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Creating Bass Lines: 3 Factors That Affect Bass Line Development

As bassists, it’s our job to make a good bass line. A good bass line, broadly speaking of course, is one that can

As musicians that play in bands (more often than not – solo bassists excluded!), we have a very important decision – or series of decisions – to make: what bass line do we play?

It’s a simple question but there are so many answers that can work. Like an open ended test, there are no wrong answers but some answers work better than others. As is true with bass lines. In this piece we’re going to explore 4 factors that I believe go into crafting your bass line making decisions.


1. Chords

Without chords and collective clusters of sound, music wouldn’t be music – or at least as we know it anyway. Chords are the part of a song that people remember, can sing along to and guide the listener through a complex idea expressed musically. Chords are very important.

They also serve as the important framework for which to craft our bass lines in.

Take for example John Entwistle’s bass line during the intro of ‘My Generation’ (and check out even more John Entwistle bass line breakdowns in this piece here):

john entwistle my generation bass tab intro

Entwistle’s bass line here is entirely in lockstep with guitarist Pete Townshend’s chords. Moreover, Entwistle is matching the root note of each chord with his bass line.

Hypothetically, could John Entwistle played a bass line that wasn’t composed of quarter notes that were in lock step with the chord changes? Perhaps one that was composed of busier eighth notes that started, say, on the 5th of each chord (instead of starting on G, Entwistle would have started on E in the case of the G5 chord). Absolutely. Would it have sounded just as good? Perhaps. After all the notes he would play were still musically consistent with the chord and stayed so during the duration of the chord.

Let’s look at another example: A portion of Paul McCartney’s bass line on ‘Something’ (and like with the John Entwistle bass breakdowns, you can read a whole piece that analyzes 7 major Paul McCartney bass lines):

something bass transcription beatles

This is the tail of the verse and a section of the bridge from ‘Something’. There are two important things to make note of here. The first is that Paul consistently lands on the root note of the upcoming chord and occasionally will land on a note that is a non-root chord tone. One example of this is the third measure in where the bar starts on an Am7 chord. Rather than landing on the root – A – Paul instead slides on the 7th of that chord, the G (A-Cb-E-G). One reason for this could be that going from A to G was an easy slide away and sill allowed the bass line to ‘work’ on the downbeat of one in the next bar or Paul made a deliberate decisiion to bring out the new 7th in that chord and force the listener to pay attention to the difference of that chord relative to the chords before and after it.

Regardless the reason, this is an example that incorporates root-focused bass lines and non-root focused bass lines. Paul’s bass line in this example, as pretty and melodic as it is, is still consistent with the chords happening underneath it. As a result, the bass line works very well in this song and sounds like it fits.

2. Feel

Is the room dancing? Did they stop dancing? Did they change the way they’re dancing?

All these can be influenced by feel.

Feel determines whether your bass line is going to be played straight or swung; push the beat forward or pull it back. Whether or not your bass line is going to make estensive use of muted or dead notes to accent certain notes like in funk or play them long and fat like in reggae. Feel is immensely important because it adds context and personality to bass lines whether being played off a piece of sheet music or in the moment off the top of your head.

Composers and arrangers have been using written indicators and cues for hundreds of years to explain feel to performing musicians. Without these important indicators, the feel of the song – the feeling and emotion the composer hopes to convey – are lost or at the very least confused and inarticulate.

Feel in the context of a band can come from different places. Who ever is directing the band at a given time can vocalize they want the song played like a particular Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Instantly, the rest of the band understands this song is supposed to have a laid back, funky feel. Feel can come naturally from the drums or how the drummer starts playing. As a bass player it’s your job to add that extra level of articulation to the feel the drummer is trying to get across to the band. Is the drummer playing a funk groove? Match and elaborate on the groove and begin to outline some chord changes with a funky bass line.

3. Outside Instruction

Adding to a point made above, sometimes someone will be directing you to play a certain bass line a certain way. This is more common among session musicians where you’re serving an artist who knows what they want and need qualified, skilled musicians to make it happen. It’s not unlikely though that as a band you too might experience such direction and instruction.

Keeping with the idea of performing in a band, it’s not uncommon for someone in the band to come forward with an idea for a song and a vision for how it should be played and sound. As the bass player, this is a wonderful opportunity to work with the writer of the song and come to a satisfied creative medium. As the rest of the band is arranging their parts for the song, this is your opportunity to work with your band mate to try out different bass lines that both satisfy what your band mate is looking for, utilizes the concepts mentioned above but also showcases your own best judgement as to what you think would work best as a bass line in the song.

At the end of the day, bass guitar and music are creative endeavors. While there are exceptions and other smaller details that arguably could be made into bullet points and added to this list thereby extending it substantially, from my experience, creating a bass line ultimately can be boiled down to one, two or all of these ideas in different capacities. In the typical band setting the bassist’s role is clear, but there is wiggle room to explore and determine how you’re going to interpret these rules for the betterment of the song and thereby the band. It’s important to remember: these are not hard and fast rules nor are they even firm guidelines. But they are guidelines, none the less but, additionally, guidelines with flexible boundaries that leave immense room for creative interpretation of bass lines.

Use your best judgement and always have fun and make great music.