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I've been playing bass for about two years now. I've learned plenty of beginner/intermediate songs and play with some friends about once a week. I have no problem playing the songs, but I kinda just go through the motions and don't truly understand them.

My ultimate goal is to be able to improvise on any song that is thrown my way. Since I'm pretty new to music theory, I'm going to try and construct my question in the most basic way possible, using very simple chord progressions so I can begin to wrap my head around this.

At its bare minimum, from what I understand, bass is all about outlining the chords that make up a song. So if a song's chord progression is G-C-D, a simple bass line would be to hit the root and 5th of each of those chords. For G the root and 5th would be G and D, then C and G, then D and A.

Where my confusion really comes in is that if the song is in the key of G, does that mean I'm only allowed to play the notes in that scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#)? Or does the scale change when the song progresses to the next chord? So when the song gets to the D chord, am I allowed to play any note on the D scale (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#)?

I know this is a very basic example and there is a lot more to it, but I'm just beginning to dive into this, so I'm trying to get a broad understanding of and a good foundation for this and then start to get into specifics.

  • 2
    "does that mean I'm only allowed to play the notes in that scale"-- in an improvisational context the choice of notes is mostly up to you. To some extent this will depend on the style of music you play, but all notes are fair game. Often chromatic notes from outside of the key are used. I think there isn't a simple answer to your question, but starting from chord tones is good. Finding ways to spice up your playing by adding notes 1/2 step away from chord tones is a way to add chromaticism (e.g., walking bass lines). This will take time and experience; listen to lots of good music.... – David Bowling Sep 12 '17 at 15:09
  • I mean, yes that is the idea, but this question is more about gaining a good foundation to improvisation and understanding the basic guidelines of what notes generally sound best and when you should play them within the progression @corsiKa – D. David Sep 12 '17 at 17:11
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    Thank you so much @Stinkfoot !! I know you're not supposed to use the comments for this, but this is exactly what I was looking for and your answer is much appreciated. Time to go study chords and scales! – D. David Sep 12 '17 at 17:15
  • @D.David - Check out Essential Music Theory for Electric Bass . It is an excellent beginners book. You should consider finding a teacher, if possible - but make sure it's good teacher (not always so easy...) – Stinkfoot Sep 13 '17 at 3:24
  • I suggest studying what you like. For example, if you want to play like AC/DC, you should only play B in steady pace. If you like smoke on the water - check out how the bass joins in (some 30 seconds into the songs). Disregarding any scales, it simply rolls up chromatically: 0-1-2-3-3-3-3... So root is your basis. Fifths, thirds and sevenths are flavour, the scale is for your runs and other notes are used as spices. Just don't overdo it when there's plenty of stuff going on in the band already :) Usually in rock bass is the stable and accountable part ;) – Džuris Sep 13 '17 at 11:53
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Where my confusion really comes in is that if the song is in the key of G does that mean I'm only allowed to play the notes in that scale (G,A,B,C,D,E, F#)?

The key of a song does not determine which notes you use for the bass-line on a particular chord - the key represents the overall sonority of a song, not all the chords, or the notes they comprise. The chord itself, its function in the music, and its derivation determine that. You're also conflating scale with key. But I'll leave aside those technicalities for now and just talk about playing some decent bass-lines:

Since you're just starting out, the best rule to follow is to build your bass-line from the notes that comprise the chord you are playing behind. In most simple rock, blues and jazz you'll encounter, the analysis amounts to "stacking the 3rds" of the scale indicated by that chord to build the chord on a guitar or piano, and what you can call the "allowed notes" of your bass-line.

For example:

  • If you're playing on a simple C chord, the notes of that chord (the first two 3rds of the C Major Scale : C-D-E-F-G) will be C-E-G. So play an arpeggio that matches the groove of the song and is comprised of those notes on that chord, and it will be sound good. (That simple chord is known as a Triad.) Experiment with changing their order, working the groove and moving in ascending and descending directions, but stick to those notes. If you play other notes, they may or may not work - many variables involved. You can certainly experiment, but those notes can be considered safe. As @Basstickler explained, 3rds can be an adventure, so 3rds - E in this case - are not always as safe as the others.

  • If you're playing on a G7 chord, the notes of that chord (the 3rds of the G mixolydian scale G-A-B-C-D-E-F) will be G-B-D-F. So play an arpeggio of those notes on that chord and it will sound good. (Such a chord, which upon analysis proves to be a triad with an additional 3rd to bring to the 7th, is called a 7th chord.)

  • If you move to a D7 chord, the notes of that chord will be D-F#-A-C (the 3rds of the D mixolydian scale). So play an arpeggio of those notes on that chord and it will sound good.

  • If you move to an Am7 chord, the notes of that chord will be A-C-E-G (the 3rds of the A minor scale ) So play an arpeggio of those notes on that chord and it will sound good.

  • If you have a C6 chord, your notes will be C-E-G-A: C-E-G are the first two 3rds of the C major scale, the same triad we already mentioned in the simple C chord, and the A is the 6 in your C6: A is the 6th note in the C Major scale - an extension of the triad of C-E-G. (That chord is called a 6th chord, but don't get bogged down in the hows and whys of the terminology - for now just learn the simple meaning of the chord symbols you encounter.)


If some of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, quite often an easy way is to take a look at the guitar or piano part and see what chords are used and the notes they are built from, or just ask your guitarist or pianist (if you can get away with doing that...) what chord and/or what notes are in the chords they are playing. Most of the time those notes are the notes you will use for your bass-line.

Having said that, to get good at this you should study some basic theory, focusing on the construction of chords and scales. Become proficient enough so that when you see a chord you know what notes comprise that chord, and ultimately what scale it is derived from. It's not really very hard - as a beginning bass player, focusing on roots, 3rds, 5ths and 7ths is all you really need to do. That will put you on the road to becoming a good bass player than can quickly come up with a credible sounding bass-line for most tunes.

Of course you can learn to read bass-lines and reading is important, but I'd venture that 90% of the bass work you hear in rock, blues, pop or jazz is done on the fly by the bass player. The most famous and successful session players - people like Chuck Rainey, James Jamerson, Joe Osborn, Carol Kay, Bob Babbitt, Ducky Dunn... - got there because of their ability to come up with clever, interesting bass lines when they had nothing to work with but a chord chart and a drummer or guitarist.


When I learn something new that's not so simple, at first I'll just learn all the chords and play just roots and fifths of the chords, to get the progression under my fingers and get a feel for the groove. Once I've got that, I will work with other chord tones to create a real bass-line: Go slowly, keep it fun and don't try to do too much at once.


The above should get you started. Again, don't be afraid to experiment when you can afford the risk - that's how you learn. Experimenting with 3rds, and also with throwing in 9ths (Major 2nds), particularly in descending riffs, are good points of departure. You triad has a 3rd, 9th chords are common, and even if it's not a 9th chord, hitting the 9th (2nd) on way back to the root will often add interesting color, especially in blues tunes.


Important:

You'll find all of these "rules" constantly being broken in all modern music, because there are no hard set rules in music - just guidelines to help you along. Music is an expressive art form, not a science. So always use your ears - that's only rule we really have. As you progress, you will find your own ways to change it up and make it more interesting. But these guidelines will keep you safe in most situations.

With bass, less is more. If you play simple lines with clean technique, make sure you are in tune, have a good sound and good time/groove, you'll likely become a very popular bass player.

Here is an excellent book for beginners:

Essential Music Theory for Electric Bass, by Robert Garner

Good Luck.

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    A decent answer but I have some feedback. The term Diatonic refers to a key, so if you are in C, the diatonic notes are those derived from the C major scale. If you play a chord outside the key and play the chord tones of that chord, you are not playing diatonically. The term to use for the approach as you've described it is Chord Scales, which is the primary approach in most modern Jazz but not very common in Pop or Rock. For example, a Chord Scale approach in Jazz basically dictates that you would usually use Lydian on any major 7 chord, Dorian on any Minor 7, etc. – Basstickler Sep 12 '17 at 19:32
  • @Basstickler - I removed the term diatonic- thanks for that correction.. Would usually use Lydian - Note: I only discussed triads and 7 chords and the simple M6th chord. Lydian has the same triad and 7th chord as Ionian, Dorian has the same triad and and 7th chord as Aeolian and Phrygian, Judging from the current level of the OP, IMO that should be sufficient and "safe" in most situations that arise. Even my answer extends the scope beyond what the OP was asking. – Stinkfoot Sep 12 '17 at 21:50
  • Perhaps I've misunderstood part of what you were trying to describe. I had interpreted your description as sort of thinking of each chord as its own scale, which is probably based on the way you described stacking thirds. I also think that the idea of chord scales would be beyond the OP's current understanding but that's what I thought of based on your description and if that had been your thought process, the intention was to inform you of the terminology. – Basstickler Sep 12 '17 at 23:21
  • I had interpreted your description as sort of thinking of each chord as its own scale - I wasn't thinking about it that deeply. Just laying out some easy ground rules about how to find decent sounding notes for a simple bassline on a simple rock or blues tune. Certainly it's not going cover to many forms of progressive rock or metal or heavily riff based rock etc etc - forms that use the bass very differently although it's still bass. But yes, I did use diatonic incorrectly, and I appreciate you pointing that out. – Stinkfoot Sep 12 '17 at 23:43
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    @Basstickler probably based on the way you described stacking thirds - I read it again now and I see what you mean. I emphasized stacking thirds too much - that implies Chord Scales. It's not necessary to get that far into it. That is how I tend to think but it's now what I wanted to say. I changed the language somewhat now. Tnx for the heads up. – Stinkfoot Sep 13 '17 at 12:02
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There are many different ways to approach the bass and the approach that you take may depend on what styles/genres of music you are playing. The first thing that you want to do is understand the traditional role/function of the bass within a piece of music. Speaking generally, the bass is used to add depth to the harmonic content and to connect the rhythm of the drums to the rest of the band. A good bass player would have a solid understanding of what is happening with the drums and the chordal instruments. It's important to understand the bass's role because it's easy to get carried away. If you're not careful, all the extra notes you add and how you play them can end up taking away from your bass line's ability to fulfill its role in the music. It might sounds cool (or just feel cool) to play lots of extra notes but if you're not adding to the song what is needed, then you're not doing your job. There are definitely times that you can step away from your role but to get started, you want to learn how to fulfill that role first.

The most basic approach is to play only the root notes of the chords. This adds the depth that we are looking for. If you're playing with a guitar, they don't have notes that low to provide that depth. If you're playing with a keyboard, they usually don't have everything set up to have their low notes bring the force and tone that a bass is capable of bringing. The thick quality of a bass note is usually not produced by a keyboard, short of a bass synthesizer.

The next step is to know your chord tones and how to use those. Root/5 bass motion is pretty common, particularly in older styles of music or genres like Country. The root and 5th of the chord are the most structurally important, providing the strongest foundation. Adding in the third of a chord can also be very easy and provide some additional texture. You can think of the third as providing the color or feel of that particular chord; it's what makes it major or minor. The third in the bass can end up being a bit more dissonant than what is desired, so it's not quite as commonly accented. In any case, it just takes a little more care to use without disrupting the overall harmony, so you need to make sure you're paying attention to how it affects the sound. You should really always be paying attention to how things sound, not just playing something because it should work according to theory.

Beyond those basics, the easiest notes to bring into your vocabulary will be those that come from the scale of the key you are in. If all of the chords that are in the song are actually from the same key, then using that scale will provide what is needed (there are a lot of situations where not all of the chords come from the same key but I won't go into that here). A traditional approach would be to use the notes of that scale and make sure to focus on the chord tones of each chord as it passes.

A simple next step can be creating a walking bass line. Walking bass lines are the foundation of the Jazz bass but do appear elsewhere and are a great learning tool. A basic approach is that you would be starting each chord on a chord tone (easiest to start with the root of the chord), then playing up or down the scale toward the next chord, using primarily quarter notes. The idea is to create a line that moves you from one chord to the next smoothly. Walking bass lines can be much more complex than that, utilizing chromaticism and leaps, more intricate rhythms and sometimes creating a feeling of walking two lines at once in different octaves. The idea for you is to develop an understanding of how linear motion can smooth out the bass line. Jumping from root to root can sound a little jarring in some situations, particularly when jumping more than a fifth. It's very likely that the music that you're playing with your band wouldn't sound great with a walking bass line but understanding how to smooth out the line can be applied just about anywhere.

I also strongly recommend learning to play as many songs as you can, from as many genres as you can. Listening to what those who have been successful in the past have done and learning to play it yourself is one of the best tools for learning. Someone telling you how to construct a walking bass line is helpful but you won't really know how it's done without hearing it. I also recommend looking at the theory behind what you're playing, such as what chords are happening while the bass lines is playing the different notes. This will allow you to see functional examples of bass lines playing something other than the root and you can try to figure out what it is about some of those notes that affects the music as a whole, making those extra notes valuable to the song.

This answer is getting a bit long and I could go on all day. This should get you started though. You can look into inversions, drones/pedal points (not effects pedals but a specific bass approach), themes/motives, melodic approaches, reharmonization, and so on, as you feel more comfortable and in tune with these basic concepts.

  • 1
    I think this answer goes far beyond the scope of the question, but it is an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to play bass - from start to finish. Many big name players in 60's and 70's exploited the EBG and obfuscated the role of bass: time keeper and 'watchdog' of the underlying harmonic structure of the higher register instruments - those more engaged in melodic and lyrical aspects. They created new instrument - a solo/vocally inspired instrument that used lower registers than the guitar, keyboards, etc. An interesting idea that also tended to confuse new-comers to the bass. – Stinkfoot Sep 12 '17 at 22:25
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    Thank you. I tend to be a but long winded but prefer thoroughness over brevity. Some of what is included is certainly not what was being asked about, however, when I was at that level, I really wanted to be Les Claypool or Victor Wooten and it took me years to learn to be an actual bass player just fulfilling my role, instead of trying to do all the cool tricks, which is why I chose to dive into the role and functions. I'm definitely a fan of the progressive players that have really taken the instrument to new places but that's not a good starting point, as you seem to understand. – Basstickler Sep 12 '17 at 23:29
  • as you seem to understand - LOL I do undertand, just as you do! I started my bass playing days using Jack Bruce, Jack Casady and Phil Lesh as my role models. (yeah, I'm really old...). Only a few year later, when I got deeper into traditional blues, RnB, and then jazz did I get my head around the bassic job of the bass. It's not usually a glamour instrument, Jack Bruce, Larry Graham , Stanley Clark (and today Mark King) notwithstanding - ROFLMAO. Being old, I'm stuck on old school these days - Bob Cranshaw and Paul Chambers are my heroes now. James Garrison is superman to me. – Stinkfoot Sep 12 '17 at 23:48
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    @Stinkfoot - Exactly, the bass can do a good many things but truly being a bass player doesn't require most of those. It took me a minute to appreciate playing whole notes but I got there. I still play lots of notes sometimes and play slap fairly frequently (playing mostly rock and pop stuff nowadays) but I know when to shut up and do my job. There is a certain taste to being a bass player and knowing how to do something cool but not taking it too far or knowing when is a good idea to go that far. – Basstickler Sep 13 '17 at 0:09
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'Allowed'. No, aloud! There is no allowed in music. There are no rules saying what notes go with what. There are guidelines, which help, though. On that G, for instance, G B and D are the obvious ones, but A, E, F, F# and even G#, Bb and C# will work in the right circumstances. So that's 10 out of the 12. And I'm sure I can, and do, make the missing couple fit in certain places in certain songs!

Ah, but what are they? A common bass line is G B D E F E D B against a G7 chord. All the diatonic notes from G major will work 4 in the bar, just walking up and down, but sound better when a key note is played on beat 1, and often beat 3.

C#? well, try G B C# D four in the bar to a chugging song on the G bars.

Let your ears be the judges, and really you don't have to justify something that sounds good! Refer to the theory, and you'll probably find a reason why something works - but that's the reason it's in the theory! Part of the trick is to keep the main beats as key notes, or chord in that bar notes, and just experiment with other notes in between - the lesser important parts of the bar.

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