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Basslines vs. Melodies

Bass: The Misunderstood Instrument

I always say that the bass is the most misunderstood instrument.

Bass is weird. It plays a unique role in music. Bass occupies a unique pitch range in which most other instruments don't live, and that is what leads to it being so misunderstood.

Highs and Lows

The low-end world of music works differently than the high-end world. There are dozens of instruments in the high-end world, but only a handful in the low-end.

Music education is biased towards the high-end instruments which most people play. This is what causes so much confusion for the learning bassist.

All of these musicians you interact with talk of things which are useful to them in the high-end world, but less useful, or even backwards, in the low-end world.

In this lesson I want to give you a little more insight into the difference between the low and the high. Some students get blown off-course for years because they are in essence studying the wrong instrument. Their mistake might be to play guitar on the bass.

Hopefully, as you learn to play the bass, what's explained below will help you know better what applies to your instrument and what doesn't.

Basslines and The Note Choice Pyramid

So far in this lesson block we've looked at the hierarchy of note choice for bass players and their basslines:

Chord Tones > Scale Tones > Chromatic Tones

The Note Choice Pyramid is critical to making strong basslines which the band and audience need and expect in most music.

The high-end world of guitars, singers, and other instruments, however, is different. The high-end has fewer responsibilities than we do down below.

Our basslines have to provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation; the bassline provides the high-end with the structure and foundation to create interesting melodies.

Let's look at what melodies typically do.

Melodies

First, what is the “melody” of a song? The melody is the part of the song the singer is singing or a solo by an instrument (like a guitar or saxophone). The melody is usually the main focal point of the song.

Melodies, while they work with the chords, function differently than basslines. A melody can outline chord tones if it wants to, but a melody's main purpose is not to define chords. A melody is meant to be singable. It wants to connect with the listener's human voice.

Musical phrases which are singable tend to revolve more around scales. Melodies contain many step-wise notes (half-steps and whole-steps). Singing constant big leaps would be difficult and seem unnatural.

When it comes to playing single-note lines, the majority of instruments live in the high-end world playing scale-based melodies. The bass does not.

The problem for bass players is that music education is directed more towards melody instruments. It tends to be more focused on scales and modes. That's what everyone else studies. So, you think, that's what I'm supposed to study, too.

How Are Basslines Different from Melodies?

I've been beating it into your head that a bassline is all about defining the rhythm and the harmony—the chords—of the song. A bassline is the foundation on which the melody rides. With the sturdy foundation of the bass and other rhythm section instruments, the melody is free to do all sorts of things. Melodies have few constraints note-wise or rhythmically.

A melody just needs to sound good.

Good-sounding melodies do have some common characteristics, and their qualities are very different from basslines.

For example, basslines highly emphasize the root note of the chord. Melodies usually don't until the final note where they resolve. Instead, melodies often stress the higher chord tones (3rd, 5th, 7th) or scale tones in-between them.

Basslines often stress beat 1 of each bar. Melodies have no rhythmic obligation. A melody can start or end anywhere, and often their rhythmic stress is elsewhere and even skip beat 1.

Basslines and melodies are a world apart.

Basslines vs Bass Solos

A lot of bass education out there is acting as if you'll be playing bass solos all day long. Well, maybe you will at your local guitar shop to a small crowd of ten-year-olds, but not at a gig. If you can't play basslines to support others, you'll never get the gig to play a solo in the first place!

Usually when a bass player plays a solo, it's no longer a bassline—it's a melody. During a melodic bass solo, you can toss the Note Choice Pyramid aside. During a bass solo the bass player's role has shifted from defining the chords to creating a singable melody part with few requirements and expectations.

Jaco Pastorius – Invitation

As an example, let's take a brief look at Jaco Pastorius' bassline playing versus his melodic solo playing on the song Invitation.

Jaco is well-known for his incredible bass solos, but he knew when to be a bass player and when to be a bass soloist. They're two different roles.

Jaco Pastorius - Invitation Heatmap

StudyBass Heat Map: Jaco Invitation

The bassline excerpt is what he plays throughout much of his bassline. (It's a little Latin minor ii-V-i pattern using mostly roots and approach notes.)

Jaco's bassline sticks right to our bassline Note Choice Pyramid and the concept of Rhythmic Weight. He places strong notes on beats 1 and 3 and weak, connecting notes in the weaker places in-between. He really defines the chords and creates a foundation for the soloists.

During Jaco's solo, his approach to note choice changes. Take a look at the heatmap of the fast phrase at the end of his solo (4:51-4:53).

You can see his note choice in his solo is wildly different from his bassline. Why? Because a solo is a melody, not a bassline.

Melodies and basslines have different functions. Jaco knows this, and he knows when to perform which role.

Are All Bass Solos Melodies?

No. Some bass solos are just busier basslines which get extra attention in the mix. There's nothing wrong with that approach to a solo. Often it's exactly what a song needs. Perhaps most of the band drops out and the bass player adds some extra notes or rhythms to a bassline, or plays the same bassline with some other technique.

Can't Basslines Be “Melodic”?

Absolutely! As we saw in the previous lesson on Paul McCartney's bassline to Something, basslines can be very singable and melodic. But, first and foremost, the notes must define the chords of a song. The melodic aspect is secondary to a successful bassline.

In Summary

I don't expect StudyBass will be the only place you learn about music. It's good to cast a wide net and get many perspectives. There are many websites, books, and videos about bass, music, and other instruments. Some of the music education out there, however, is pointing bass players in the wrong direction. Often they're teaching you the wrong instrument. It's akin to telling a drummer to practice scales.

A bassist creating and improvising his or her own basslines is still a very young art form. The approach to teaching it is even younger.

My hope in explaining the differences between melodies and basslines is that you will know what music instruction applies to you and what doesn't.

To function as a bass player, you need to study rhythm and harmony most of all. From there you can expand playing solos and melodies.

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