After my last two Woodshed columns hit the newsstands, mailboxes, and iPads, I got a couple of reader emails saying something to the effect of, “Where’s the hip stuff ? This is too easy!” That’s the way it should be; a good groove sounds easy. If a bass line sounds hard, then it’s probably not really grooving. By mastering the basics—the nuts and bolts of rhythm—you can breathe life into both simple and very complicated lines.
I recently had the pleasure of working with trumpeter Randy Brecker, who writes always-groovy yet sometimes complicated bass lines, like his classic “Some Skunk Funk” (Ex. 1). This segment of the bass line is heard in the interlude of the song between the melody and solos. There are several basic eighth- and 16th-note combinations in this two-bar funk fest, and when combined, these rhythms give the line its special, agitated funk feeling. [For a full-song transcription of Will Lee’s take on the tune from 1975, flip back to the June 2007 issue of BASS PLAYER.]
Example 2 shows the four possible combinations of eighth-and 16th-notes within the space of one quarter-note. These rhythmic possibilities can be augmented with eighth- or 16th-note rests. To become comfortable using 16th-note rhythms in bass lines, practice each one of these rhythms separately, slowly and in time.
Fun tip to test your bass teacher: Once you’re confident playing each of the four basic rhythms, write out some of your own exercises. Compose a full page of eighth- and 16th-note rhythms using just one note, or only a few repeated notes. Practice the page over and over until you can play it accurately at a slightly scary, but not out-of-control tempo. Take the page into your next bass lesson and suggest that your teacher sightread the page along with you. You’ll find that your teacher either (a) nails all of the rhythms and commends you on a great exercise, (b) says something sage like, “I really want to hear you play this first by yourself,” or (c) asks you not to come back the following week, citing scheduling problems. If the third scenario occurs, this person was probably not the best teacher for you, anyway.
Example 3 uses the C major scale with four 16th-notes on beat four of each bar. The last 16th of every bar is tied over to an eighth-note in the following bar. Make sure you feel the tied note on beat one, even though you don’t play it. Example 4 is the same exercise, but with an eighth-note rest on beat one of each bar. Check out last month’s Woodshed to review similar exercises using eighth-notes. Example 5 combines more eighth-and 16thnotes with eighth-note rests. This example uses all four of the basic 16th-note rhythms seen in Ex. 2, punctuated with eighth-note rests on beat one in bars 2–5.
Example 6 brings another important Groove Factory tool into play: articulation. Pay extra attention to the articulations marked on certain notes: staccato (short notes) are indicated by a dot, and tenuto (full-length notes) are indicated by a dash. The last note in each bar has an accent marking, which indicates a stronger attack. The first beat of bar one contains a 16th-, eighth-, 16th-note rhythm. The eighth note (the second note in this rhythmic cell) has a dot underneath, indicating that the note should be played short. This rhythm could also have been written: 16th-note, 16th-note, 16th-rest, 16th-note (Ex. 7). The lesson here is that there is often more than one way to write the same rhythm.
Example 8 uses eighth- and 16th-notes combined with eighth- and 16thrests. This rhythmically jagged scale exercise is typical of funk and fusion styles. The groove grows from the combination of precise attacks, note lengths, articulations, and rests.
Now that you have a handle on the main aspects of eighth- and 16th-note grooves, write out your own exercises. You can use the harmony of a familiar song as a basis, or just experiment with one static chord or scale sound. Create your bass line on paper, and then play it on your instrument. By composing away from your instrument, you’ll break old habits and invent new, hip lines that might never occur to you with a bass in your hands. After you learn your freshly composed bass line on your instrument, play it repeatedly, tweaking and re-tweaking to refine the groove. A good groove is not always easy to play, but it must sound easy!
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos, and answers to all of your bass-related questions.