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building a bass line

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by nathan, Nov 28, 2004.

  1. nathan


    Jul 16, 2004
    Im not sure if this is the right catagory...

    Anyway, I've played bass for about 5 years now, and I haven't really been able to find a good band to be in. All my friends just want to play power chords and what not...which isnt my style. Now though, I've found a very good guitarist and we have been trying to form a band. The problem is that, whenever he comes to me with something he wrote, I'm at a loss about what to play, and just end up playing mostly root notes. Can anybody give me any tips on how to better construct a bass line? Or maybe a link to a good theory site?
    Thanks a lot
    - nathan
  2. retitled


    Feb 13, 2004
    forest hills

    and if ur having trouble accessing it heres what it says...

    Basic theory and writing bass lines for beginners
    Written by Flopfoot Posted: 06:46 AM - 11-16-2004
    Rating: 4
    Hi all... I know there have been some threads about this, but I wanted to explain basic theory and writing bass lines in my own way, since I thought it might be beneficial to people.
    Also, I better mention - I have been playing bass for 9 months and I'm not particularly good at it. Any bassist whose been playing for a while and knows a bit of theory will prolly not get that much out of this lesson, but you can still check through to see if you know it all already. This lesson is for beginners.

    Edit - Thanks to FatalBass for the suggestion about explaining semitones, I was thinking about it but wasn't sure if it was needed. It would probably be the best thing to start off this article with. Many players will be able to skip this bit, but if you don't know about semitones, read on.
    Semitones are, in a way, a measurement of the change in pitch between 2 notes. For example - Pick the E string without fretting it (known as open string), then pick the A string open. The A sounds higher than the E. Now pick the E string again open, then hold down the 3rd fret and pick the E string again - this note is G. Both times, the second note you played was higher than the first. However, the first time there was a greater difference in pitch - the A was a higher note relative to the E than the G was. This is because the A is 5 semitones above the E, while the G is only 3 semitones above the E.
    Moving up one fret on the bass (while still picking the same string) always increases the pitch by one semitone. Moving up one string while keeping on the same fret always increases the pitch by 5 semitones.
    The second note, D, is two semitones higher than the first note, C.

    The second note, F, is 5 semitones higher than the first note, C.

    Here, you are moving up 2 strings higher (increasing the pitch by 10 semitones) and then moving down 3 frets (decreasing the pitch by 3 semitones). Hence the second note, G, is 7 semitones higher than the first note, C.

    All of these notes are 1 semitone apart:
    A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#
    This is called a chromatic scale.
    The hash sign (#) means the note is sharp - 1 semitone higher than it would be without the sharp sign.
    However you can also use flats, written with a lower case B (b). A flat note is one semitone lower than it would be without the flat.
    So the chromatic scale can also be written:
    A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab.

    Notice how the last (and highest) note of that scale was Ab. This means that the next note up must be an A. But A was also used for the lowest note. Letters are repeated in music, and the difference between one sound and the next sound up of the same name (like the two A's above) is called an octave. One octave is 12 semitones.
    However, these two A's sound very alike, as do any two notes which are exactly an octave apart. Try this - pick the A string, open, and also pick the G string with the second fret held down, at the same time. The two notes are both A's and they sound good together. This means that later when I start talking about arpeggios and so on, notice that it would be also correct to play the same thing up or down an octave or two octaves or whatever.
    Eg, later you will see that the G apreggio can be played like this:
    Now, to move it up an octave, you need to move it up by 12 semitones. So how about moving it up 2 strings and 2 frets, like this:
    That is also a G arpeggio.

    (End of edit)

    Ok next thing you need to know is about chords. A chord is sort of a set of notes thats used as a background sound in most music. Maybe the chords are being played by a guitarist or keyboard, or maybe no one is playing the chord explicitly but it's still used as the background 'idea' for the music. Every bar or section of a bar has a chord 'behind' it. You can write bass lines based on the chords behind each bar.

    Every chord has a 'root note'. This is the note that the chord is based around - A for example, or Eb or anything.
    The first three types of chords you are likely to come across are major chords, which generally have a 'happy' sound, minor chords, which generally have a 'sad' sound, and also seventh chords. A major chord is written just with the root note as its name, like C. A minor chord is wrtten with a litte m afterwards, like Am. A 7th chord is written with a 7 after the name, like D7, or Cm7 (this is both a minor and a 7th chord).

    Every chord has a series of main notes, often called the arpeggio of the chord. The first note in the arpeggio is the root note. The next note is known as the 'third'. In a major chord, the third is four semitones above the root note. In a minor chord the third is 3 semitones above the root. The next note in the arpeggio is called the 'fifth'. The fifth is 7 semitones above the root. Finally, if the chord is a seventh chord, there is another note in the arpeggio called the seventh. This is 10 semitones above the root note.

    Some examples, on the bass
    The first note in each example is the root, then the third, then the fifth (then the seventh where applicable)
    These are not the only ways to play the apreggios.

    C major chord (written C) = C E G


    D major chord (written D) = D F# A


    A minor chord (written Am) = A C E


    C seventh chord (written C7) = C E G Bb


    C minor seventh chord (written Cm7) = C Eb G Bb


    Now have a look at the ways the C and D major chords are played. The D is played exactly the same as the C except everything is moved up 2 frets. If you learn the basic 'shapes' of arpeggios or the 'size of the gaps' between roots and thirds or fifths or sevenths, known as intervals, then you can easily play an arpeggio starting on any root note. There is a reference on intervals available.

    When you first start writing bass lines, try just playing the root note of the chord, and then try and add in the third fifth and perhaps seventh notes. Normally, you should begin each bar with the root note of the chord.

    Ok now you have some notes to play, how about a few rhythms?
    (Most people will know most of this already)
    There are 4 beats in each bar, usually. Every beat is a certain length of time, like in a 120 beats per minute song, each beat is half a second long.

    Some rhythms to try are-
    Crotchets - these are 1 beat long, you can play 4 of them in a bar. Count 1, 2, 3, 4 as you play them.
    Minims - 2 beats long, you can play 2 of these in a bar
    Whole notes - 4 beats long, you can play only 1 of these in a bar
    Quavers - half a beat long, you can play 8 in a bar. Count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & as you play them.
    Triplets - 3 notes played in 1 beat. You can play 12 triplets in a bar
    Semiquaver - one quarter of a beat long, you can play 16 semiquavers in 1 bar.

    You can mix these different kinds of notes in a single bar, as long as the total number of beats in each bar is still four. For example, in 1 bar you might play a minim, then a crotchet, then 2 quavers.
    You can also tie a note. This means to hold it on over two rhythm elements instead of picking it twice. For example, you can tie a crotchet to a quaver thus producing a note that is 1 and a half beats long.

    Syncopation is a good rhythmic technique. This is normally when a note begins midway through one beat and ends in another beat. For example if you play a pattern like this - Crotchet quaver crotchet quaver quaver quaver - the second crotchet begins midway through the second beat and ends in the third. The syncopated note should be accented - this means picking it harder to make it louder - to draw attention to it. You can also accent non-syncopated notes, if it sounds good for the line you are playing.

    Even though most tabs you find on mxtabs don't mention the rhythm, when you write your own bass lines you should make sure you write down the rhythm.
    You should also write down, below each bar, what chord that bar is based upon.

    Ok, now to some more about notes you can use and writing bass lines.
    As well as using roots thirds and fifths, you can approach any note by an upper neighbour (UN) or lower neighbour (LN). A lower neighbour is normally 1 semitone below the note you are playing
    eg for a C major chord
    Here the third (which is the E, played on 2nd fret on D string) is approached by a LN.
    A nice idea to use when playing LN's is to slide from the LN to the actual note. This means you only pick the string once, and while it is still ringing, slide your left hand finger up or down to the next note you want to play.
    An UN can be 1 or 2 semitones above the note following it.
    eg for a C major chord
    Here G, the fifth, is approached by an UN.

    You can also 'stack up' UN's and LN's which can give a nice effect. Consider the following line in A major
    The third (C#, 6th fret on the G string) is approached by C, its LN, which itself is approached by B, the LN of C.

    Another thing to remember - you can play the notes in any octave. This means, for eg, that you can play the fifth 5 semitones below the root, instead of 7 semitones above. Example in D major -
    This is still D F# A, but the F# and A are an octave lower than the first D major example (way above). You might want to begin on the lowest note, like this -
    Which is called an inversion. This still uses the same notes from the D major arpeggio, but it doesn't begin on the root note. You could also begin on the fifth if you like.

    You can also use rests in your bass lines. This is a short period of silence - justs top all your strings ringing when you want to play a rest. A rest can be used regardless of what chord underlies the bar. A rest can be any length, just like a note.

    Try writing a few bass lines with notes in the apreggio, and UN's and LN's, and rests, with varying rythms. You'll need some chord progressions... try the I VI IV V progressions if you don't know any others. This progressions begins with a major chord for 1 bar, then it is followed by the minor chord which beings on a note 9 semitones above that first major, then the major chord which begins 5 semitones above the first major, then a major chord 7 semitones above the first major. Example - C Am F G, each chord played for 1 bar, repeat as many times as you like.

    Now of course musicians are meant to be creative. The rules above still allow for a great variety of bass lines - try using inversions, syncopation, triplets, rests etc. if you've never done that before in a bass line. But especially when you're writing bass lines for 'real' songs, you can't follow the rules to the letter - my above rules or anyone elses, even your own. Learn to try out a few different things to get your bass lines to sound good for the particular song, and to make them interesting. You can learn about things like major scales and pentatonic scales in other references, and use them in your bass lines. You can also learn about slapping and tapping and ghost notes and harmonics, and write bass lines using them. And sometimes you can try just something crazy with no musical precendent - how do you think most kinds of music were invented in the first place? But all the same, its good to have a few general guidelines to get you started any make sure your lines don't go all haywire.

    As with anything else you try and learn, practice is important. Just grab a few songs you know the chords to and see if you can write a bass line for them. You'll pick up ideas as you go.

    Suggestions/Comments are welcome. This is my first attempt at writing a lesson.

    Good luck and enjoy!

    By the way, here are some bass lines I wrote early on, they contain some examples of things I wrote about above. I just got the chord progressions out of a book and was writing bass lines to get a feel for it.
    PS - The preformatter is cutting out all my spaces, sorry about that, it means the rhythm isn't lining up with the tab, and the chords are not directly below the bar they relate to, hopefully u can sill fig it out.

    Rhythm - Length of a note is written above the number on the tab - a
    length of 1 means 1 half note (quaver) - hence 3 is a dotted crotchet
    and 4 is a minim. The exceptions are - 816 means dotted 8th-16th beat,
    /-3-\ means a triplet.

    Greater-than (>) means accent. X in a tab means a rest.
    Underscore (_) in a tab means a tie. s = slide. h = hammer on.

    2) Rhythm
    5 2 1 6 2 5 2 1 6 2 8

    G|---------|-----4-|-0-->0-0-|-2-----| |-----|
    D|-0-->0-0-|-------|---------|-------| |-0---|
    A|---------|-2-----|---------|-----0-| |-----|
    E|---------|-------|---------|-------| |-----|
    D Bm G A7 D

    This one (above) I wrote just using roots. In the second and 4th bar I play the same note in 2 different octaves. The 1st and 3rd bar start with a minim tied to a quaver, and then the next note is syncopated.

    4) Rhythm
    3 1 2 2 3 1 2 2 3 1 2 2 3 1 2 2

    A D A E7

    3 1 2 2 3 1 2 2 3 1 2 1 1 3 1 2 1 1 8

    G|----------|----------|-2----------|------------| |-----|
    D|----2-1---|-0------0-|----2-------|-2--0-------| |-----|
    A|-0------4-|------0---|------4-2-0-|------2---2-| |-0---|
    E|----------|----2-----|------------|--------4---| |-----|
    A D A E7 A

    This one above uses some sevenths, UN's and LN's - like the slides from 1st to 2nd fret.

    8) Rhythm
    1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

    C Am F

    1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 4 4
    G|-----------------| |---------|
    D|-----------------| |---------|
    A|-----2-X-5-X-2---| |-3---X---|
    E|-3-X-----------3-| |---------|
    G C

    This one above is in I VI IV V progression. It uses rests and some stacked up UN's, like at the end of the first bar (the final note is UN to the A at the start of the next bar)

    10) Rhythm
    2 /-3-\ 2 /-3-\ 2 /-3-\ 2 /-3-\ 2 /-3-\ 2 2 2 /-3-\ 2 2

    A F#m D E

    2 /-3-\ 2 2 2 /-3-\ 2 2 4 4 4 2 2 8

    G|---9-6-------|---6-4-2-1---|---------|-----1---| |-----|
    D|-7-----9-7-5-|-4---------4-|>0---4---|>2-------| |-----|
    A|-------------|-------------|---------|---------| |-0---|
    E|-------------|-------------|---------|-------4-| |-----|
    A F#m D E A

    This one above I did to try out using triplets. It is a I VI IV V progression in A.
  3. Not bad. But I've never heard of 'crotchets and quavers' I just call them whole note, half note, quarter note, eighth note.


    Good read.
  4. Seems to be a good guide to building lines using arpeggio's, but I always throught there were four ways (chords, arpeggio's, root notes and scales). Anybody have a good guide to those?
  5. I've read somewhere that those are the English names, as opposed to the American.
  6. Matt Ides

    Matt Ides

    May 12, 2004
    Minneapolis, MN
    1. Root notes
    2. Arpeggios and Scales (major and minor and beyond)
    3. passing tones
    4. leading tones
    5. substitutions

    This is a much more jazz (walking) approach to the build but gives you tons to work with as far as note choice.

    Plus if the guitarist is playing some nice chords you won't want just to pound out Root notes the entire time.

    Really work with the guitarist so you are reinforcing the harmony and melody (if there is one) of what you are playing.