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Hello fellow musicians,

I trying to figure out how to write a good bassline to a pop-ish song (no specific genre, but think Selfless by The Strokes and Lost in Time by The Living Tombstone). I have some good experience writing music, but this one's a first - I'm trying out a new experiment adding a guitar to a song. What I'd like to do is create a bassline that can complement the melody.

From what I understand, the baseline should follow the chord progressions that I have already established. However, I don't really understand much else. When I just jam, I can follow the chords, but how can I graduate from mindless fiddling around to a competent bassline? What are the fundamentals for creating basslines other than following the chords?

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    There is definitely a lot more to Bass than just playing root notes of chords, try studying some basslines from other songs (especially check out beattles) – RishiNandha Vanchi Jan 9 at 2:44
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    If you're going to check out The Beatles (& you really really should) start with two opposing musical directions… "All My Loving", then go straight to "Come Together". There's about 6 years & a lifetime's experience between the two tracks. – Tetsujin Jan 9 at 8:44
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    @RishiNandhaVanchi the first to look into must be AC/DC. – Džuris Jan 9 at 18:25
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    This one simple trick bassists don't want you to know: mindlessly fiddling around is how you make a competent bassline. – Mazura Jan 9 at 19:44
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    @Mazura - I've heard many bass players doing this. Question is, will they ever live long enough to produce that 'competent bassline'? In most cases, no! – Tim Jan 10 at 9:54
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The important thing about the bass is that it's the bridge between the drums and the other instruments. How it fills that role is massively dependent on the musical style, the conventions of that style, and the song itself.

The most basic bassline of course is playing a low root note of the current chord on the "one". And honestly, sometimes that's exactly what you need. John Illsley does not much more than that in Money for Nothing, for example. The effect is to give an "insistent" feeling to the music.

The classic "1-5" bassline is very standard in rockabilly. It's pretty cheesy, but it works in context.

Typically the bass adds the passing notes to the next chord (think Love Letters by Ketty Lester). Again this can be somewhat predictable depending on the context, but it often works.

Disco needs a strong downbeat on the "one", but then may have more going on during the bar (think Superstition). Alternatively there's the "four on the floor" disco bassline which again has that insistent quality by its repetitiveness.

African music (and often reggae) may lead with a higher root note on the "one" and then go lower afterwards, inverting the usual rock/pop style of starting low and then doing higher fills during the bar.

Then there's timings. As the bridge between the drums and instruments, a lot depends on how the bass works with the drums. Disco and rock generally have the bass very tight to the drums - Blondie may be the tightest drum/bass pairing ever for this, with Call me being perhaps the finest example. Alternatively the bass may lag the drums slightly, which tends to also pull the other instruments slightly behind the beat, creating a more "lazy" feel.

And lastly there's just getting a good hook going. It has to serve the rhythm, but it also has to serve the song. This will usually either provide a jumping-off point for the rest of the instruments (You can call me Al by Paul Simon) or act as a counterpoint/foil to an instrumental hook (Sweet child of mine).

Or in the ultimate case, perhaps you don't need a bassline at all. When doves cry by Prince has no bass.

The main thing for bass and instruments though is that they must not tread on each others' toes. The higher notes on a bass and the lower notes on a guitar cross over; and of course a piano has a massive range too. EQ sculpting can help with this a bit, but really this comes down to your arrangement.

Like all things musical, there are many ways to do it! And as always, if it sounds good, it is good.

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  • @AndrewTheProgrammer It's not totally open-ended, sure, but there's still an awful lot of options. You added the songs after I wrote my answer. For light pop, honestly you mostly just don't want to overdo it. – Graham Jan 9 at 20:16
  • If you're not going follow the drummer, or if you're just making a mess, you're better off w/o a baseline. The sound engineer on And Justice For All (quite possibly the finest mix ever laid down) knew exactly what they were doing. And if you don't know, you're probably trying to lay down a beat, which is not your job; it's to fill w/o being noticed, unless you're playing the lead. Bassists competent enough to do that I can count on one hand, and they're basically playing lead guitar anyway, just on a bass. – Mazura Jan 10 at 15:57
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Do note that your question is really vague (and too close to the "opinion based" flag).

As many rules, the first rule is that there is no absolute rule.

Bass lines are fundamental (yes, implied joke): they give a reference to the listener, and that reference is usually a foundation to what the listener perceives. There's a reason for which they call it "root".

Consider a seventh chord: assuming the other voices (instruments) don't play the root note, the result will dramatically change if the bass plays the "actual" root of the chord, or it plays the third. Take a simple "major 7" chord:

  • the bass note is the tonic: the result is possibly a major chord
  • the bass note is the third: the result most certainly a minor chord
  • the bass playing the fifth or the seventh: result possibly undefined (more on this later)

What you also have to consider is the harmonic rhythm[1], and the bass line is an important aspect in that.

For example, in classical music, there is a concept that is known as "pedal point", which creates a lot of harmonic tension, which is usually very interesting.
You can also try "delays" or "anticipations" in the harmony [2].

There is no rule.
Just remember that the rhythm of the harmony (which is relative) can dramatically change the feeling of the music.

Start by paying attention to the bass line of any kind of music, and try to get what effects it does. Do some experimentation.

Also, consider the psychological aspects in pop[ular] music: it should be "simple", but most importantly effective. There's plenty of "pop" music that is far from simple, but it's still emotively effective and can easily become an ear worm.

[1] My native language is Italian, and I'm not sure if that's how it's actually described in English.
[2] Considering the above note, in Italian they're known as "ritardo[ armonico]" and "anticipo".

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  • Thank you for your answer. I did debate about whether this question was too vague or not, but I think it's justifiable with the rules. Much like the basics of composition (melody, theme, accompaniment, etc) there are probably rules to basslines that I simply have not learned yet. Composing is of course subjective, but some fundamentals are objective :) – Andrew the Programmer Jan 9 at 3:51
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    Well, you're a programmer (I don't know what's your "day job", but I feel close to you, as we both have active profiles on SO). I've learnt that being a musician or a programmer are closely related things, even if you're not a composer/arranger/producer nor a professional programmer. The basic rule is that every rule has its exception: we have to try and learn (in the hard way too), then, one day, we look back at the code/music we wrote/played years before, with looks that are both of compassion and interest: we were so ignorant but still eager to learn and [re]do things, as we're now :-) – musicamante Jan 9 at 4:07
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In addition to the answers so far, which seem to focus on melodies, don't forget the rhythmic aspect of the instrument. Sometimes you get more out of playing a groovy rhythm on just one of two notes than trying to sew together an intricate counterpoint melody. The bass can be percussive, slapped, tapped, hammered. Not only in the Pfunk sense but think of Les Claypool (not really pop). However, one thing is that the bass (or any instrument for that matter) can't conflict with the main act, singer, front man, etc. If you want the bass highlighted that's another story, and that can work. But everything has to gel and be supportive of the music as a whole. I'd focus more on style and rhythm than specific melodic lines.

Look to some old tunes for ideas. A few that come to mind (not necessarily "pop") are:

  1. Ramble On by Led Zeppelin (great bass on that, melodic and complements the tune)

  2. Long Distance Run Around by Yes

  3. Can You See the Real Me by the Who

  4. The Body Electric by Rush

Of course none of these is Pop and some of these bassist "solo" over the entire band (especially Entwhistle). But they are examples in my mind of tunes where the bass does something unique and interesting while complementing everything.

Listening is the best lesson.

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    Thanks for providing me these. They may not be pop, but I'm not one to sell myself short on learning more complex stuff – Andrew the Programmer Jan 9 at 19:58
  • Because the answer has merit and helps. Pop borrows from other styles too, that's one way to achieve wide spread popularity. Michael Jackson has brilliant at this. And these songs have beautiful bass lines so why not draw from that? – user50691 Jan 9 at 20:02
  • Jpj is one of the most underrated bassists from that era. If you subtract his bass from zep, it ain't zep. Ramble On is beautiful – user50691 Jan 9 at 20:03
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The bass has the following rhythmic elements

  • the START of a note
  • the END of a note
  • CHANGE of pitch

Whenever a bass note starts, end, or changes pitch, it is an important rhythmic transient, like a drum hit. So pay attention to those. If the bass sound has a fast release envelope, such as when playing muted notes, you can do bass notes that don't have a clear-cut end.

Harmonically, it is the bass instrument's responsibility to clarify what the lowest note i.e. bass note is. In this task, the rhythmic weight of the notes depends on which "beat" to note sits on. A note that's on a strong beat, especially the first beat, will be more strongly perceived as being the bass note. So a 1-5 alternating bass will be perceived as a root position chord, but a 5-1 alternating bass will be perceived as a second inversion chord, with the 5 in the bass.

What comes to instrumentation, the bass can be thought of as sharing some of the kick drum's role. Then again, a bass line with rapid repeating notes can provide a similar effect as a hi-hat or ride cymbal. The ending of a bass note provides a bit of the same effect as a snare drum hit.

For actual bass lines, where the bass plays note sequences, there are at least these basic styles

  • single-note, only focus on rhythm
  • alternating bass, swaying between e.g. 1 and 5
  • repeating octave jumps, like in disco
  • arpeggiating, playing chord notes, e.g. 1 - 3 - 5, used in latin styles
  • "riffs", repeating phrases which have a strong rhythmic and melodic dimension
  • repeating lines which emphasize notes harmonically, without really making a melody out of it
  • boogie-woogie bass, e.g. repeating C - A - Bb - B line
  • walking bass, where the bass walks along various sized steps and leaps, either scale or chromatic, to target tones
  • non-repeating melodic lines, James Jamerson style. These are at least partly improvised so that they don't repeat in exactly the same pre-written form like riffs do

I should probably add examples for all of these styles, but the OP already accepted an answer. I had this text written already so I'll rather post it than not.

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The main idea should be to make the bass an independent melody but still support both the harmony and the melody. The (at least I think so) easiest bass line is the "oom-pah-pah" or "boom-chick" bass. The simplest indication is (in 4/4) to play the root of the underlying harmony on 1 and the fifth on 3. (Similarly for 3/4 but often the root and fifth alternate between measures as many 3/4 pieces change their harmony in two-measure cycles.) To continue with the 4/4 case; one can also try a "walking" bass. It more complicated but sounds very good when done well. First, one can use the third (instead of the root) of a chord at times. This will produce a first inversion (or 63 or 6, depending on who's writing) chord. This can allow for smoother bass movement. The walking bass usually plays on each beat. Trivially (but still sounds good)one can walk from the I to the IV chord by playing notes 1,7,6,5 which puts one in position to play the 4 on the first beat of the next measure. (from the I to the V, one can go 1,2,3,4.) In 3/4 one hears 1,7,6 going I to 5 and 1,2,3 going I to IV. A foxtrot often uses alternating 1 and 5 on beats 1 and 3 for 16 measures (or 32 or whenever the second strain arrives) a switch to a 4-beat bass occurs.

Things can get more complicated (if appropriate) by chromatically altering some notes (often using 1,2,3,#4 moving from I to V). In a minor key, one by (using C minor for example) one may use things like C, Bb, Ab, G moving from I to V and C, A, B, C, when moving from V to I. (My observation has been that the melodic minor scales are used more for bass lines than for melody lines. Lots of classical pieces even use all forms essentially at the same time.)

Another variation is to use other rhythmic patterns; this happens in Latin music. A common pattern is dotted-quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter (rumbas, boleros, tangos, and others), also dotted-quarter, dotted-quarter, quarter. Older Cuban styles tie the last quarter to the ensuing first beat dotted-quarter.

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  • Playing notes 1, b7, 6, 5 often sounds better going from I to IV. – Tim Jan 9 at 8:52
  • Another of my "I must be getting old" anecdotes;) Friend of mine, one of the best bassists I've ever heard, went from a million-a-year session job to touring with the Everly Bros. His comment, "I'm bored with all that clever sh*t, just gimme 1,5,1,5. That'll do me." – Tetsujin Jan 9 at 9:38
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Frequency modulation and "chipping" (on-off patterns) around the intended chord.

The most basic form of bassline is a chord, maybe 2-3 notes stacked and played in each bar.

Now make it more interesting. Instead of a solid chord, have the instrument play and pause intermittently in tandem with the percussion track. In electronic communications, this concept is sometimes known as "chipping" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code-division_multiple_access) where a signal is split into multiple timeslots per unit of data, and then the signal is "on" in certain timeslots and "off" in other timeslots in a repeating pattern.

But why stop with a chipping code? We're writing music, not a communication system. Make it smoother with amplitude modification - an extended chipping code with fractional coefficients.

Finally, who said a bassline has to be a chord? Make it a pattern. Make it interesting with a repeating note pattern built around a chord.

The best examples of a really good bassline are found in "spacesynth" music (look that up if you don't know what it is).

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