As keyboardists, we often have to play left-hand bass,
whether in an organ trio or casual cover gig. The best way to
internalize the logic behind great bass lines is to study actual lines
played by great bassists. In this lesson, we’ll focus specifically on
the style of the legendary jazz bassist Ray Brown, with whom I had the
pleasure of playing with for three years from 1997 through 1999. Here
are five ways to build better bass lines.
1. Use a Wider Note Range
Ray Brown utilized the full range of his bass when walking bass lines. On the piano, the low end corresponds to the lowest E on the keyboard, and high notes extend to well above middle C. Ex. 1 is much like a blues in the key of C
we often played together. Notice how Ray starts in a relatively high
range and walks upward, then reverses direction, culminating in a low G in bar 10. Most keyboardists use a much narrower range for bass lines, so stretch your boundaries!
2. You Don’t Have To Play Roots on Beat 1
In bar 5 of Ex. 1, the chord is an F7 but Ray starts on C, which is the fifth of the chord. This is because it’s the continuation of a descending melodic line that starts in bar 3. Ex. 2 shows a few ways you can walk on a C7
chord without starting on the root. Using a strong chord tone (like the
third, fifth, or seventh) on beat 1 of each bar helps to keep the
3. Chromaticism is Okay, Even Down Low
In Ex. 3, the bass “surrounds” the root, third, and
fifth by starting a half-step above, then going a half-step below the
strong chord tone. This creates a snaky sounding bass line that imparts
tension and melodic interest.
4. Mix It Up
Ex. 4 shows Ray walking on “I Got Rhythm”-style
chord changes. Notice how he alternates between static notes (bars 1, 2,
and 5), and moving lines (like bars 3, 4, and 6 through 8). Variety is
the key. It’s even okay to repeat notes.
5. Let the Bass Line Be the Melody
Sometimes, the bass line itself is the hook or the most important melodic idea in the tune. Ex. 5
is in the style of Ray’s tune “The Real Blues,” a piece we played every
night. Though one can’t literally bend notes on an acoustic piano, try
to emulate the bluesy style and feeling of a bassist sliding up the
string from the G natural to G# when playing this excerpt. In addition, be conscious of placing accents so the notes really pop.