SO MUCH OF WHAT WE BASS PLAYERS LOVE about popular music is our instrument’s unique ability to
shape a song’s mood and character. It may sometimes go
unnoticed, but everyone feels the effect. In Progressive
Pop, we’re going to explore what gives the bass the ability
to impact music profoundly. We will take an in-depth
look at clever pop bands that exploit the bass’s power,
like XTC, Queen, Everything Everything, and more. We’ll
examine the lines and how note choice can help convey
a song’s deeper meaning. By taking an in-depth look at
the tools we bassists bring to pop’s table, you’ll be better
equipped to use them in your own approach to music.
Let’s start with “Mayor of Simpleton” by XTC. Colin
Moulding’s approach demonstrates aptly just how much a
bass line can shape a song. First, take a look at the chords.
They’re the main ingredient of the harmony and play the
biggest role in the notes you choose. The verse of “Mayor
of Simpleton” is C and D, two major chords a whole-step
apart. The chords are given two beats each and played back
and forth through the whole verse. Example 1 shows a
bass line in the style of Moulding.
When chords alternate by a whole-step, players can exploit
an interesting harmonic device. A tritone is an interval of
three whole-steps above a given root note. In this case,
F# is the 3rd of our D, but it’s also the #11 of the C chord.
The progression creates an opportunity to use the sonically
striking tritone sound in a bass line. Example 2
shows how this applies to these two chords.
Instead of focusing on the two chords individually,
Moulding weaves a thread through both, using the G
major scale. The G is the 5th of C and the 4th of D. Since
4ths and 5ths can be considered harmonically neutral
(they don’t substantially alter a chord’s basic function),
using G obscures each chord’s individuality, making them
sound more harmonically ambiguous. Since F# is the 7th note of the G major scale, its presence in the line creates
the tritone under the C chord, imparting a dreamy quality.
TRY IT YOURSELF
To experiment with this concept, it helps to have a
person playing chords with you, or a playback device
that can loop. Start by taking two major chords whose
roots are a whole-step apart, and create a loop that allocates
two beats to each. Listen for the impact of playing
a major scale whose root is a 5th below the first chord.
Try other common scales over these two chords, listening
for the ways the mood changes, adding tension or
creating release. Also, find the notes in each chord or
chord scale that spark an emotional response.
Another distinctive quality of Moulding’s line on “Mayor of
Simpleton” is its density. This is a busy line by most standards
in pop music, yet that’s what makes it so remarkable.
While simplicity is often the critical aspect of a solid pop
line, sometimes more is called for, especially when the line
is clever and well executed.
Moulding creates a pattern that repeats every two bars.
Using a repetitive note pattern is a great way to solidify and
anchor the rhythm section. It provides a start and end point
that can be used as a marker for the other instruments and
their placement of fills and embellishments. It also creates
an increasingly familiar backdrop, which provides stability
for the melody and lyrics. In conjunction with organizing the
notes in a pattern, Moulding also plays them as steady eighthnotes
that propel the song and make it rhythmically solid.
There are many ways to develop patterns
of your own. Moulding cleverly alternates
the intervallic direction for every set of two
notes he plays, pairing them in opposites. The
whole line consists of variations on this idea.
If two notes go down, then the next two go
up, and so on. Now, he doesn’t only use this
method, but it is a good starting place conceptually
when you’re exploring ways to add
interest to a line.
Drawing from the sounds you developed with our
simple two-chord exercise, try making patterns
out of them using the method above. Try various
amounts of notes; three down and three up, four
down and four up, etc. This will create a dialog
within your line—a kind of call and response.
When developing a part, see if there is a way
to enhance the lyrics or story by incorporating
these ideas. You can create a subtext in the language
of your bass line in how it relates to the
lyrics and the message you are trying to convey.
In the case of the “Mayor of Simpleton,” it’s clever
that the bass line is busy and complicated when
the subject matter is about simple-mindedness.
It creates a subliminal juxtaposition to the lyrical
content, the perfect complement for a really
well-written pop tune.
Next time, I will continue to explore the bass’s
melodic potential, liberated from its traditional supportive
role. We’ll also discuss how you can create
countermelodies while still laying it down.
Tarik Ragab is the
bassist and cofounder
Area band MoeTar,
and he is also an
XTC, Oranges and