Can Bass Guitars Play Melodies?


Music is made up of many different elements, and melody is just one of them. Melody can be played by any instrument; it just has to stand out and make sense in the broader scope of the whole composition. There’s no question that certain instruments stand out more when a person thinks of what constitutes a standard melody.

Vocal and guitar melodies are the most popular melodies in music (although, this has changed a lot in recent years), while the rhythm section would follow after. Still, the rhythm section can also make the impressionable melodies of a song. 

Bass guitars can play melodies in music just as any other instrument. Their primary focus is always to hold down the rhythm with the drums and harmonize with the higher registered instruments, but many great bassists have used melodic techniques in their playing to enhance songs for memorability. 

Melody and bass lines are ultimately quite different from each other, but in music there aren’t any rules against creating a baseline that is also the melody of the song. Using things like theory, counterpoint, and understanding the difference between conjunct and disjunct motion will help you create better bass lines that can also serve as the melody as well. Think of the song “Juicy,” from The Notorious BIG, for instance. The vocals and the bass line together work to create one of the most memorable lines in the history of hip-hop music.

by the way, if you’re trying to get a better grasp of guitar chords, scales, tunings, and techniques in the most efficient, practical, and convenient way possible, I couldn’t recommend Guitar Tricks enough. It’s the learning platform I use and you can sign up here for free.

How Melodies and Bass Lines Work Together  

Bass Lines and Melodies Working Together

What Is A Melody

A melody is really just a line of notes one after the other. You could also use the term “musical phrase” to refer to it, however, the word, “melody,” has certain connotations that separate it. A melody is bunch of notes together that are different in rhythm and pitch. The melody forms in the absence of other “lead” parts and can be played by anyone in the band.

The music’s memorability comes from this part of the song and, if used correctly, can have a significant and lasting impact. For songwriters, getting the hook right is the part of the song that could be the difference between a hit or miss. The melody is usually the most important part of the song, at least in popular music anyway. A melody can outline the notes of the chord but most great bassists try not to follow them too closely.

It’s not uncommon for the bass to help indicate what chord is playing because the lowest note in a chord determines what key the chord is in; therefore, the bass usually harmonizes with the guitars or other high-end frequency instruments to help fortify the chord that is being played. A melody doesn’t have to be constrained by any variables, either rhythmic or by the number of notes.

For instance, it’s very possible for a melody to feature only two notes. Cardi B’s “WAP” is just one example of that, or even Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE” which doesn’t include a lot of notes either. The idea of getting a melody right is that it just has to sound good in order for it to be memorable. Choosing which instrument gets to play the melody of the track varies from song to song, but all that matters is that it sounds good and it fits the vibe.

What Is A Bass Line

A bass line, in simple terms, is a line of notes that’s played by the bassist. It’s just a melody that is played by the bassist, and it can perform a number of different functions, including as the fortification of the song’s rhythmic section; it can serve as the primary melody, or it can just be a way of filling out the low-end that way there is a bit of warmth to the song and it doesn’t sound too “tinny” – a word that describes the lack of low-end frequencies.

A bass line can start at the beginning of the track and play throughout the entire song, or it can be several different bass lines at different parts. They are written together to enhance the theme of the composition while at the same time keeping the groove present and solid. As I already mentioned, they can also be the reoccurring melody in the song. 

A bass line is a great foundation that the melody can ride on, so it is possible that the melody and bass line are different from each other. A bass line can emphasize the root notes but has many other jobs, like keeping the rhythm section tight for the other instruments to play over. 

To create an excellent bass line, it’s crucial to focus on rhythm and harmony most of all. From there, you can explore soloing and melodies. A great bass line not only keeps up with the groove of the song but also marries the rhythm section with the primary melodies. If all of these terms overwhelm you, I recommend picking up the Beginner’s Guide to Music Theory from Plugin Boutique, which does a great job of introducing some of these concepts.

In many ways, the differences between a bass line and a melody is just semantics. A bass line is just a line of notes that’s played by the bassist or another bass instrument, whereas a melody is a line of notes that can be played by any instrument. The term, “bass line,” however, has certain connotations that are specific to the bass instrument, for instance, boosting or fortifying the rhythm section is just one.

Using Bass To Create Melody 

1) How To Play A Melodic Bass Line

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Playing a melodic bass line can be difficult without proper guidance and direction. For the beginner, bass can be easy to pick up by playing one note at a time. This is an acceptable way to play because you are adding the bass register to the piece of music, but it’s not always the most satisfying thing to hear if you’re in the listener’s shoes.

It can be too simple and boring if the bass doesn’t hold down the low end while also enhancing the listening experience. I read an interview with Jason Newsted from Metallica once who said that one of his errors while playing bass on …And Justice For All was not venturing away from the guitar riffs enough.

The mistake was that he was crowding the low-end frequencies too much along with the rhythm guitar, which meant that when it came time to mix the album, you couldn’t even hear the bass guitar. Although, other Metallica fans have famously argued that it was just James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich being mean to the new guy by mixing out his parts (who knows if that is true).

Justice’s mixer, Steve Thompson, claimed the bass was edited out to make room for Lars’ drums (check the interview out here). In my personal opinion, a great bassist doesn’t follow the other instruments that much. Think of someone like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance. His bass lines do whatever they want, and they certainly don’t follow the guitars.

When learning bass, it’s very easy to play one note at a time while trying to keep up with the rhythm. It’s pretty easy to start playing the bass, but it’s also easy to get stuck only playing one note at a time. If you were to understand the basics of theory, like modes and scales, it would make it easier to branch out with your playing.  

You can always use various techniques and scales that enhance the melodic influence of a bass line. Hammer-ons, pull-offs, and in some cases slapping, can enhance the melody in your playing to bring it to the forefront of the song, creating a track that resonates with listeners a lot more. Another way that bassists can contribute to a composition is by learning the theory of melody and applying it directly.

2) Theory’s Role In Creating Bass Melody

Music Theory

Music theory’s role is to help you apply basic theoretical principles to an instrument to help give direction and guidance for creating the music that you want. And more importantly, it’s an explanation of why certain things sound good and why others sound dissonant. If you know music theory, then you will learn how to also be creative. It’s not just a set of “rules,” as people commonly refer to it.

A lot of people think of music theory as a set of rules, but really, it’s more like a map or a set of principles explaining why certain things work and why others don’t. The bass guitar is set up to make playing easy, and theory can be applied if given the right tools.

There’s no doubt that being creative is easier with the proper guidance and tools. Theory can get complicated, but the basics will help you start connecting the dots while you apply things little by little. Knowing at the least, your major, minor, blues, and pentatonic scales will help you branch out of playing one note at a time.

Starting little by little and gradually working in more than one note per measure can help you begin creating melodies with the bass. Taking a scale and using the majority of the notes in that scale will help you branch out to create better bass melodies.

Another great way of spicing up your bass lines is via arpeggios, which is just another way of saying the “notes of a chord.” You don’t have to play the same notes that the guitar is playing, you can actually play the notes of entirely separate chords in harmony with the chords used by the other instruments. For instance, go ahead and try playing the notes of a Dmaj9 chord over an A Major chord. I think it sounds cool.

3) Counterpoint In Melody 

The Study of Counterpoint: From Johann Joseph Fux's Gradus Ad Parnassum

Counterpoint, while it sounds complicated, really isn’t. Basically, it’s just a term that describes the relationship between two melodic lines that are played simultaneously. The magic behind counterpoint is understanding how to create two melodic lines that work together in harmony, however, while it sounds easy, it’s an art-form on its own. Melodic lines – in the context of counterpoint theory – are called voices, and a piece of music can have many of them.

It’s not hard to understand how this relates to the relationship between electric guitar and bass guitar. In a song, both instruments often play two separate melodies at the same time, and using counterpoint theory’s set of musical principles can help you a lot. For instance, a great bass melody can be in the same key – or in the relative minor or major key – as the guitar while at the same time retaining the so-called “fullness” of the music.

Players like James Jameson and John Paul Jones relied heavily on counterpoint, and this made their bass lines extremely memorable. Probably one of my favorite bass lines of all time is Jones’ line in “Ramble On.” I recommend checking out that classic track from Led Zeppelin on YouTube here. The bass line starts at 0:10.

In the study of counterpoint, there are many guidlines that one can follow. One such guiding principle, for instance, is that each individual voice has to work sufficiently on its own, rather than function as just a harmony to another voice. Other “rules” of counterpoint discuss the intervallic relationship between different melodic lines. Beth Denisch in her book, Contemporary Counterpoint: Theory & Application (on Amazon), does a much better job of explaining it.

4) Understanding Conjunct and Disjunct Motion To Create Melody on Bass

Contemporary Counterpoint: Theory & Application (Music Theory: Counterpoint)

Conjunct motion is a melodic style where the musician plays notes that are very close to each other in terms of pitch and interval. Explained more simply, conjunct motion describes a musical phrase where the intervals between each successive note isn’t that wide, kind of like the way notes are close to each other in a scale pattern. Contrast this to disjunct motion, where the notes tend to be much further apart (more on this in Study of Counterpoint from Johann Fux – also on Amazon).

Going from the note, “C,” to “D”, for instance, while in the same position on the bass guitar would be conjunct motion. Going from the note “C,” in first position to the “F#” in 3rd position would be disjunct motion. Classical musical theory states that conjunct motion is much easier to follow because the melodies stay close together in terms of pitch (and also in frequency range).

Melodies in conjunct motion tend to move around in half-steps or whole-steps. Personally, I think this sort of thing is in the eye of the beholder. I think that disjunct motion sounds way better, but I get the idea behind combining the two styles. Obviously, you wouldn’t be able to have a melody where it’s all classified as disjunct motion. That would probably be weird (although, someone should definitely try making a melody like that).

Classical music theory states that disjunct motion tends to be less smooth than conjunct motion. The idea behind conjunct motion is that it’s supposed to be much easier for the listener to pay attention to, moreover, it should be easier to remember as well. However, some incredible melodies have employed both disjunct and conjunct motion. As I just mentioned, it’s important to keep a steady balance of the two, or you may lose the listener’s interest. 

Understanding these key elements in music will help you create melodies on any instrument, but for bass you just have to know the difference between a bass line and a melody but also making sure that you keep up with the rhythm and harmony of the song. It can be a big task, but with practice it gets easier and easier. Some of these theoretical concepts are very helpful to know, which is why I recommend checking out Plugin Boutique’s Advanced Guide to Music Theory.

YouTube Video Tutorial

Can Bass Guitars Play Melodies

Gear Mentioned

1) Contemporary Counterpoint: Theory & Application on Amazon

2) Study of Counterpoint from Johann Fux – also on Amazon

3) Beginner’s Guide to Music Theory from Plugin Boutique

4) Advanced Guide to Music Theory from Plugin Boutique

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