This lesson was created exclusively for Making Music Magazine by Dan Hawkins
A question I get a lot is how to go about using the elements of music theory to create a great-sounding bass line. I usually like to emphasize the point that music theory is important for bass players but so are things like playing in time with great tone, feel, taste and flair.
This video lesson and article will show you how to take five common bass guitar scales and create bass lines in five different musical styles. By the end of the lesson you should have a decent grasp of the basics and be able to make up your own bass lines and fills.
1/8th Note Rock & The Major Scale
Let’s start with the good old major scale. Perhaps the first scale many musicians learn, this one has a bright and happy sound. Here’s a simple one octave shape:
Make sure you watch the video where I take you step by step through how to make a rock bass line up using A Major.
Here are some ideas you can use straight away:
- Play four bars of consistent 1/8ths using a different note for each bar.
- You can be fairly random with which notes you use but some will sound more pleasing to you than others.
- In the fourth bar, play a fill using notes from just this scale. Running up or down the scale to whichever note you want to go to can sound really effective. Again, play 1/8ths but be guided by your ear: if you hear a different rhythm then go for it!
- The major pentatonic scale will sound good all the time. It’s one of the bass players’ secret weapons. Just remove the fourth and seventh notes from the diagram above and you have a major pentatonic (where you see the black blobs with the ‘2’ and ‘3’).
1/8th Note Drum Backing Track
1/16th Note Rock & The Natural Minor Scale
Funk, disco, pop and any music requiring movement and excitement often uses 1/16th notes. There are four of those to a beat and, therefore, sixteen in a bar (of 4/4).
Here’s the scale we’ll use for this example:
The name of the game here is to use your creative juices so there are no written examples for this lesson. Just go for it, make mistakes and then learn from them! Your ear will guide you if you learn to trust it. I improvised every line in the video lesson and so can you now.
- Think of a short rhythmic idea and hang some notes on that groove.
- Use three or four notes and leave gaps (‘rests’).
- Use octaves.
- Playing consecutive notes in the scale will sound melodic.
- Fills sound best at the end of phrases. This helps guard against overplaying. In a live situation, lock down the groove, play simply and in time and people will love you!
1/16th Note Drum Backing Track
Jazz Swing & The Dorian Mode
If you’re not too up on your modes then you might want to check out How To Use Modes: A Guide For Bass Players.
Here’s a one octave A Dorian mode:
For this style we’re creating a ‘walking’ bass line which is an art form unto itself. Here are some tips:
- The walking motion is created by playing notes on each quarter note beat.
- Walk up and down the scale stepwise through the scale (‘scale’ and ‘mode’ are interchangeable).
- Think in intervals. Thirds sound particularly musical.
- Use the underlying unit of jazz swing – the triplet – to create rhythmic interest.
Jazz Swing Drum Backing Track
Reggae & The Mixolydian Mode
Mixolydian is used loads in blues music but for this one I’m using reggae.
Here’s the one octave pattern. Notice how it looks exactly the same as a major scale with a b7:
For the example in the video I used A, D, and G major chords. Good news – you can use the same pattern over for all three! In reggae you can use super simple major triads (a triad is just the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale).
- Use loads of space.
- Listen to the drums (below) and catch some of the rhythms to inspire your lines.
- Use just the root and third, then change the order of notes you use within the triad. Get creative and mix things up!
- Create fills with a few notes drawn from the pattern above.
- The A Major Pentatonic scale will also work for fills.
Reggae Drum Backing Track
Blues Shuffle & The Blues Scale
Don’t forget that this is really just scratching the surface. You can mix and match any of these scales with any of the different styles and then there are loads more scales and genres on top of this.
The blues scale is another great one to have up your sleeve. It shows up everywhere:
Notice how it is simply a minor pentatonic scale with a b5.
In the video I use Am, Dm, and Em. Once more you can simply shift to the desired root note using the above pattern.
- Start with just root, 5th, b7, and octave. You’ll recognize that sound from hundreds of bass lines (including Bille Jean).
- Use the pattern above for fills at the end of phrases.
- Play through the following chord progression to give you some structure.
Blues Shuffle Drum Backing Track
There’s a process when learning where you have to assimilate all the new info coming your way. Take your time with this as your brain will need time to absorb everything.
Look out for how different scales look similar to each other. This will really help you commit them to memory and master the fretboard. Memorizing the different patterns is something you should do as soon as you can. You need to spend enough time on this so that you can recall a scale without having to engage your brain. With this kind of automatic recall you can start to have some fun and express yourself.
Make sure you are one hundred percent certain you have a full grasp of each of the different rhythms that the styles call for. If you have an instant command of the common rhythms and scales that are used in music, you are well down the path to being able to make up your own amazing bass lines.
Thanks for reading and get in touch with any questions!
A couple of the drum beats were played by top session drummer Jon Howells.