As guitarists, our primary role in a jazz setting is to play chords, and very often we also play melody and/or solos. Because of our main function, it can be easy to overlook the usefulness of knowing how to construct a good bass line.
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In reality, being able to play bass lines on guitar is a very important skill that any guitar player can benefit from. It can do wonders for playing rhythm guitar in a duo or trio setting without a bass, and it’s always good to be able to take over the lower end when the bassist doesn’t show up, gets fired by a hotheaded band leader, or just gets too drunk at the bar to play.
The two most important things to remember when playing bass lines are to make the chords very clear and obvious, and to keep good time. There’s nothing worse than a bass player who drags the tempo and screws up the chords, so you always need to make sure you make the harmony clear and keep a steady quarter note pulse. I like to play bass lines with my thumb or fingers, as opposed to a pick, to get a more bass-like tone. The most basic way to play a good line is to use all chord tones. Example one is a walking bass line over a Bb blues using all chord tones (1,3,5,7). Example 2 is a bossa nova bass line using all roots and fifths.
Once you have this technique down you can add some chromatics and more linear ideas to spice the line up. Example 3 is a walking bass line over rhythm changes with some non-chord tones and chromatic passing tones (as well as chord tones, of course), which result in a line that is less angular than the previous examples. Be sure to check out next month’s lesson, which will involve putting some bass lines with the guide tones we talked about in last month’s lesson. It’s gonna be sweet! Take care and may the jazz be with you.
Ex. 1: Bass line using all chord tones
Here is a walking bass line over a Bb blues using all chord tones (1,3,5,7)
Ex. 2: Bass line using all roots and fifths.
A bossa nova bass line using all roots and fifths.
Ex. 3: Bass line using chord tones, non-chord tones, chromatic passing tones.
Here is a walking bass line over rhythm changes with chord tones, non-chord tones, and chromatic passing tones.
Special thanks to Bass Master Adam Neely for contributing ideas for this article.