Chord Tones in Basslines

So far in this lesson block we've looked at the note choice pyramid and the concept of rhythmic weight. There are three types of notes from which to choose (chord, scale, and chromatic), and where you place them rhythmically helps support or upset the harmony bass players are responsible for defining.

In the next few lessons I will take the same tracks in a few styles and show you how you might create a bassline applying chord tones, scale tones, and chromatic tones.

Let's start with the foundation: using chord tones in basslines...

What Are Chords and Chord Tones, Again?

A chord is defined as three or more notes played simultaneously. For example, C, E, and G played at the same time creates a C major triad.

Chord tones are the individual notes which make up a chord. For example, the chord tones of a C major triad are the individual notes C, E, and G anywhere you can find them.

Since playing true chords (several notes at once) with the low notes of the bass can sound muddy, bass players instead play the individual chord tones one at a time to define the harmony of a song or chord progression.

When Can I Use Chord Tones in My Bassline?

Since chord tones are straight out of the chord being played, any of the chord tones will work at any time beneath that chord in your bassline. They are strong and define the chord in the low end.

If you have no other idea what to play, stick to the chord tones. They're always right.

Some chord tones are stronger than others, and some chord tones have other important functions. Let's review them before going on to the bassline examples.

Roots

Far and away the strongest note for a bass player to play is the root note of the chord. You will come across many songs which only use root notes.

You can review the root note bass lesson here.

Roots and Rhythmic Weight

Root notes are the most common note on the first beat of a chord change. Roots can appear at any rhythmic point in your bassline without causing any problems.

Fifths

For the bass player, the next strongest note of a chord is the fifth. Often bass parts, from simple to complex, use roots and fifths exclusively.

You can review the root and fifth bass lesson here.

Fifths and Rhythmic Weight

Fifths can also appear at any rhythmic point in a bassline. A favorite spot is on beat 3 in 4/4 time. Basslines often have a root on beat one and a fifth on beat three with a variety of notes in between. This makes for a strong, well-balanced bassline.

Two-Bar Root/5th Structure

Sometimes fifths may appear on beat one of a bar especially when it's part of a two-bar phrase. For example, if there are two bars of a C chord, beat one of bar one will be the root note (C), and beat one of the second bar will be the fifth (G). This is a strong and classic bassline structure.

Flat 5ths and Sharp 5ths

If a chord has an altered 5th (flat 5th or sharp 5th), it's important for the bass player to play the right one. These don't happen frequently, but when they do and the bass gets it wrong it can sound awful. Mind your chords with altered fifths.

Thirds

The third of a chord is what makes it sound major or minor. As with all chord tones, you'll never go wrong using it. Just be sure to use the correct major or minor 3rd for the chord.

You might review: major chord bass lessons, minor chord bass lessons, and diminished chord bass lessons.

Thirds and Rhythmic Weight

Thirds can pop up anywhere rhythmically, but are less common on the first beat of the chord change. It creates a bit of a special harmonic effect when used on beat one of a chord change. It can add some variety to the same, repeated chord, or it can create some smoother connections between chords in a progression. You'll have to use your own musical taste and judgment for when to do it.

Sevenths

Sevenths are not present in all chords. They are used in some styles more than others. If they're not present, sometimes the bassist can use them anyway, other times they don't work. Once again, use your own musical judgment.

7ths and Rhythmic Weight

Sevenths can be powerful, colorful notes in a bassline. You can apply them much like the thirds discussed above.

Sevenths work anywhere in the bar, but are less common on beat one. A common bassline using the flatted 7th on beat one of the bar is the boogie woogie bassline. This is another common two-bar structure where a root is used on beat one of bar one, and a flatted 7th is used on beat one of the second bar.

Extensions: 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths

Chord tones above the octave (8) are called extensions. These include 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and alterations of them (#9, b13). These are usually color notes, and are often addressed by the other instruments or vocals in the music. In most situations the bass player won't need to go out of the way to highlight these notes.

Mystery Chords

There are still a number of chord types we haven't discussed. Most of them are slight variations to ones we have discussed. If you come across a chord you don't know or understand, you can always use the Swiss army knife of bass-playing—the root/fifth pattern! It's probably what you would use even if you did know that mystery chord.

Now that we've reviewed the use of chord tones, let's apply them on the exercise and song pages.

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