Blues You Can Use: Play Dynamically without Turning Up!

January 27, 2015

For the past few years, I’ve been featuring examples of various bassists playing over the 12-bar blues form, but this month I wanted to share some ideas of my own. When I play blues gigs, my first inclination is to keep it close to the bone—meaning, play the stuff that sounds right, and make it feel good. I don’t always get points for originality, but everyone goes home with a smile on their face. But on a recent club gig, I noticed a small detail about dynamics that I thought would be worth sharing.

Many bassists measure the level of creativity a gig offers by the degree of melodic and rhythmic freedom they have. While it’s an obvious correlation, they may be missing out on some of the more subtle ways to have fun. Playing with the “three chords and the truth” approach, you do not have an unlimited melodic palette to choose from, but that doesn’t mean your playing has to be boring. While playing a shuffle in E, I stuck pretty close to the classic 1–3–5–6 pattern throughout the form, but beyond the notes, I also played an equal role in the performance’s dynamics. The singer went through a whole range of emotions during her three verses, and then the guitarist crafted a solo with its own exciting curve. If I simply marched along playing the same thing the same way, nothing would have happened—a dynamic performance requires the players to listen to each other. So, let’s look at some ways to play dynamically that don’t involve turning up your amp.

Example 1 is the tried-and-true boogie line over an E blues progression, played in the most obvious position. You can work a large range of dynamics simply by adjusting your attack—and not just playing harder or softer, but with hand placement. Try plucking down by the bridge, move toward the middle (right over the pickup on a P-Bass), and then play up by the fingerboard. Even with the same degree of attack, each hand position produces a different texture, which is a key factor of dynamics that is often overlooked. Play through Ex. 1 with the three different “attack zones” mentioned, and listen to the change in texture. Playing down by the bridge sounds tight and distinct, while the middle position gives you a good balance of bottom and attack. Plucking over the fingerboard produces a bigger, rounder tone with less definition, which can fill out the bottom with a soft attack.

Another way to work with texture is to place the notes in different fingerboard positions. With the exception of the first two notes, E and G#, every note in this line has at least two locations on the neck. Example 2 starts in the same position as the previous line, but I move to the 5th fret on the E string for the A7 chord, play the C# again on the 4th fret of the A string, and reposition the E to the 7th fret on the A string. The pitches stay the same, but the texture of the higher-positioned notes is noticeably fatter, which makes the entire band sound bigger. On the V chord, I start on the same 2nd-fret B on the A string, but I slide up to the 6th-fret D# on the A string for more beef. Subtle position changes can have a big effect on the overall dynamics, and you don’t have to dig in harder to make it happen.

In Ex. 3, I kick it up a notch by placing the E7 chord’s 3rd and 5th on the E string for maximum blues power. When the IV chord hits, I stay on the E string for the root and 3rd, and I play the 5th and 6th in a higher position on the A string. For the final cadence, I start the V chord (B7) on the 7th fret of the E string, slide up to the 11th-fret D#, and play the F# and G# on the A string. When you get comfortable with these three different positions, record yourself playing them one after the other with a simple click track. Focus on the way each position feels under your hands, notice the differences in the string response, and listen to the sound you produce, and play with it. When you listen back, you’ll be amazed at how effective this idea is for opening up a song’s dynamic potential. Dynamics are just one way bassists can distinguish themselves from the pack, even when playing the same exact line as everyone else. Remember, it’s not just what you play—it’s how you play it!



Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.

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