Another common type of articulation, or ornament, is the grace note.
Defining it simply, a grace note is a brief note which resolves into some main, or principal, note. Grace notes on the bass are often a whole- or half-step below the main note, but could also come from above. On bass, these grace notes are most often quick hammer-ons, pull-offs or slides.
Grace notes often create tension leading the listener's ear to the main note. It's a subtle effect and used sparingly by most bass players.
The term “grace note” is a sort of catch-all term for several musical ornaments with more specific names. Many musicians will say “grace note”—especially guitarists and bass players—and expect you'll know which specific kind of grace note to play.
For something seemingly so simple, the nuances and terminology for grace notes can be tricky. There is a lot of confusion surrounding the rules and definitions of grace notes. To keep things simple, we'll look at the terms you'll most often hear and what most applies to the bass. (If you want to dive deeper, I recommend reading the entries on ornamentation, appoggiatura, acciaccatura, and grace note in the music dictionary I recommend The New Harvard Dictionary of Music by Don Randel.)
The most well-known grace note is the appoggiatura.
An appoggiatura (pronounced 'ah-paw-zhe-ah-tour-ah') is a note falling on the beat momentarily displacing a main note before resolving to the main note.
Appoggiaturas are often dissonant notes a step above or below the main note, or “principal” note, as it is properly called.
The word appoggiatura originates from the Italian for 'to lean into.' Think of appoggiaturas as one note leaning into a target note. It's like an approach note.
How long a performer holds the appoggiatura is open to interpretation by the performer.
You might wonder, why don't they just write out the notes like normal notes? The appoggiatura has some other characteristics like being accented more loudly and is typically a non-harmonic tone resolving to a harmonic one. For example, on a C chord the note D may lead into E—the third of the C chord.
Appoggiaturas are quite common in piano and vocal music. You won't see these in much music for the bass. It makes more sense to write out the notes more explicitly as you'd expect. But, you should know this term appoggiatura as other musicians often use it interchangeably with the term grace note. Plus, it will help you understand our next grace note—the acciaccatura.
A similar type of grace note is the acciaccatura (pronounced 'ah-chuck-ah-tour-ah'). The word comes from Italian meaning 'to crush.'
The acciaccatura is shorter than the appoggiatura and is often described as a “short appoggiatura.” Think of acciaccaturas as crushing two notes together.
This is the more common grace note for bass players and it's usually what's meant by bass players and guitar players when they say 'grace note'.
On the bass, acciaccaturas are typically played as quick hammer-ons, pull-offs or slides rather than quickly plucking both notes in succession.
Acciaccaturas are more common for bass players, but many musicians will still call them appoggiaturas or grace notes and expect you to play the shorter acciaccatura. It's a source of confusion.
Appoggiatura and Acciaccatura Notation
The appoggiatura is notated (1) as a note in a smaller font size, (2) is written as half the rhythmic value of its principal note, and (3) is commonly connected with a slur.
The acciaccatura is notated in the same way except a small slash is drawn through the note stem of the acciaccatura note.
You'll remember that the rhythms within each bar must always add up to the number of beats in the time signature. The rhythmic value of the appoggiatura does not count towards the rhythmic total of the bar. That is, its count is ignored. Instead, the length of time it is played is interpreted by the player and subtracted from the principal note.
In bass tab, appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas are written with a smaller font and a slur and sometimes parentheses around the grace note.
Appoggiaturas and Acciaccaturas for Bass Players
The acciaccatura—the shorter one with the slash through the stem—is much more common for bass players. The longer appoggiatura is more likely to be written out as a two plain notes to play as hammer-ons, pull-offs or slides.
For bass players, acciaccaturas with slurs only would be played as hammer-ons or pull-offs.
When a slanted line connects the acciaccatura notes to the principal note, the grace note is played as a slide.
In bass tab, acciaccaturas are notated with a smaller font and a slur, and sometimes parentheses around the grace note.
Rhythmic Placement of Grace Notes
Appoggiaturas are played on the beat. There is some debate on the rhythmic placement of the acciaccatura. Does the acciaccatura land on the beat with the principal note following it? Or, does it occur just before the beat with the principal note landing on the beat?
I find most bass players play the acciaccatura on the beat. That makes sense as it would create more tension. But, different players may interpret it differently. You'll need to use your ears and your own musical judgment to decide what is appropriate.
Why Play Grace Notes?
Like all of our articulations so far, the grace note adds a little something extra to a note. The note stands out more. It makes a note more exciting or interesting, and it adds a brief tension to the main note. These are great to use on long notes where you can't do too much to the note otherwise.
Tips on Playing Grace Notes
For bass players, the most common grace note is the hammer-on acciaccatura. You'll want to practice these the most.
All of the issues common with hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides still apply. Here are some tips and problems you may experience:
- To get a clear sound, make sure your starting note is fully pressed before plucking and hammering-on.
- If doing a pull-off, similarly make sure your target note is fully pressed before the pull-off.
- When sliding grace notes, remember to land them right behind the fret to get the clearest tone.
- A common student mistake is playing the two notes slowly and too far apart. The trick is to hear and play the two notes as a single note or musical event. In your mind and ear, hear them as a single unit. 'Brrrp' instead of 'bip-bip'.
Debates and Confusion
There are a few debates about appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas. Things such as the length of the notes, playing the notes simultaneously (on instruments like piano), playing them before the beat or on the beat are often questioned and interpreted differently.
Many of the debates pertain to other instruments (such as keyboards) and interpreting written music from before recordings existed. Understanding what a composer wrote and intended hundreds of years ago can be difficult.
With all of the debates and differing definitions, peoples' writing, speaking of and interpretation of these grace notes are inconsistent. Luckily we have recordings for many of the performances we bass players are trying to learn. Listen to them. Use your own musical taste and judgment on how to play them.
Grace Note Bass Exercises and Song Examples
Grace notes don't happen that often, but it makes sense to add them to our discussion of hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides.
Be sure to work on the grace note exercises I've created for this lesson. And, I've added some suggested songs for you to listen to and learn.