February 26, 2013  

How To Write A Bassline – A Beginners Guide

How to write a Bassline?

The bassline is a very important part of songwriting/producing and along with the drums, forms the backbone of a song, the rhythm section is essential to the overall feel of a piece of music. If you have a solid rhythm section, then anything you put on top has a good chance of sounding okay.

The bassline is an essential element of the rhythm section as it contains a lot of information such as tempo, time signature, key (major or minor), musical style, attitude—it’s all there. This is why it is so important to choose the right bassline.

The role of the bass as support for harmony & chord sequences. The bass also has a ‘sonic’ role. It provides the low frequency content of your production. A lot of modern productions are based nowadays around loud and punchy drums and ‘PHAT’ bass sounds.

Who & what will play my bass?

From the 1950s until the 1980s the electric bass guitar has been the instrument of choice for playing basslines.  Up to this time, bass lines were usually played by the Double Bass or Upright Bass, a kind of oversized cello which was normally plucked by the player. The sound of a double bass has a fairly strong attack and doesn’t have much sustain, which doesn’t make it quite suitable if you need to play long notes.

Nowadays, the double bass is mainly used in Jazz music, although here again there are no rules: it really depends on the atmosphere of the track. The electric bass guitar has many advantages over the upright bass: it’s much lighter, making it easier to transport. It’s much smaller and tougher, and therefore less prone to damage in transit.  Being an amplified electric instrument, it can be far louder than an upright bass. And its sound is fuller, deeper and brighter, which makes it far more versatile than its predecessor.

In rock music, the bass guitar always plays the bass line. In fact, whenever a band plays you’ll find there is a bass guitarist (well, nearly)…But what if we’re not playing in a band? What if we’re programming our arrangement using MIDI equipment, samplers and software synthesizers?

The first main two options usually are simulating a “live” bass. Many synths have patches that recreate the sound of a “live” bass, either electric or acoustic or using a synth bass: synthesizers sound great as bass instruments and you will hear many tracks where the bass is played by a synth.

If you want to move away from the conventional approach, then just about anything goes. You can use any sound that you have available to play your bassline, so be creative! Here’s a selection of sounds that you may often hear playing the bassline in popular music:

  • Pizzicato / strings / horns: “In Da Club” springs to mind and quite few Dr DRE productions for example.
  • Hammond Organ: Very popular in House and Garage styles. An original B3 organ is an unwieldy beast and very expensive, so you could use samples instead, or one of the many software instruments that emulate the sound of a Hammond.
  • TR808 kick drum: Eh? A kick drum playing a bassline? Absolutely. In fact this sound formed the basis of many jungle/drum ‘n bass sounds in the 1990s. You sample it, map it across the keyboard so the pitch of the drum changes just like a sample of a voice would do and voilá, instant sub bass!

Which notes should I play?

Each musical genre has its own characteristics, for example, Reggae has very distinctive basslines & sound. The same applies to Drum & Bass, etc.  However, there are certain general rules on how to write bassline that will help you to get going, and as usual, once you know the rules, rules are there to be broken, as long as it works musically.

We’ll start with considering the choice of notes played by the bass. As a general rule, the musical role of the bass is to carry the chord sequence of a tune. So most of the time, the bass will play a note which is in the chord that it supports.

In popular music, you tend to find that the bassline follows the root note of the current chord being played. Here’s a simple example:

Chord sequence C D min F G
Bass note played C D F G

This really couldn’t be simpler, but why is it that this feels natural, complete and comfortable? Let’s take a little look at our old friend, the C chord. As we know, this chord is made up of three notes, ‘C’, ‘E’ and ‘G’, but the most important note by far is the root note ‘C’. The ‘C’ note is the first note on which all the rest are built. It also completes the chord, making it feel whole.

Now take a look at the keyboard when we add another ‘C’ note, this time a whole octave lower:

This note appears to ‘double up’ on the ‘C’ in the chord and in fact that’s exactly what it does. It reinforces the strength of the root note in the chord, making the whole chord sound far more powerful, purposeful and strong.

So why does simply playing the root note an octave lower sound so full, natural and powerful?  Well, in simple terms, you’re directly reinforcing the chords that already exist in the song. You’re adding extra sonic energy at a lower frequency that does not interfere with the other frequencies in the chord, it only adds to them.

If you played any note other than C, you would be complicating the sound of the chord and so would lose a certain amount of power.  We won’t discuss psychoacoustics here, but for some reason human beings feel quite comfortable with low frequencies that we understand and can identify. It helps us to feel ‘grounded’, safe, and a whole load of other feelings associated with our security.

Next time you’re listening to your favourite song at home, try turning the bass on your stereo right down as far as it can go; don’t you instantly feel slightly anxious, just itching to put the bass back in?  In contrast, try turning the treble all the way down. It doesn’t sound great, but you don’t get that anxious feeling to anything like the same degree. Amazing.

Following the chord sequence of your song directly, just playing root notes as your bassline is perfectly acceptable. Listen to any Trance music, any Punk music and you‘ll find that the whole bass line in these styles is simply a rhythmical pulsing of the root note of the current chord. And it feels perfectly natural, strong and most importantly LOUD.

Staying on one note when the chords change

We’ve discussed so far how playing the root notes for the bass is probably the simplest, feels the most natural, and how it can help to make the track sound more ‘comfortable’. However there are actually plenty of occasions where it’s better if we don’t play only the root, for example when you want to bring a bit more tension.

The principle is quite simple: you play one bass note whilst the chords of the song change above it.  Let’s consider this chord progression. You may want to use a piano sound in EXS24, so you can try the following examples.  First play the root notes for the bass part as below:

Chord sequence C F A min
G
Bass note played C F A G

So far so good. Now this time, try playing the same note C for the bass throughout the chord sequence, as below:

Chord sequence C F A min
G
Bass note played C C C C

You’ll notice that having the bass note staying the same throughout our sequence alters the feel of it dramatically. The sequence now feels like its moving less. It also feels a little more sophisticated, ‘jazzy’, especially when we play the G chord at the end. There is a specific reason for this, take a look at the notes used in the chords below.

You’ll notice that the note C appears in all of the chords C major, F major & A minor, but does not appear in G major at all. That is the main reason why it feels slightly jazzy to have C as a bass note under the G major, when it feels quite natural with the other chords.

But, despite not being in the chord of G, the C bass note still feels good, it has quite a different feel than playing G and certainly sounds interesting without complicating things too much. It also brings a nice instance of tension and release, the tension is on the G chord with the bass playing a C, then it leads us back to the first chord C, which feels nice & complete, with the bass also playing a C (that’s the release).

Using bass notes that don’t appear in the chord can be an interesting way of spicing up a chord sequence but a word of warning! This technique only really works when used sparingly. In our previous example, when we kept the bass playing a C under our chord sequence, the C wasn’t part of the chord G, but this only happened for one chord. Using this method for every single chord in a track could create a sense of ‘instability’. But this is not a hard and fast rule, plenty of great songs use bass notes that don’t appear in the chord, so go ahead, have some fun and experiment for yourself.

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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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This post is included in Tips & Tricks