The blues is essentially the chemical reaction that occurred when African rhythms and melodies were crossed with those of the Europeans. The result is a sound that is often described as soulful, gritty, and grooving. The blues has played a huge role in the development of many contemporary styles, including rock, jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, and even bluegrass.
Since the blues is an all-pervasive force in modern music, becoming a student of this style will not only help your bass skills, but also your overall understanding of music. Working carefully through the exercise below will give you a firm understanding of blues bass lines basics. After you learn the grooving bass lines before, make sure you check out our other page teaching you the 5 most popular base lines.
The Blues Shuffle
Almost all blues songs are played in a rhythmic pattern called a “shuffle.” With origins in traditional West African rhythms, the shuffle made its way into America with the blues, and eventually was adopted by rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll musicians.
The shuffle is based on eighth note triplets, which occur when you split a quarter note (the beat) into three even slices, instead of two. Triplets are notated with a bracketed “3” above or below a beam of three eighth notes.
As an exercise, set a metronome to around 50 beats per minute, and tap along with the beat. To get the triplet feel, count “tri-ple-it, tri-ple-it, tri-ple-it, tri-ple-it,” with each “tri” syllable starting on the beat, as written below. The idea is to keep the triplets as smooth and even as possible.
For more information on laying down unstoppable bass lines, check out Bass Grooves: Develop Your Groove & Play like the Pros in Any Style, (Backbeat Books, 2004) by Ed Freidland. This book starts out with a conceptual discussion of how to internalize rhythms, and then explores many popular styles, including blues, reggae, Motown, and rhythm and blues. As a special treat, the back of the book contains interviews with some of the world’s greatest bassists, and their thoughts on the mystical and elusive “groove.”
Now, accent only the first and third syllable of every triplet, or the “tri-” and “-it” syllables, as shown below, and all of a sudden, you have transformed this exercise into a genuine shuffle! After you can vocalize this rhythm comfortably, try to play it on your bass, slowly at first, gradually building speed. Using a metronome is highly recommended to help you develop rock-solid timing. For a classic example of this rhythm in action, listen to the bass line on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues number, “Texas Flood.”
Smoky Bass Lines
Now, let’s tack some notes to the shuffle to create some authentic, barbecue-flavored bass lines.
As you may know, a basic 12-bar blues is a pretty simple form. Below is a basic 12-bar blues progression in the key of E, with each bracketed chord representing a measure, or a count of four beats.
| E | E | E | E |
| A | A | E | E |
| B | A | E | B |
Try playing just the root of the chords with the shuffle rhythm, being sure to count so you don’t get lost in the form. This simple, yet driving bass line is deceptively effective when played with a strong sense of timing. For an example of this bass line, check out B.B. King’s version of “Rock Me Baby.”
Finally, to spice things up and add a sense of harmonic movement to the form, you can always arpeggiate the chord (play the root, third, and fifth), like in the example below. This is one of the most common blues bass lines, and an important one to know. Notice the shuffle rhythm throughout.