Do electric bass players commonly play the notes of the current chord?

I'm assuming pop genres, rock, folk, etc, where bass is typically electric.

  • 2
    I’m voting to close this question because, although a very interesting question in the abstract, "pop music" is far too broad a category, especially given the "yes/no" nature of the question. OP will get a much better answer, perhaps, by indicating the motivation for the question. For example, is OP practicing to play pop music and wants a starting place? Or is there a certain pop sub-genre of interest?
    – Aaron
    Nov 14, 2021 at 0:37
  • Yes, pop music is broad. If there are genres where the answer is no then I hope the answer would specify them. Nov 14, 2021 at 5:06
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    I still don't understand the question. What would be to you an example of bass that doesn't "commonly play the notes of the current chord". Even a typical jazz walking bass does commonly play chord tones. What is common enough and how to define it? What do you want to learn from the answer to your question? Nov 15, 2021 at 2:17
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    @RandyZeitman There might be a completely plausible question here, if you could explain it a little bit from an additional point of view. Are you wondering about how bassists come up with the notes to play, if they're only given lead sheets with chord symbols? In some genres like "difficult metal" (my own categorization), there might not be chord charts or lead sheets, and songs might be full of busy lines that need to be written out note for note. Nov 15, 2021 at 21:08
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    I'm glad you asked a question! However, to reopen, we really do need a bit more detail. Is this a question about musicians making decisions about notes to play? Is it about music theory, figuring out chords from bass lines? Note, on the question of "which note to play," there's little that would set electric bass players apart from all bass instruments—organ pedals, theorbo, tuba. Some genres have specific practices (e.g. "oom-pah bass"), so you might want to focus on just one. Nov 15, 2021 at 21:41

5 Answers 5


Do electric bass players commonly play the notes of the current chord?

Yes they do, by definition of what is the de-facto actual current sounding chord. Whatever the bass players plays, defines the current chord. If others play C major, but the bass player plays A, --> the current sounding chord is now an Am7, and there's nothing the other musicians can do about it. Maybe they can file a complaint with a higher authority of some sort.

EDIT. Tim has a good point in the comments. I took the question too narrowly. The OP may have meant, "do bass players look at a chord symbol and limit their playing to only the notes in the chord." Well... a lot of the time they do. But a lot of the time they don't. When and how the notes are played affects how they are perceived, and not every bass note is perceived as being the bass of the written chord, when writing a lead sheet transcription/reduction.

A common way of building bass lines is to play the desired "target" note (which will become the de-facto chord's bass note) on the ONE of a bar, or on any other moment that's heavily emphasized by the whole group of musicians together. But everywhere else, in between the ONEs, other notes can be inserted, as a build-up before the next ONE or rhythmically significant moment, or just as rhythmic comping. Depending on how and when the notes were played, they may be heard as a part of the harmony, or not even that. Other players have this same power too, they just won't be able to set the bass note - assuming the bass is the lowest sounding instrument.

An example bass line, where C is given emphasis:

C A Bb B C A Bb B C A Bb B C A Bb B

Another example is alternating bass that outlines a C based chord like C minor or C major: C G C G C G

If that's played rhythmically the other way around, it sound like an inversion: G C G C G C G C. That would imply more like C/G or Cm/G.

But anyway, my point is that the bass player's actions are very important in defining harmony, because the lowest note defines the perspective for all the higher notes.

Then again, even the drummer can define the harmony. In the previous example, if the drummer is loud and powerful enough to override the rhythmic effect of all others and she decides to offset the beat so that the A notes are perceived as being the ONE of each bar (and I'm sure many of us have sometimes played with a drummer who comes out of a busy fill with the one in the wrong place), the same bass note sequence looks like this:

A Bb B C A Bb B C A Bb B C A Bb B C

Now the implied chord is more like A something.

A famous example presentation of what the rhythmic emphasis of notes means is Bootsy Collins's "Basic Funk Formula":

  • So if all the others play A, and the bassit C major, that is still Am7 sounding yeah?
    – BruceWayne
    Nov 14, 2021 at 15:59
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    This is sparse on information. I will sometimes play an A note over a C chord - it's where and how I play it that makes it work (or not). Making this answer misleading. I very rarely dv, but here's one.
    – Tim
    Nov 14, 2021 at 17:40
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    As if by magic, the dv is now an uv! The edit makes it way better. Thanks!
    – Tim
    Nov 15, 2021 at 13:00

If they don't, then surely they're playing the wrong notes!

But it's probably more relevant as to where in the bar any notes are played. That can also be genre dependent.

Beat 1 is often (not always) deemed to be the important one - it's where we count from, and what defines the time signature. So playing a chordal note there is what most bass players are expected to do. And root is the obvious one. It puts the hamony into root position, the strongest feel we have.

But there are many other places within any bar for other notes. Playing a walking bassline, half of the notes in a bar won't be chord tones, but it sounds correct. Heck, some won't even be diatonics.

Underlining chord tones makes sense while accompanying other instruments which provide those chords - it just makes sense. But there are times when paying non-chord notes gives a sense of motion - from one chord to another - so playing only chord tones there can weaken what's happening.

If you're asking about what happens in a soloing situation, just like any good solo player, the basic harmonies should still be apparent to the listener - even without any accompaniment, the chord sequence should give the listener an idea of where the player is in the song. And for that to happen, it's important to at least outline those harmonies, by playing at least some of the chord tones.

Don't see much difference as to whether its electric bass, fretless bass or upright bass, though.Or even bass played on, say, piano or organ pedals.

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    "If they don't, then surely they're playing the wrong notes!" talk about misleading answer here. Nov 14, 2021 at 21:55
  • ...misleading first sentence, perhaps. The rest checks out IMO.
    – user45266
    Nov 15, 2021 at 0:38
  • @infinitezero -- the first sentence is rhetorical; the answer isn't misleading at all.
    – user39614
    Nov 15, 2021 at 5:14
  • @infinitezero - it all makes sense when the answer is read in its entirety.
    – Tim
    Nov 15, 2021 at 11:11
  • "surely they're playing the wrong notes!".. not always true , Tim - sometimes you can muddy the sonic waters by playing simply roots, i'll sometimes play a third from the chord instead - ACDC do this commonly. Nov 16, 2021 at 10:37

Basically, yes. The simplest bass line will just be the root notes of the chords. And very often this is all a song needs. Some bass lines are more elaborate, but it's a pretty good idea to feature those root notes, particularly on the strong beats. The bass's basic function is to 'lay down' the harmonic structure, not to obscure it.


It kind of depends what you mean by 'current chord'. When people talk about the chord progression of the song, that chord progression often represents a simplification of the totality of harmonic changes within the song - by its nature, this act of simplifying means that (for example) passing notes often aren't considered when identifying the chord. However, that isn't to say that passing notes don't have any effect on the tonal feel of the song.

Many pop genres feature quite 'riff'-based basslines that may well contain a lot of passing notes / notes outside of the (simplified) identified 'current chord'.

Do electric bass players commonly play the notes of the current chord?


Do electric bass players commonly only play the notes of the current chord?

Well, yes in the sense of 'you can find many examples of that happening', but it's not necessarily the only thing that happens in pop/rock basslines - depending on how much much your chord progression is a simplification of what's actually going on in the song's harmony.

  • i think its part of the quality of a bass player that they know when to stick with simple roots and when to be melodic and out in front Nov 16, 2021 at 10:48

Yes, but there are additional notes they routinely play also.

For example, if the chord is a major chord, the main note will be the root. And the major third and fifth can be mixed in for good measure.

But all seven notes of the major scale can also be added to the mix. The root, third and fifth note may be held for longer duration. But since the bass can play melodies and small "runs", the other notes of the current mode can be thrown in for short durations.

  • No need to stop at 'the seven notes of the major scale' - the others often come out to play when chromatics are used. I often, for example, use tts involving b2 going from V to I. Or b5 between V/IV, and IV/V.
    – Tim
    Nov 15, 2021 at 8:17
  • @Tim: Obviously, you can play any note you choose. But as far as the notes that are routinely played over a chord, I think my answer is pretty much on track. Nov 16, 2021 at 14:34

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