# What does it mean for a bass player to play "on the one"?

I do not understand, as a bass player, what it means to "stay on the one", "on the five", etc.

What do musicians mean when they tell the bass player to "stay on the one", or any other number?

• Do you have any links to people saying "the five"? Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 7:02
• It could be many different things. If you're told to stay on the one, and you don't know what it means, why not ask the person what they mean? Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 8:12
• You ask 'stay' on the one, but the header says 'play' on the one. Which is it?
– Tim
Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:29

This means the scale step, either of the current key, or more likely, of the current chord. Playing "one" means playing the root; "three" means the third above; "five" means the fifth above. For example on a G-major chord, one=G, three=B, and 5=D (and 7=F), etc.

• Are you sure it’s the scale step? I thought it was the first beat. Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 2:10
• @ToddWilcox The expression "on the one" is indeed ambiguous, but the OP mentions "staying on the one" and also "on the five", so that suggests scale steps, not beats. Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 3:06
• @YourUncleBob: Why assume that people know what they're talking about, on a site where people ask questions about things that are unclear to them? That's a silly assumption. :) With approximately 58.2 % probability, the OP only assumed that "on the one" and "on the five" use numbers in the same sense. The "on the five" can be a completely made-up thing that was never actually said, but because he's confused, he took the number five from a different context. Or maybe it was said but it meant something different. Who knows. Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 8:18
• @piiperi Now you sound like House :-) Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 9:51
• @ToddWilcox - if indeed it did mean the first beat, how could a bassist 'stay ' on it? I know some are really slow players, but...
– Tim
Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:27

In a lot of pop type music, the bass' job is to play one on one. Which means playing the root of the chord on the first beat of the bar.

Root note generally sounds more solid than any other, so on a bar of C, the bass plays note C. Usually on the first beat of the bar - regarded as the most impotant. Therefore playing the most important note on the most important beat. Yes, reggae et al uses different strategies, but this is 'standard' pop.

After the root (1), the next note expected from a bassist is the 5. So in that bar of C, the bassist could well play C then G, above or below. Staying on 1 will mean not playing 5 - or even 3, the other note usually associated with a triad. It certainly won't mean play on beat 5 (which doesn't get played in 4/4), or play on the 5th string of a bass!

If it's 'stay on the one', then it can't be 'stay on the 1st beat of the bar', and can only be 'stay on root', which may be because the chords change (to slash, maybe), and the root needs to stay constant, while the harmonies change.

It's maybe not the best way to describe what happens, as it's a little ambiguous, but a lot of bassists would understand and play what I've described. 'Stay on the root' makes more sense.

• Any links to the "one on one" usage? Not denying it at all, just haven't heard it! Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 10:36
• @topomorto - none! I've used it for years, as it's apposite and easily understandable - even for bass players!
– Tim
Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 11:30
• Go on - explain the dv!
– Tim
Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:49
• right now you're on the one downvote and on the five upvotes... Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 15:41
• @topomorto - very droll! What can I say that won't cause offence?! Always been a distinct lack of humour on this site. Musos need to be serious!
– Tim
Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 15:47

As per user48490's answer, when talking about playing in the rhythm section, the most usual meaning of "The One" is "the first beat of the bar":

James Brown often cued his band with the command "On the one!," changing the percussion emphasis/accent from the one-two-three-four backbeat of traditional soul music to the one-two-three-four downbeat. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funk)

Legendary bassist Bootsy Collins explains here, in his own terms:

I don't think the expression "The five" is nearly as common - though I have heard people talk about playing "a five" or "the five" meaning a five-string bass guitar!

Could "the one" or "the five" mean a scale degree? Well, maybe - depends on the context. As a shorthand form, people do also say things like "1-3-5" to mean scale degrees; If you talked about a "one-five" bassline, people would know what you mean, and in context, playing "on the one and the five" might mean the same thing. However, I think "root-fifth" is more common if you're talking about scale degrees.

So as with a lot of musical terminology, you need to consider the particular context to work out what's meant.

• This is the right answer. Thought the OP did mention "on the five" etc. The phrase relates to the beat. James Brown.
– user50691
Commented Dec 11, 2020 at 22:41

In funk music anyway, it refers to the first beat of each measure being accented. Also called the downbeat.You can play ahead or behind the beat elsewhere, but be on beat "on the ones".