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.