As bass players, our instrument has a huge influence on the mood of the music being played. One of the ways we can create rhythmic, dynamic, and textural changes is by changing our part’s density and playing in the high register to create counter-melodies. While our role often demands that we stick to the lower regions of our neck to best lay it down, sometimes a song demands that we buck convention and take on a more melodic role. In this edition of Progressive Pop, we’ll explore a couple of concepts behind this less conventional kind of playing and how to use these ideas when creating bass parts.
A great example is the song “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen, released in 1975 on the legendary A Night at the Opera [Elektra]. Written by Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, this tune offers some great insights for how you can take more of a lead role on the bass while still laying it down.
“You’re My Best Friend” is a shuffle with a long form and many chords, so Deacon approaches it almost like a jazz tune. Given Queen’s notorious attention to detail, I’d bet this was a written-out part, although it changes throughout the song quite a bit. There is not one particular line to point out, but a few overall concepts to cover—to work with this column, dust off that old Queen LP or CD or search for the song on YouTube, Spotify, or another streaming service.
CALL & RESPONSE
In “You’re My Best Friend,” the verse starts with the vocal line “Ooo, you make me live” and the bass responds with a triplet figure in the following bar. This complements the lyric and melody, adding color to fill the gap between vocal phrases—much like the role of a horn section in large-ensemble jazz. Deacon is creating a musical response to what was just said in the lyrics by echoing the sentiment of the line “you make me live” with a lively bass line. This interplay makes the song feel conversational between the vocalist, Freddie Mercury, and Deacon … fitting for a song about best friends.
There are many different ways to approach the call-and-response concept. A simple first step is to take a song you’re working on and look for the gaps in the melody. Try playing something in the space between the melody phrases that reflects on the content of what is being said and sung. Echo the melody or play something opposite. Your response really depends on what kind of story you think the song is trying to tell.
LEARN THE MELODY
In order to play melodically and offer counter melodies, it’s vital to know (and be able to play) the melody of the song on bass. Even though you may not ever play it in the context of the song, knowing the melody will inform what you play when developing a different line, and it will increase the depth of your awareness of the song’s meaning and structure.
Deacon plays some very tasty notes in his upper register as the song progresses, at peak moments completely abandoning the low end in order to complement the melody and lyrics. When Mercury hits a high C on the words “love the things that you do” the bass also goes up to a high C, playing an arpeggiated melody that outlines the chord but is rhythmically and harmonically different from the vocal line. It comes at the apex of the verse, underscoring the importance of the melody and lyrics, and because it’s done on the bass it is subdued enough not to overpower the vocals.
As a way to apply this technique, first look at the overall song you are working on and figure out where the contrasts are, identifying the dynamic and melodic highs and lows. After learning the melody, explore the harmony dictated by the chord structure. Keeping both of those things in mind, figure out where there are good places to play something in the upper register that mirrors and accentuates the melody in appropriate points throughout the tune.
This song features a fairly complex harmonic structure for a rock or pop song. It’s the blend of jazz and pop that in this case lends itself to a more melodic kind of bass playing. It is up to us to figure out what approach we should take based on the style of the tune we’re playing. These particular concepts are not limited to jazzy pop songs, and they’re utilized in lots of other styles, too; it really boils down to personal taste. Other good examples of songs utilizing these concepts are Jellyfish’s “Joining a Fan Club” and the Beatles’ “Something.”
While not every song will benefit from this kind of treatment, it’s good to keep an open mind and be willing to try many different approaches. John Deacon shows us how going against the prevailing wisdom helped to change what it means to lay it down, an approach that continues to influence the way we play now.
Tarik Ragab is the bassist and cofounder of San Francisco Bay Area band MoeTar, and he is also an accomplished visual artist.
Queen, A Night at the Opera [1975, Elektra]