When playing with lead sheets (which is how I always play), I sometimes have a hard time when to go "off script" and go from boring old root-note playing to walking up or down and hitting passing notes. As I've never taken lessons for the bass, I'd like to hear how other players look at the idea of spicing up their playing. Where to you stick with plain, on-the-beat root notes, 8th note repeated, walking or using arpeggios? I sometimes get shouted down at practice because I get bored and when I try to spice things up, it sometimes doesn't fit like I'd thought it would. How do other players handle this, when they're either writing songs or playing without a prescribed bass line.

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    Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/26917/…. Not every technique fits every style and as you play more you'll figure out when each technique can be fully utilized based on what others are playing.
    – Dom
    Aug 12, 2015 at 19:17
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    Don't try out the new ideas at practice with the band, try them out at home practicing alone with backing tracks. If you can sing or learn to sing, singing along with your bass playing when you are practicing at home will really help you tell when you're spicing it up versus messing it up. Other players handle it by preparing and knowing exactly what they will play before band practice. Aug 12, 2015 at 19:56
  • "You're a bass player and playing the same thing time after time is exactly what we do". So said Tony Levin. If you cannot do that at last much of the time then you have picked up the wrong instrument. People only get up and dance if the bass is predictable. Nothing wrong with spicing it up sometimes but keeping the rhythm solid and predictable, even if you don't feel like it is what we do. Feb 27, 2019 at 8:51

2 Answers 2


The bass is an inherently melodic instrument that is unique in that it provides the core definition of both the harmony AND the rhythm.

In constructing lines, it's important to remember that the folks above you in the frequency scale will be depending on you to be underneath them, supporting them. Nothing more disconcerting as a singer or rhythm player to try to "walk across the room" and randomly find that there's no floor underneath your feet.

However, having said that, go check out Paul McCartney's lines in his Beatle days...they were very melodic, up and down the neck, but yet did provide that support.

One "rule:" Don't step on the vocalist. If he/she is singing, you shouldn't be busting out mega-chops.

Another "rule:" If you're pretty reliably "there with the root" on the one, lots of other shaky nonsense on 2, 3, and 4 will be forgiven.

one last "rule:" Simplicity isn't necessarily "simple." Power and support come from consistency.

Additionally, check out James Jamerson on most of the Motown stuff...His lines were sweeping journeys into the melodysphere, but he ALWAYS supported his singers.

It's probably defensible to state that the rest of the band isn't necessarily always looking for you to have the root, but what they really need from you is consistency. Hearing the root on the beat of a chord change is really just a basic form of consistency.

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    I would say sometimes being on the root on the one is important, and sometimes it's as much or more important to hit the root for every chord change, whether the change comes on the one or 2/3 of the way through a measure. Aug 12, 2015 at 19:47

There are a few things you can try practicing, first on your own and then with your band:

  • practice the arpeggios.
  • play 5ths /octaves
  • play the notes of the melody.
  • play passing notes between all of the above.

Try all of the above on a certain song and see which fit better. Not all of them will sound good on all the songs. After you see what fits better try it with your band.

Just keep in mind that this will take some time to get good at, but it's worth the time you'll spend.

Another tip is to actually play and believe that you can play it nice. Don't hesitate, or your bass lines will sound hesitated and dissonant


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