May 2019 Monthly Assignment
Bass lines for songwriters — write a bass line into a song
Giving a song a bottom end isn’t just the responsibility of the bass player. Songwriters can improve the structural stability of their songs, and their catchiness, by writing in a bass line as the song is being crafted.
The bass line is the low-pitched rhythmic pulse that emphasizes chordal tones, usually highlighting the root note, third or fifth. Moderate to good musicians, I’ll get to you in a minute but please bear with me for a couple paragraphs.
For group members whose musicianship is weak, like mine, think of the bass line as a series of low notes picked out of each chord in a chord progression. If you play guitar, strum an open G four times. While holding on the G chord, pluck the sixth string (the big fat one) before each of four strums of that G. Pluck the fifth string (the one next to the big fat one) before each of four strums of that G. Now pluck the sixth string before each of four strums and without stopping pluck the fifth string before each of four strums, and repeat. Do that until you can do it without thinking about it. Now, staying on the G do a sixth string pluck, chord strum; fifth string pluck, chord strum; sixth string pluck, chord strum; fifth string pluck, chord strum, repeat. Do that until you can do it without thinking. You’ve just played a bass line.
Now bring the lesson into the real world. Start playing one of your existing songs on which you strum the chords, but do it the way you were doing before — form a chord, pluck, strum. Form the next chord, pluck, strum. Decide which of the fat strings sounds best plucked before struming each chord. You’ve just upgraded your song by giving it a bass line. Upgrade some more: Do the pluck, strum only on the chorus — don’t do on the verse. Now try it the other way around. Which sounds better? Next time you write a song include this technique and hear the expanded stability of the song structure,rhythmic pulse of your bass line giving your song a groove, and the clear separation of sounds in your verse and chorus. Bass line for songwriters: Lesson one completed.
Moderate to good musicians, thanks for your patience. I can’t explain in musical terms how to improve your songs, but I can give you a little coaching. Many of your songs already have bass lines — perhaps you pluck the root before hitting each chord. Try this on one of your existing songs: On the first pass of a chord hit the root, but on the second pass pluck a third. Maybe on the third pass of that chord pluck a fifth note. Walk it up, or down, to the next chord using bass notes. Re-explore your existing song by rebuilding the bass line. Notice that with the new bass line the old song just begs for a change in rhythm and follow your instincts. You’ve just upgraded your song. Listen to studio outtakes from some of your favorite songwriters. The difference between you and them may be that they’ve explored alternate bass lines and many iterations of their songs long before bringing them to the public.
Below are several YouTube tutorials on playing bass lines, followed by articles on writing bass lines into your songs.