Have any of you ever been asked if you could “kick bass” on a gig without a bass player, only to hesitate over concerns over holding down the keyboard parts? Or maybe throngs of bass players telling you to “stay out of the way” of their low notes has sent you into treble clef land for life? Well, I’m here to assure you that playing keyboard, organ, or synth bass can be one of the most rewarding roles you’ll ever take on.
I’ve asked a few of my esteemed colleagues about their inspiration for creating killer keyboard bass parts. Toto’s David Paich, who played incredible Moog bass on George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” and Boz Scaggs’ “Miss Sun” says, “The two biggest influences on bass for me are Larry Graham and Stevie Wonder.It’s all in there!”He adds, “A Minimoog and [drummer] Jeff Porcaro are all one needs to get that feel.” (Well isn’t he lucky to have had both!) Paich also cites Greg Phillinganes as being, in his words, “the best.”In turn, Phillinganes credits “the honor and privilege of attending ‘Wonder University’ for four years after literally absorbing Stevie’s music as a kid. My only thought when laying a synth bass track is ‘What would Stevie do?’” That is, except when recording Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” where my thought was ‘What would Jimmy Jam do?’”
Master Hammond B-3 player Larry Goldings cut his teeth playing in Maceo Parker’s bass-less R&B band in the 1990s. On our Caffeinated Keyboardist podcast (http://caffeinatedkeyboardist.podomatic.com), he explained that left-hand bass duties alwaystook precedence over right hand comping, and that Maceo actually introduced him as “the bass player!” And in a role reversal, New York City-based electric bassist Hagar Ben-Ari (from Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings) says she has recently been getting exponentially more calls to play synth bass on gigs and recordings.She explains, “It’s instantly funky, there’s a wider low end range, and I can really explore and still cut through in the mix.”
Let’s explore four ways to build better keyboard bass parts.
1. Paich Bass
Ex. 1 was inspired by David Paich’s brilliant playing on the Boz Scaggs song “Miss Sun.” Notice the pumping R&B eighth-note feel throughout. It’s always fun to milk the pitch-bend wheel, as in the top of bar 3 and in the “shake” of bar 4. It’s also fun to make use of the octave on synth bass, as it’s effortless to play on keyboard (as in bar 5). On the fade of “Miss Sun,” Paich also plays some brilliant “over the bar” bass lines such as those seen in bars 6 and 7. Let’s also not forget the ever-powerful gliss/wipe in bar 8, or the sound of the synth—in this case, it’s got a bit of “wetness” (via the resonance) and a bit of decay.
2. Have Your Phil
Ex. 2 is a ballad reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and the bass line played by Greg Phillinganes. The sound here is much more legato with sustain a little more resonance wetness. Note the little turn in bar 4, another slick monophonic synth trick. And in the last bar, the gliss only goes downward, a la the classic Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis productions of the 1980s. (Listen to the Human League’s song “Human.”)
3. Wonder Bass
Ex. 3 harkens back to Stevie Wonder’s song “Creepin’.”On that track, he uses a more muted Moog bass sound—one that emulates a pick bass sound, or the flat-wound strings that James Jamerson used on Motown records. Remember that when playing bass lines on a keyboard; your tone is as important as the notes you play. In bars 2 and 6, the Moog bass doubles a keyboard hook: another sympathetic musical trick synth basses often utilize.
4. Pure Gold
Ex. 4 shows what organist Larry Goldings might have played with Maceo Parker. Here we find a right-hand part that complements the left-hand bass “hook.” I’m also channeling some of Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia’s signature muted ghost notes with my left hand. (Check out TOP band mate Chester Thompson’s jaw-dropping left-hand bass playing as well!) Remember that, in funk music, the feel has to be right. Always focus on locking with the drummer and not being on top of the beat. It’s the bass player’s responsibility to make things feel good, and in these situations, the bass player is you!