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 harmony clear.
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.