In this week’s electronic music theory tutorial we take a closer look at how to get your bassline grooving with your track. For ideas on notation, see our previous article How To Write a Bassline, The rhythm of a bassline can be as simple or as complicated as you require but there are some basic principles that you should stick to. Essentially, your bassline should either move with, or directly compliment, the kick drum pattern in your song.
Complimenting The Kick
“Children” by Robert Miles has a classic example of a bassline complimenting the kick drum pattern; in fact it’s hard to imagine a bass line that’s simpler than this. The pitch of the bass is the root note of the chord in use and it’s a simple pulse in exactly the same rhythm as the kick drum. But to get maximum clarity from the bass note, and to avoid interfering with the sound of the kick drum (as they occupy very similar frequencies in the sonic spectrum), the bass pulse happens on every offbeat.
This has the effect of reinforcing the ‘push-pull’ feel of the House beat. If you nod your head in time to the beat of this tune you’ll find that your head is fully up when the bass note sounds.This feels quite exciting and certainly makes dancing to this rhythm very easy. This bassline rhythm has been used in Trance for more than a decade as it is so effective. It’s also used very efficiently in Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’.
Locking With The Kick
The bass rhythms above make great use of not playing on the same beats as the kick drum: in fact they specifically avoid the kick drum so that there is plenty of ‘sonic room’ left for the bass note to be heard clearly in the arrangement. But, these basslines tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Most basslines move with the kick drum. Both the bass instrument and the kick drum are following the same rhythm, although they don’t have to sound at the same time all the time. This has the effect of reinforcing the kick drum with an easily identifiable pitch, strengthening both the sense of rhythm and of harmony. Here are some examples of simple basslines locking perfectly with the kick drums
In “What The World Means To U” by Cameron the bassline feels rock solid. The fact that the bassline is largely locked in with the kick drum creates a very well defined groove, which feels very exciting and is ideal for dancing to.
Another example of the same thing is in “C’mon” by Mario. This track has a very busy vocal arrangement; Mario hardly seems to pause for breath. This kind of bassline is often used in Hip-hop & R’n’B, as it helps to emphasize the groove without making it too busy, thus also leaving a lot of room for vocals.
Creating A Riff
So far we’ve only really considered basslines that reinforce either the rhythm of a track or the harmony – sometimes both. There are however plenty of instances where basslines do a bit more work than that by using riffs. A riff is a short musical phrase, usually quite rhythmical, that is played repeatedly to help create a groove. Here are some examples:
“In Da Club” by 50 Cent. The bassline consists of a very simple repeated phrase. This phrase is very hooky and is reinforced by the higher string line at various times in the song. Notice that the bassline follows the kick drum exactly, also that the sound used is quite dull i.e. not bright, containing few high frequencies. It leaves room sonically for the pizz and the strings part that complement the bass. This bass riff has one other fascinating attribute: it does not play the root note of the chord until the very end of the section. This is very unusual and heightens the sense of tension in the whole track very effectively.
“Insane in the Brain” by Cypress Hill. Again, a ‘simple’ repeated phrase played on quite a dull sounding instrument (which could be an acoustic bass). Notice again that the bassline and the kick drum are locked together. As is typical in Hip Hop, the bassline is the only part that carries any real harmony i.e. there is no sequence of chords, no other parts playing a melody or a riff etc.
“Baby I Love You So” by King Tubby. Dub Reggae. Notice, just like in Hip Hop, that the bassline is almost the only instrument playing any kind of ‘tune’. The bassline follows the chords being used and plays a repeated phrase that moves the track along, again creating a groove that hypnotises the listener.
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. Heavy rock, and one of the most familiar riffs ever. Its hooky, loud, brilliantly well played. Enough said.
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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂
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