Bassists often hear advice about which techniques you need to play hip bass lines. We should practice scales to master the ups and downs of the instrument—but we usually don’t run scales up and down when we play bass lines. Arpeggios are also useful, but a bass line full of arpeggios can sound like the musical equivalent of an over-eager gymnast doing flips on the uneven bars.
The key characteristics of a solid bass line are groove and clear harmonic information. Good bassists play the good notes, not every possible scale and arpeggio option on every chord. This month, let’s look at standards based on a simple two-chord progression, and practice ways to outline the defining notes of the harmony. To bring the point home, we’ll revisit a couple of lines from Carol Kaye and Steve Winwood.
Example 1 shows a C7 arpeggio. The four-note arpeggio defines the sound of the C7 chord (a dominant-7 chord, with a flatted 7th, as opposed to a major-7 chord). Many songs use a dominant-7 chord that moves up an interval of a 4th, to another dominant-7 chord. The C7 in Ex. 1 might move up a 4th to an F7 (Ex. 2).
The Mixolydian mode (also called a dominant scale) is often played over a dominant-7 chord. Compare the C Mixolydian in Ex. 3 with the F Mixolydian in Ex. 4. Can you find the one note that’s different between the C Mixolydian and the F Mixolydian? Look hard. Play both scales. Listen hard. Right—you got it: The C Mixolydian contains the note E, which is the 3rd of the C7 arpeggio, whereas the F Mixolydian contains the note Eb, which is the 7th of the F7 arpeggio.
Go to your piano and play the chords in Ex. 5. If you don’t have a piano, use your keyboard. If you don’t have a piano or keyboard, go knock on your neighbor’s door and ask to use their keyboard to play a couple of chords. If they don’t have a keyboard, either, just keep knocking on doors until you find someone in your neighborhood with a keyboard. Or you could just buy one. A keyboard will help you understand harmony.
The chords in Ex. 5 demonstrate the voice leading that you hear when a keyboard player moves from a close-position C7 chord voicing to an open-position chord voicing on the F7. Notice that the note Bb on the C7 chord resolves to the A on the F7. The note E on the C7 chord moves to an Eb on the F7 chord. This voice leading creates a satisfying forward motion in the harmony.
Many standards use only two dominant chords. Below are five common songs that are partially or completely framed by dominant chords, an interval of a 4th apart: “Cold Duck Time” and “Listen Here” (Eddie Harris), “Jive Samba” (Nat Adderley), “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (Joe Zawinul), and “Feelin’ Alright” (Dave Mason).
“Feelin’ Alright” first appeared on the classic-rock album Traffic [1968, Island/United Artists]. Example 6 shows a four-bar excerpt from Steve Winwood’s bass line. The note E on the C7 chord leads into the root of the F7. Check out Winwood’s original line, and you’ll hear numerous variations on C7 to F7. Joe Cocker recorded the more famous version, “Feeling Alright,” on his debut album, With a Little Help From My Friends [1969, A&M], with Carol Kaye on bass. (Note the slight spelling change in the song’s title.) In an interview with Radar.com, Kaye talked about that magical day in the studio: “This was with Paul Humphrey on drums and Artie Butler on keys. Artie started out the riff, and Paul and I joined in. We got such a groove. The whole thing just rolled. Before you knew it, we were locked in beautifully.”
Example 7 demonstrates Kaye’s creative spark on the chorus of the tune. Note that she uses the chromatic passing tone B in bar 2, and emphasizes the Eb on the F7 chord in bar 4. As with Winwood’s inventive bass line on the original version, Kaye rarely plays the same line twice, even though the song uses only two chords!
Example 8 shows a practice riff containing chord and scale tones. The line emphasizes the change from the note E on the C7 to the note Eb on the F7 chord. Example 9 only uses chord tones to outline the chord progression. Example 10 uses chromatic passing tones—notes outside of the scale and chord—to spice up the line. After you jam on the C7 to F7 for a funky eternity, write out some of your favorite variations.
Winwood and Kaye teach us several key concepts with their iconic bass lines: (1) Outlining root motion and playing with a strong groove are all-important. (2) Chord tones are important, but we don’t have to always play every chord tone available in every bar. (3) Chromatic passing tones add hipness and shape to a bass line. (4) We can vary a bass line rhythmically and melodically when it’s stylistically appropriate. (5) Although the harmony of a two-chord song is simple, it doesn’t limit creative potential!