in your band’s songs. Are you the kind of bass player who creates one bass line, practices it tirelessly and establish that this is the bass line for this song and it is my job to perform it as such every time it’s performed? Or are you more of a player who has a few major ideas but find yourself riffing differently and ad-libbing more parts of your bass line during, say, the verse sections each time the song is performed and see bass lines are living and fluid? Maybe you’re a little bit of both.

As you play with your band or musical project, take a moment to observe how you create bass lines and how you hold yourself to them.

So How Much Creative Freedom DO I Have?

The stark reality is that you can put your own spin on someone’s work whenever you so please. As I mentioned in part 1, music is a derivative art form so new ideas and innovations in the field come from people re-imagining people’s work.

The challenge becomes having and developing enough sense to know how to be tasteful, complimentary and retain the original integrity of the original performer’s ideas and work. With the Grateful Dead example, there are fewer barriers to make this happen and more room for you the bass player to imagine something new. With Metallica, it’s a fairly scripted bass line like the complete songs themselves. There is a certain expectation that those covering their music will perform it near exactly as the original work versus the Grateful Dead which have gained their name as a band that embraces the fluidity of music and experimentation.

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Send me an email to mike@smartbassguitar.com and let me know what you thought of this 2 part column and if I should do more of these in the future. If I should, what should I do them on?