[This article first appeared in Contemporary Keyboard magazine in 1978.]
This month's column will deal with a simple approach to playing and applying bass patterns. Many times a keyboardist will play a gig where he or she is required to play bass lines with the left hand while comping and soloing with the right.
If you have already tried this, you will know that it requires considerable independence—and more. You must feel the swing of the bass part while feeling and playing the part of the soloist. I have always thought of it as being like dividing your body and mind in half so that you can play and think like two players. It's quite a feat, but with some hard work it can be accomplished.
Even though synthesizers offer incredible bass effects, it is best to practice keyboard bass on an instrument that allows you to play the bass pattern and right-hand chords or solo simultaneously. An acoustic piano, electric piano, or organ would be great.
Let's begin by learning and applying some bass figures to swing and shuffle rhythms. For illustration, I'll use a progression referred to as "Rhythm" changes, which are the chords to George Gershwin's song "I've Got Rhythm." This progression has been a favorite among jazz musicians for many years because of the simplicity of its harmonic movement. It is also widely used in contemporary jazz and rock. [Ed. Note: For 13 variations on the chords in "Rhythm" changes, see Billy Taylor's column in CK, Oct. '77.] Remember, when voicing the chords in the right hand, apply the voicings and voice leading rules I discussed in my previous three columns.
As we study the progression, we discover that it contains basically three different bass line situations for which we need rules to apply. First, we need a bass pattern to deal with two-chord-to-a-bar situations, as in the first eight bars of the progression. Second, we need a pattern for when there is only one chord to a measure, as in the second bar of the second ending (the Bbmaj9). And last but not least, we need a bass pattern for when we have a IIm9-V13 progression, as in each two bars of the B section (going around the cycle).
Rule 1: Where you have two chords per bar, play the root of the appropriate chord on the strong beat of the bar (beat 1 or 3). On the weak beat (2 or 4), play a note that approaches the following root by a half step from above.
Rule 2: Where one chord lasts for the entire measure, play the root on the first beat, and then walk up the scale, playing the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th steps (skip the 4th) of the scale that corresponds to the chord.
Rule 3: There are several bass patterns that can be used for a IIm9-V13 progression when each of the chords lasts for one bar. These all involve simple diatonic movement, either upward or downward. Use your ear to help determine the best sound. Here are some of my favorites:
Now that you understand these rules, see how they are applied in the bass line shown to "Rhythm" changes. Of course, they can also be applied to many other tunes with a similar chordal structure. You will find that these three basic rules will get you through almost any swing bass line situation. You should play through this tune a number of times until you develop a solid swing feel.
Play chords with the right hand and groove on the bass line with a steady pulse and smooth flow. Some good artists to listen to are Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes. Both will give you good examples of how a keyboard bass can cook on a tune like "Rhythm" changes.
Next month we'll get into improvising over the progressions we have already learned. Until then, work hard and stay happy.