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Rhythmic Weight

In the last lesson I introduced you to the Note Choice Pyramid. I explained that there are three types of notes to choose from when constructing your bassline: Chord Tones, Scale Tones, and Chromatic Tones.

Chord Tones form the foundation of your bassline, while Scale Tones and Chromatic Tones are added for color and connecting between Chord Tones.

The other part of the puzzle is learning where, rhythmically, to place these notes. This is the crucial part which is often never explained: When you play a particular note is a big part of what makes it sound right or wrong, good or bad.

You're So Judgmental!

As you listen to music, your ear subconsciously weighs the importance of each note it hears based on where it falls rhythmically. Your ear judges certain beats and rhythmic subdivisions as more important or less important.

So, there is not only a hierarchy of strong and weak notes to choose from, there's also a hierarchy of strong and weak rhythmic places to put them.

The strength and weakness of the notes must be in balance with the strength and weakness of the rhythm.

When Did I Go Wrong?

When you place weak notes (Scale Tones and Chromatic Tones) in strong rhythmic places, your bassline will be off-balance. This is what makes a note sound wrong. A listener's ear expects to hear a strong, defining note but is given a weak one instead.

To create good basslines you need to put strong Chord Tones in strong places and weaker Scale and Chromatic Tones in weak places.

What is Rhythmic Weight?

In general, notes falling on the beat (1, 2, 3, 4) are perceived as stronger and more harmonically important than notes in-between the beat (the "ands" or 16th subdivisions).

You will discover most basslines use strong notes on the beats and weaker ones on the 8th and 16th note subdivisions in-between the beats.

Are Some Beats Stronger than Others?

Yes! Let's examine common, 4/4 time where we divide each bar into 4 beats.

Beats One and Three

The most harmonically strong beat is beat one. Since this is where chords often change, this is where your ear expects to hear a strong note in the bassline to define the chord. This is usually a root or a 5th.

The next strongest beat is beat three. Beat three isn't as strong as beat one, but they're nearly equal. Again, on beat three you'll usually want strong notes like chord tones. A note from the scale can work as long as there are enough chord tones in the rest of the line. Weak, chromatic notes, however, will upset the harmony here.

Remember, the strong beats one and three ground the harmony.

Beats Two and Four

Beats two and four are weaker harmonically with beat four being the weakest. Beat four is always leading into beat one of the next bar. Weak notes on beat four help propel the music forward into the next bar.

A Few Listening Examples

Understanding rhythmic weight is a big, important concept. I want to give you some simple listening examples. I don't really want you to play them (we'll play exercises in upcoming lessons). Just listen to the effect of where notes fall.

Root, 3rd, 5th, 6th

A classic set of notes played by bassists over major chords is the Root, 3rd, 5th, and 6th combination. These are good sounding notes. Three of them—the root, 3rd, and 5th—are Chord Tones, while the 6th is a weaker Scale Tone.

Example 1

There are countless basslines which use this basic idea:


Let's celebrate the late, great Duck Dunn a bit. Here's Duck applying this R-3-5-6 line on a 12-bar blues:

Albert King – Laundromat Blues

Example 2

Here is a second example this time playing R-6-5-3. It's basically the previous example backwards. There are many, many songs using this idea in the bassline:


Here's Duck Dunn applying this line in the verses of this soul classic:

Wilson Pickett - 634-5789

So if these “correct” notes work over a major chord, we should be able to combine them in any way, right? Let's try it.

Example 3


Example 4


It's the same notes played under the same C major triad, but the basslines don't work as well, do they? They're not offensive, but they don't support the harmony as well. Why? It's because the strongest notes of the chord and weak notes fall in the wrong rhythmic places.

The two common basslines of Root-3-5-6 (Ex. 1) and Root-6-5-3 (Ex. 2) work so well because the two strongest notes of the chord, the root and 5th, are aligned on the two strongest beats—beats 1 and 3. The 3rd of the chord and, most importantly, the weaker 6th fall on the weaker beats of 2 and 4.

"Just Play the Dorian Mode, Man!"

Now you can see (hear) knowing which notes to play in your bassline is not as simplistic as “play the major scale here” and “play this mode there.” This approach works well for instruments creating solos and melodies, but basslines require more harmonic definition.

You must learn how to define chords using Chord Tones. You must learn the hierarchy of notes and the weight of beats. Once your Chord Tones are in place, then you can add the other flavor notes from scales and from outside of scales.

What About Other Time Signatures?

In all time signatures beat 1 is the strongest harmonically since that's where the chords typically change. The final beat is often weak creating tension leading to the next bar.

In 3/4 time, beat 1 is strongest, beat 3 is weak, and beat 2 is fairly strong in the middle.

In compound time signatures such as 6/8 and 12/8, remember the pulse is divided into threes: [1 2 3][4 5 6][7 8 9][10 11 12]. In this case beats 1, 4, 7, and 10 work much like beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 in 4/4 time. Then each 3-note group works like 3/4 time.

Odd time signatures such as 5/4 will depend on the music. Sometimes the pulse is divided into 2 beats and 3 beats, other times 3 beats and 2 beats.

Now that you have an idea of the weight of the beats, let's dig deeper within the beats on page 2...

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