Bass is a beautiful, dynamic instrument that pulls melody and rhythm together to fortify the low-end and the feeling of the musical piece, whatever it may be. It brings richness and fullness to music that would otherwise be thin and tinny.
By adding bass to a song, you instantly change its dynamics and feeling. It’s hard to say that a song without low-end frequencies is a song at all. In fact, this is one of the reasons why older recordings tend to sound tinny – they lack low-end. So how does one go about adding a bass guitar line to a song anyway?
To add a bass line to your song, first figure out the key signature of the passage, and then apply a phrase of notes based on an applicable scale while at the same time thinking about how you will execute dynamics, rhythm, phrasing, and most of all, the feeling of the song.
Perhaps the most important part of being an astute bassist is to understand how one thinks, including how to add and contribute to the song in a way that’s unobtrusive. Understanding techniques and getting tips from other bassists will help you develop your own style. Furthermore, having a solid comprehension of the different types of bass lines will give you a great foundation from which to work. An added benefit of this is that you’ll have something to rely on if you get stuck in a rut and are unable to come up with something.
Adding Bass To A Song (A Step-By-Step Guide)
1) Figure Out the Song’s Key Signature
A) Memorize the Major and Minor Scale
As I explained already in my guide on figuring out the key of any song on guitar, determining the key signature of a track is not that complicated once you finally understand how to do it, but getting there is challenging. Once you finally understand how to determine the key, you’ll ask yourself how you ever struggled with it to begin with – I know that’s how I feel about it.
In the guide I just linked too, I offered an in-depth explanation of the major scale and its modes, including Ionian (which is the major scale), dorian, phyrgian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian. Now that I’ve thought about it over time, I realize you really only need to learn the notes of the major scale and aeolian mode (which is just the minor scale).
The C Major Scale on Bass
The A Minor Scale on Bass
B) Find the Main Note of the Song
Listen to the song or the players around you, and try and think of what note is the foundation of the track. There is always a note that a musical piece will come back in some form or another, and that is the usually (but not always) the key. Play the Minor and Major scale around that note to find the point where the notes of the scale fit in with the other players around you.
C) Play the Notes of the Minor and Major Scale in the General Area
Once you’ve memorized these two shapes, you can just move them around on the neck of the bass guitar until you’ve found the spot where it sounds good. Both of these shapes are totally movable, which means you can put them on any fret of the guitar on the bottom E string. This is what I do when I want to figure out the key of the song and I find it works pretty good.
2) Understand Some of the Best Bass Techniques and Styles
Types of Bass Lines
Now let’s look at the different types of bass lines. Every song is different, but every genre has little innuendos that make it sound the way that genre sounds. Knowing these differences will help you write appropriate bass lines for your music.
Staccato and Punches for Dynamics
Staccato notes and punches in songs with drums, bass, and guitars can be magical, especially in rock songs where chanting is involved. Think of how cool Bohemian Rhapsody is, or a drop or rest in a song. Staccato and punchy bass lines are a dynamic approach that can be heightened by the bass and utilized when writing a song with bass in mind. Staccato notes are typically indicated with a small dot over top or underneath the musical note like what you can see above here.
I made this short little bass line in style of Flea’s bass line in “Around the World” from Red Hot Chili Peppers. His bass line in that song, particularly in the verses are a very good example of staccato bass notes that give the a song a ton of jumpiness, punchiness, and dynamics. Once you’ve figured out the key signature of the song, try playing the notes from the Major or Minor scale while using staccato notes. See how it sounds.
Pay attention to the rhythm and melody of the song, or as non-musicians call it, the “beat.” There is a rhythmic flow of the track and try and think of how you can enforce that rhythm with the bass line. Using the example of “Around the World” again, which has one of the best bass lines of all time and all throughout. Each part of the song is reinforced or strengthened by Flea’s bass lines.
The beginning of the song is very frenetic in its tempo, energy, and vibe, and so is the bass line. You can check out the tablature for it here:
Bass is a rhythmic instrument that marries the drums with the other instruments. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a solid understanding of rhythm to help you write meaningful bass lines. Approaching your bass playing in a rhythmic way can make your song have a more lasting impact and feeling. The bass is the feeling of the song, so it should be approached as a vital role in the music, just as vital as the drums.
Fingers or Pick?
Using either your fingers or a pick when playing bass is definitely something that helps determine tone, but many people find themselves wondering if they should use it. It’s not a crime to use a pick to play bass. It’s a technique that has a significant impact on tone. To get a specific “attack” on the strings that will punch through at the mid-range, you can use round wounds and a pick.
To get a smoother tone that doesn’t punch through as much, use your fingers on flat-wound or semi-round wound strings. Using a pick with bass is often associated with punk music or guitarists that play bass. It’s done by using a downstroke on every note with seldom upstrokes. A great example of a riff like this is from Alice In Chain’s song, “Man in the Box,” played by Mike Starr. All of the notes here are played with a downstroke.
Mike regularly used a pick and his bass lines on Facelift in particular were really good. Generally, you use a pic on a bass or guitar by alternating up and down strokes. This alternating pattern gives fluidity to the notes as you play them. Using your fingers also unlocks a fluidity you can’t get with just downstrokes.
Whether you use a pick or not isn’t something to sweat over. If you want, you can play with a pick sometimes or without one the other times. While it might seem like it sometimes, there are no “pick-police officers” in real life (just on the internet).
Mimicking Guitar in Different Octaves
Like the piano or guitar, rock and blues use octaves a lot. Bass lines that follow strictly what the guitar is doing aren’t exactly good for dynamics in a song, but can be if used the right way. You can control your playing volume and add dynamics that way, but adding a more exciting melody would require breaking free from writing bass parts that only mimic the guitars. A great example of this is in the song “The Olive Tree,” from Scale The Summit at the 2:41 mark in this Youtube video here. Shout out to the guy who covered this song, he did a good job.
When you use octaves back and forth, i.e., the root note and octave, you can create a colossal swelling and contracting of all frequencies. This dynamic is an enjoyable way to add instant dynamics to the feeling of the song. Play them fast, and it sounds like an organ player, play it slower and really feel the bass driving the music.
Walking Bass Lines
A walking bass line is usually a line of notes that are equal in timing and power which tends to create a sense of the song moving in a particular direction. The purpose of a walking bass line is to make the song feel like it’s going somewhere. Hint: “walking.” It doesn’t stop, and it ties all the melodies together. It’s counterpoint at its finest when done correctly and can make the song feel busy and have a purpose.
A great walking bass line can make a song if it’s a song that needs a walking bass line. Adding several succession of notes per measure to keep the rhythm moving can impact the song a lot, but slowing those successions down with deliberate walks around the scale can give a counterpoint melody and enhance a rhythm in a way that’s hard to describe in words.
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two lines of music that are harmonically independent or interdependent of each other. When the lines are played together, the focus is on the melodic interaction. This interaction can be similar or have vast differences, but when played together, it fits sonically.
To play a bass melody in counterpoint with the guitar or even drums will make the bass line stand out and also give the music incredible dynamics. Think of “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin, the bass has its iconic melody, the drums are playing 32nd notes in succession, and the guitar’s melody is in its own world. All in the same key, but interacting so that they make the song exude personality and memorability. The bass line in “Ramble On” stars at 0:11.
Memorable and melodic bass lines are where the best of the best shine through. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but when you make a bass line like this that remains memorable and stands out, you create an atmosphere and voicing that will be classic and unforgettable.
Break Out of “the Box”
Every guitarist and bassist is fairly familiar with scale patterns and how they look on the fretboard particularly rock and blues guitarists (my guide on what they use). They’re definitely useful, and most of us who take the instrument seriously have had a phase where we spent a lot of time memorizing scale patterns and so on. In fact, I recommend that you learn at least the major scale and the seven modes of it like I suggested in this article here on memorizing key signatures. This table here consists of the notes of every major scale and minor scale. It should help you.
Major Key = Bold
Minor Key = Italicized
If you know your key signatures; you know the major scale, and you know how to play the 7 modes of the major scale, you’ll be in a great position to “break out of the box,” so to speak. You won’t have to just hover around one position on the fretboard all of the time. Personally, I think that learning the modes and chords of the major scale like I outlined in my article on Producer Society, the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale, and the harmonic major scale is all you need to know if you want to jam with other people.
Mono Rhythmic Chord Follower
A mono rhythmic bass line follows the chords played on the guitar and helps set the song’s movement. It’s a hypnotic type of bass line that moves the piece along. It’s done by keeping on the one or root note most of the time without deviating too much to the other notes of the scale. Adding some walking lines to transitions of these mono rhythmic lines will make them more dynamic and will add more movement to the song.
The guitar chord and bass line is an example of following the notes of the chord in the most basic of fashion. The guitar will strum the chords that are shown on the right, and then the bass is just outlining those chords in an arpeggiated fashion. You can use this concept in other more interesting, dynamic, and cool ways.
Follow the Bass Drum More
This punchy bass line follows what the drums are doing and suitable for locking in with your drummer. Most of the time, when you hear someone talk about a good bassist, they talk about how well the bassist follows the drummer or the kick. While it’s true that the bassist should follow the rhythm of the drums because it’s a vital part of the rhythm section, it also needs to stand out enough to know it’s there.
Using “Ramble On” as another example, the bass line closely follows the kick drum at the 1:10 to 1:11 mark with approximately three notes in the span of just one second. The bass here closely goes along with the kick, and it’s a big part of the reason why the chorus of this amazing song sound so good.
A punchy bass line, like this one, will have a big impact on songs that are upbeat and exciting. You can achieve this by looking at the kick and snare pattern of your drummer. Your big movements should lock in solid with their kick and snare pattern.
3) Understand Which Scales, Arpeggios, and Chords Will Work
If you know what key signature the song is in, this is usually enough information to start jamming along to the track. It’s even more helpful to understand what chords are being played. If you know these two things, you’re set for beginning to play along. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, some jazz songs feature more chords and melodies that are outside of a typical scale pattern or key. This can be in the form of chromaticism or in non-diatonic harmony.
“Non-diatonic harmony” is just a fancy way of saying outside of the scale or key signature. And chromaticism describe the notes between the notes that are part of the scale. For instance, in the key of A Major, A and B are one whole step apart from each other. If you play the Bb between the A and B, that’s a chromaticism because it’s between the two notes that are a part of the scale and key.
4) Improvise and Play Around With Those Scales, Arpeggios, and Chords
Once you have an idea of where you’re at and what you’re doing, play around with the notes, scales, arpeggios, and chords that could possibly go with the other sounds. We’ll use the example of G Major. In G Major, the notes are the following: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G again. Use this chart again for a frame of reference.
Just from knowing the key signature of the song, you already have access to the main scale, its relative minor, the chords of that scale, as well as the arpeggios of those chords. Again, the notes of G Major are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G. Then, the chords are G Major, A Minor, B Minor, C Major, D7, E Minor, F# Dim (or F#m7b5), and then G Major again.
So you know the chords of G Major, and then you can just Google the arpeggios of those chords and you have even more material to work with. Additionally, you could use the relative minor, Em, and then you could use the E Minor Pentatonic, or maybe the E Minor Blues Scale. depending on what’s going on with the song.
5) Once You Have Something – Add It to the Song
This part is fairly straight-forward. Once you have a bass line, go ahead and add it to the song. You can use DAWs like Garageband, or you could use FL Studio 20 from Plugin Fox. Recording is its own separate tutorial, as there are many nuances of going about it. However, some important things to do right off the bat which generally allow you to avoid certain problems are the following:
- Use a good audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (check the price on Amazon)
- Use a metronome to stay in time.
- Make sure to tune your bass beforehand
- Make sure the monitoring button is turned on
- Properly label every part of the recording
- Turn down the gain on your audio interface
- Leave plenty of head room
- Use time quantizing if you need it.
- Make sure to save your projects regularly
6) Refine It Until You’re Happy With It
Once you have a solid recording draft in your project, you could probably go ahead and practice it over and over again to get it perfect, and then go back and re-record it to really make sure that it’s perfect. Nowadays, it’s possible to record one note at a time at a super slow pace and then just speed it up in post-processing (surprisingly many people do this). A lot of rock and metal fans would be furious if they knew, but it is what it is.
If you wanted, you could do something like that, but I would suggest actually being able to play your parts for real because not only is going to sound more musical and “real” in the recording but when it comes to playing it live, you’ll actually stand a chance.
Other Tips for Adding Bass Guitar to a Song
Sometimes Less is More
This adage is true when adding bass to a song, mainly because when you add bass, you are adding more octaves. You’re adding a lot of dynamic just by adding those extra octaves, so a good rule of thumb might be to not overdo it. It’s really easy to overdo or undercut the importance of a good bass line, and it’s even easier to suppress it in the final mix.
You need to have the balance of highs and lows to really get what you want out of the bass and to make the song feel the way you want it to feel. To keep from overplaying or underplaying is the delicate balance of being a good bassist. You have to know when to lead and when just to lock-in.
Control Your Frequencies
Bass is at the lowest frequency and can drown out everything around it with too much of it. Think of the times you hear a subwoofer with too much low end; the music seems to cut out because our ears cannot understand the frequency variation. If you were to write a song with too much bass, you run the risk of cutting out all your highs and mids.
To control this, you must find a great balance that is adequate for your bass and rig. Too much bass and not enough mids or high-end HZs can give your mix a low-end nightmare. Turing up more mid or high-end will break through your tone a little to make the bass lines stand out a bit more in the mix.
Think About Voicing and Phrasing
Good phrasing comes from practice. Playing and getting to know many different types of music can help you when it comes to picking out great phrasing. Guitar lines that have great phrasing are memorable and can usually be played by people by ear. Spending a little extra time developing your phrasing for a song will bring more memorable bass lines to your music.
What to Consider When Adding a Bass Guitar
Bassists Think About Tone
The tone is one of the most essential factors when adding a new instrument to your music. Having a great bass tone that mixes well with the other instruments in your music will give it support and memorability. From the type of bass strings, all the way to the type of wood the bass is made out of should be considered if you are going to pick out a bass yourself to be the backbone of your sound.
Finding the right bass for your music may be easy if you know what you are looking for. A good standard bass from a local guitar shop or online can cost you a few hundred dollars up to a few thousand. If you have a decent bass that you could change out pickups or strings to enhance your tone, you might start there if you can’t readily afford the dream bass you want.
Pedals, although not high on a bassist’s list of demands, are often used to change the tone and frequencies of the instrument. If you think your song needs more compression or more delay, then you may need a pedal that delivers that. Most of the time, you’ll see a bassist with minimal pedals or just a tuner; their tone comes from the bass and the cabinet they use.
Bassists Think About Melody
Melodies are categorized in two ways, Conjunct Motion and Disjunct Motion. Knowing the differences in these can help you write better for the needs of the song. Conjunct motion is when the intervals are closer together, resulting in a simple melody that sits excellent in one octave. A disjunct motion means that the melody has broader spaces between intervals making the melody seem more difficult or have a wider range.
If you want your bass melodies to be dynamic, maybe choosing disjunct motion in your harmonies will help you achieve that. Your smaller movements can have an impact as well, but the changes might get lost in the mix because the bass frequencies are so low.
Bassists Think About the Kind of Music They Play
Different genres of music often have specific styles of bass playing in them. Writing a baseline for your song does not necessarily have to be a Beethoven masterpiece, it just has to fit the song. The movement of the music lies in the bass and drums, the basic movement of the drums should be enhanced with the bass.
If you write rock music, you can enhance the music with a bluesy bass line. But if you were writing pop music, you wouldn’t be able to add in a death metal riff without it sounding heavier than a pop song. There aren’t any exact rules or science to your creative outflow, but keeping your genre in mind will help you write a great and memorable bass line for your song. If you want to add something weird for your genre, add it, it may stand out more than you want, or it may be something enjoyable and different.
Bassists Think About the Feeling and Expression of the Song
Is this an upbeat song or a laid-back jam? Both call for bass, but both are vastly different from each other. Playing your root and octave may move an upbeat song just right but would sound deranged and off-putting as a slower or more romantic song.
Rhythmically the bass and drums lock in so the higher frequencies can do a sort of dance and swing on top. It’s a support system for the higher register instruments while creating its own dynamics. Feeling from the bass should come from both the rhythmic expression and the melodic expression.
Bassists Listen to Great Bassists
One of the best ways to learn anything is to watch and mimic others. It’s rarely a bad idea to practice what some of the great bassists have done. Picking up some new tricks can make all the difference in your playing and writing. That backbone from the bass and drums is what you need in your playing, but sometimes it’s nice to have a captivating melody to counterpoint the guitar.
Whatever it is you like, pay attention to bassists that bring out that aspect in their songs. Practice what they do and really listen to their techniques and skill level. Paying attention to rhythm and how the music moves, decide what parts want to jump out, and which ones want to stay more laid back.
YouTube Video Tutorial
1) FL Studio 20 from Plugin Fox.
2) Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 on Amazon