In my previous post, How to Keep Your Bass Lines Interesting, we defined what a bass line is and what its functions are, and looked at a few ways in which we can creatively negotiate chord changes. Now it’s time to learn how to create a complete bass line from scratch!
The 4 Step Method
Our basic method for bass line construction is pretty straightforward. We’ll keep our rhythms simple for now: one note per beat. On the downbeat, we’re going to play the root; and on the last beat of each bar, we’re going to play a chromatic approach tone leading into the next root, or it’s corresponding fifth. How you connect the first and last note of each bar is up to you, but we’ll look at a few common lines for guidance!
Step 1: Write out a chord progression (and be sure to leave room for the notes)
Step 2: On the downbeat of every bar, write in the corresponding root (if there is more than one chord per bar, write in the root on the first beat the chord is introduced)
Step 3: On the last beat of each bar, choose one of three options:
the fifth scale degree of the following note
a half step below the following note
or a half step above the following note
When there is more than one chord in a bar, you only have room to fill in the root and the linking tone, so you don’t have to worry about adding anything else!
Step 4: Fill in the blanks! Be melodic, be creative, and be deliberate
All right, now we can start walking! Just be sure you don’t overlook the first step. It’s important to actually write your bass lines down, because it helps you visualize the line and the harmony. Composing on paper can also challenge your perspective and expose bad habits, so don’t neglect that pad of staff paper sitting on your music stand…
Now that we know how to create bass lines, let’s look at some popular bread and butter bass lines (you’ll want to memorize these in all keys).
Chords that move up a fourth are quite prevalent in jazz, and here are some great ways to connect them.
Here are several strong lines that connect two chords a fifth apart from one another.
What other chord progressions do you come across often? Try writing out several lines that clearly define the progression and start using them as you play! And don’t forget to transcribe bass lines; you’ll learn all sorts of clever ways to connect chords, express harmony, and groove!