The Art of Arrangement: Bass

When it comes down to arranging music (any type of music), one of your prime considerations is the bass. In most styles of music, the bass plays a major role. In other styles it plays a simple supporting role; supporting, but just as important never the less. The bass makes up 1/2 of the major support in modern music, the drums being the other. It defines the groove, the feel and the underlying harmony.

The History of the Bassline

The bass line has always had a huge impact on Western Music. At one time, all a composer had to do was write the melody and bass line. They wouldn't even fill in the accompaniment.
They would use a numbering system (called 'figured bass') to let the accompanists know what to play. Around the time of Bach, when counterpoint was the way that composers wrote, writing a good bass line was an education in it's own right. In fact, Bach wrote down the 'rules' to writing a good bass line that are just as valid to this day. 

Just the Root

Most of the time in popular music, the bass player is relegated to simply playing the roots of the chords.While effective most of the time, there are tons of ways to make the bassline more interesting. First of all there is the falling or climbing bass line. This is where the bass will play a scalar or chromatic line against a number of changes. These are usually pretty effective in bringing out a harmony or part without taking too much away from the melody or other parts. These go a long way in making an interesting bass line, using more linear lines instead of the usual jumping form root to root. The use of these type of bass lines usually result in slash chords written for the rest of the band. Slash chords are usually other notes in the chord (e.g. the 3rd, 5th, or 7th) moved to the bass, but don't it doesn't have to be. Any note can go with any chord, as long it's right for the song.
Harmony used with descending bass line:
regular harmony:                            C G Am F G C Dm
bass line:                                       C B A G F E D
harmony with bass line:                  C G/B Am F G C/E Dm*
*This line is a bit long in the tooth but you get the idea.

Jazz Cats

One style of music where the bass is paramount is jazz. If it's straight forward traditional jazz, the bass player will typically be carrying the beat with a steady bass. They will usually play quarters with some embellishment added for variety. There are many things involved in playing bass in a jazz band, one of them being improvisation and having a 'dialogue' with the other players. If you're writing out a jazz arrangement for bass, most of the time you'll just indicate the chords and let the player be. If there are special notes in your arrangement as far as bass notes, you'll want to include them in the chord names to let all of the musicians (especially the bass) know what's happening at that particular time. Let the bass player choose the notes, you just indicate the harmony. If there is a specific line that is part of the head, then you'll want to indicate that. One other thing to note is that if there are any special shots, you just have to indicate them in the score. Jazz bass players will use the fifth and octave (see below), but also use other chord tones and chromatic notes to create interesting, moving bass lines. Unless you're a bass player, leave these to the pros.

I Go Out Walking

One thing that a bass player will do is walk. Walking is simply taking steps (either chromatic or scalar) between roots. This is done in almost every style of music. Jazz players walk consistently between the changes. Certain styles of rock and country will do it between certain chord changes. To make your bass line more interesting, you'll want to incorporate some walking. How much depends on the style of music and the effectiveness of the line. Sometimes a couple of notes connecting two chords at the right time is just enough for it to be effective. Just try it a couple of times throughout the arrangement. Listen back and then add or take away accordingly. (I usually find myself taking away). Try chromatic just as much as scalar patterns. Be careful in that if you sit on one of these notes long enough, or put enough of an accent on it, that passing note will then become part of your harmony. That is, since you've put so much 'emphasis' on it, the rest of the players will probably want to make a change at that spot. That means putting these walking notes on weak beats (stay away from the 1st and 3rd beat) and not letting them ring out too long (short note values).

Pedal on the Vamp

One thing that will get almost any dance tune going is a repeated bass line. This is where the bass will stay on one note or play a vamp while the other players continue with the chord changes. These can be used for a couple of changes or for a whole song  Pedals are used all the time in almost every genre of music. These are used for great effect in dance music since it reinforces the constant groove. In traditional theory it's referred to as a pedal, in jazz it's known as a vamp. Bach would use pedals in his music; usually the root or 5th on the 'pedal' (lowest notes) on an organ while running a moving harmony over top. In pop, dance and jazz it's a repeating bass line over and over while the rest of the band will play the different changes. This isn't just used in dance music though, rock players do this all of the time. In fact, if you have a set of chord changes in a pop or rock tune, try a single repeating bass line instead of just following the roots. Or have a vamp over the verse and then change the bass line with the harmony in the chorus.

The Fifth/Fourth/Octave

Another thing that bass players do is the use of the fifth and the octave. Sometimes if a chord is held for a long time or the bass player wants to add some notes to a given harmony, they'll add the fifth (or fourth below, i.e. same note) or the octave. Sometimes this procedure is used so much, it becomes a part of the style of music. Bass lines in bluegrass and country use this alteration so much so that it has become an essential part of the style. Some other types of music (especially various types of folk music) relies on this same device. But this isn't relagated to just country, it's used all over the place. From metal to dance and everything in between, the bass player will often go to the fifth when playing a bass line. The way it is used varies from style to style of course. A metal player will never alternate between the root and the fifth in straight quarters. But they will play the root, followed by the fifth in various rhythms and repetitions. The same goes for the use of the octave. One of the defining elements of disco was the alternating octave bass line. Funk slap bass and various styles of dance music use this figure a lot. Bass players love the fifth and the octave because it leaves the harmony wide open for the rest of the band; i.e. it doesn't define the chord (major, minor, 7th) other than the fact that it doesn't have a flat fifth.

Get Real

If you're going to take your arrangement and try to put it down on record, you may want to save yourself some hassle and get a real player to do it for you. Not only does this save you time, it will make your recording that much better and can be a great learning experience. If you're doing an RnB remix of one of your songs and know somebody who plays that style, try and get them in on the recording session. The player will add two things that you probably can't. One is feel. Every style has its own feel. Players in various styles just play a certain way that adds authenticity to the track. A jazz drummer doesn't hit like a rock drummer and vice versa. It's the same for bass. The player well versed in the style will have a certain feel that would be hard to replicate; no matter how great your sequencing chops. The other thing a player will bring is knowledge of the style. If you've written a basic bass line for them to follow, they may notice things that aren't obvious to someone not as well versed with the style. For example, if you've written just roots for the bass all the way through, they may suggest some alternate bass lines that may be more effective than your own. RnB bass players love to use inversions and alternate notes for the bass. Likewise if it was a metal tune, the player might notice if your changes sounded a little dated or clich├ęd. If a player makes some suggestions, take note and consider them. It makes the whole experience better for you and for them. If you leave your ego at the door, you may be surprised at how much you learn. Also, everybody likes to be part of the process and be heard. If a player's suggestions are seriously considered, they usually will feel better about the session and look forward to working with you more.

Bass Sounds

In certain styles of music, the actual bass sound is critical to the authenticity of the style. Some styles of dance music are defined by the sounds of the drums (especially the kick) and bass. There is a difference not only the notes played but the sound of the instrument. The same goes for certain styles of rock and pop. Reggae bass has a different sound than funk. Jazz uses the stand up bass but not always. Different genres of rock have different bass sounds. Sometimes it's the full bottom bass we're used to but in other styles it may be more mid-rangey with some distortion added for effect. The different genres of dance music rely heavily on the bass. A house bass line is completely different than a techno bass line. Not only is the bass line different, the actual sound of the bass will be different. Some genres of dance music rely more on synth lines. The actual variation of different synth bass sounds used in dance music is another post in itself. Suffice to say (particularly for dance music), pay as much attention to the sound used, as the lines used.

Recording The Bass

If you've ever spend any time mixing, you'll know the trials and tribulations of trying to mix the bass properly. This is another element of the style. How much room does the bass take up in that style? It's not just a matter of making the bass sound big. While you may think that there isn't much variation, there is. The bass in RnB takes much more room than it does in most rock. Even though the bass is of huge importance in jazz, it's usually mixed quite conservatively (i.e. in terms of how 'big' it is) compared to RnB or rock. Just put in a hip-hop song and then follow it immediately with a jazz ensemble and you'll see what I mean. (The jazz tune will probably be mixed much quieter also...part of the style.) Even between different artists within the same genre of music, there is a huge difference in how 'big' or how much room the bass takes up. Some rock artists want the big bass, but others want to make sure that the guitars take up just as much space. Remember, not everything is going to be huge. Something has to take precedence over the other. You can't have a big bassy kick, with a thick bass and bottom heavy guitars. There are too many things fighting for the same space and things are just going to get messy. If you're recording as well as arranging, these are things that you're going to have to consider when putting it all together. If you're doing any recording or mixing of bass, remember how important it is to the music: make room for it. If needed, try adding a boost around 1-2kHz or so (depending on the bass sound). It will help bring out the bass line, especially on smaller systems. Also check your mixes in a variety of situations, that's the only way you'll know for sure if it translates well.

Take The Time

When composing or arranging songs, always take time to consider the bass. Even if it doesn't take a leading role in the style of music you're arranging, it's always an important part. For every style of music, there are conventions and 'rules' that apply to that style. Make sure to take the time and learn the style and try to get the best possible 'bottom line' that you can. If at all possible, try different bass lines and different bass sounds. Try each in a mix and see how they fit. Back in Bach's time, composers were encouraged to make the best bass line they could. It didn't have to just carry the harmony, it also had to be as interesting and singable as the melody. This is something we should all still aspire to.