I’ve played a lot of new music from my peers and colleagues in a variety of musical settings in the past year, and along the way I’ve found that a lot of people, especially pianists, are prone to writing for bass guitar in a certain way that might not take full advantage of the instrument, or in a way that bass players have to go and “fix” from the written music. Because of this, I thought I’d organize a list of 8 all-purpose arranging tips for bass guitar.
Note that these tips are for music in general and aren’t necessarily genre-specific. They’re meant to “get inside the head” of a bass player in a way that’s useful to arrangers/composers.
1. Drum Parts and Bass Parts MUST Agree (MUST@!!!1)
This is a huge one. Drummers and bass players really hate if the parts that they are given do not match what the other person is playing in terms of kick patterns and general rhythm section hits, mainly because the end result will sound like they are making mistakes when in fact they might be playing exactly whats on the page. Needless to say, this will not endear them to the arranger. This same disagreement snafu goes for other instruments as well (for example, discrepancies between the bass and the left hand of the piano), but at the end of the day the one that matters most is drum/bass agreement.
In general, the most important beats to reconcile are the “and” of 2 and the “and” of 4. If one person is playing the anticipation and the other person isn’t it results in the rhythmic dissonance known as a flam, and flams are particularly noticeable in the bass/drums because it sounds like the groove isn’t locked. The faster the tempo, the more pronounced the dissonance. This isn’t to say that the bass drum and the bass guitar should always match no matter what – far from that, but matching anticipations can be pretty crucial to the general tightness of the rhythm section.
2. Arranged Bass Solo Moments (Often) Don’t Work
One thing I’ve come across a couple times are passages where the phrase ends in a break, and then there is a short, unaccompanied bass solo moment or unaccompanied bass pickup. The result is almost always not as effective as the arranger had hoped for, and unless handled extremely carefully, bass solos can be very underwhelming. Bass guitar’s main purpose in the ensemble is to accompany other instruments, and it can feel very barren and exposed when it isn’t doubling a rhythm or note with another instrument. Of course, this can be for a specific, clownish effect, but tread carefully; most often these moments would actually be more effective on upright bass because of the sharper attack, or better yet, just scored for piano or another instrument.
If you want to take advantage of the melodic and soloistic capabilities of the bass for one of these breaks, but don’t necessarily wish to get into the nitty-gritty of how to write a phrase that is idiomatic to bass guitar, slash notation with a chord and the phrase “soloistic fill” likely would be the best way to get a good “bass break” texture. These moments can be especially effective, if they’re written higher up in the bass guitar’s register.
Which brings me to…..
3. The Upper Register of the Bass Guitar is Melodic
The upper register of the bass guitar falls in a really nice melodic range that has a surprisingly full presence. In the hands of a skilled player, bass guitar has a much more commanding melodic capability than piano in certain contexts, and unlike the lower register, it does not require left hand piano doubling to sound “relevant.” Fretless bass is great for this sort of sound, but fretted bass guitar works as well, and most modern players love a small chance to get melodic.
As far as notation goes, beyond the G 3 ledger lines above the staff bassists much prefer reading in treble clef. It more closely represents the actual sound that’s coming out of the instrument, and reading in treble clef generally implies a more melodic phrasing. If they’re worth their salt they can deal with high B’s (4 ledger lines) in the bass clef, but it’s still pushing it. Bass 8va is rather difficult and clumsy to read, and it is not preferred.
Lord have mercy on your soul if you dare to write in tenor clef.
4. Don’t Write Below E Natural Below the Staff (Unless You Know What You’re Doing)
This is another potential pet peeve of bass players – having to deal with notes below the written staff. The lowest written note of a typical 4-string bass guitar is an E, although the popularity of 5-string basses has extended that range down to a B below the staff. I’ll see plenty of charts with notes written below E natural (a lot of Eb’s and D’s, for example), but I’d wager that 95% of the time the composer/arranger doesn’t actually want a note that low. Because bass is a transposing instrument, it’s actually sounding an octave lower than what is written, and once you start going below the written staff it starts getting VERY low and potentially muddy.
Now, there are times where you want those super low notes, but they’re generally reserved for very specific moments or specific styles of music (modern salsa, some modern rock). If you really need those notes, make sure to mention at the top of the part that you need a 5-string bass for the chart. It’s not much of a problem for an experienced bass player to transpose low notes up the octave, but it doesn’t necessarily win you arranger’s points.
5. Terraced Dynamics Work Best
Bass-register instruments tend not to be very dynamic instruments, and bass guitar is no exception. Part of what makes bass guitar such a successful rhythm section instrument is precisely because of the fact that it has a limited, fairly compressed upper dynamic range that blends very well with the drums. This ends up meaning that the difference between pp and ff likely isn’t going to be too great in terms of timbre and sound (depending on the setup of the instrument). Yes, because bass is an electric instrument volume control is possible, but it’s not an especially musical way of playing.
For most things that are intended to be especially pp quiet or delicate, it’s just best to tacet the bass. Bass guitar has enough of a commanding presence in the mix that bringing it in has a way of grounding the sound in a higher dynamic level.The idea of “terraced dynamics” – using the entrance and exit of an instrument to control overall volume – is a good one to stick by for writing for bass guitar. This isn’t to say writing pp isn’t bad, it’s just that it won’t come out sounding particularly pianissimo in a given passage.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Write Specific Rhythms (As Long as There is A Reason For Them)
One of the things about playing in a rhythm section is the concept of playing “time” versus playing “hits.” Playing time is a way of continuing and keeping a groove without regard to specific changes of rhythm in the melody or specific rhythmic passages that need to be caught. A great majority of contemporary bass playing is spent playing time, and the trick is knowing how to notate this.
The trap that arrangers tend to fall into with this is writing specific rhythms that don’t necessarily fit in with the concept of playing time. The is result is that bass players will end up treating the written music as a general guideline rather than gospel, because the written notes don’t fit into the time feel as well as what they would play. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it sometimes is difficult to know when to stop improvising off the page and when to play exactly what is written. One way this can be made clear is writing “ad lib” over sections of music where the bass is playing time, and “as written” over rhythm section hits.
Now, this doesn’t mean that slash notation is better or worse than writing out the groove, but it does mean to be cautious about writing rhythms that aren’t essential. If this makes the bass part on the page look sparse, so be it.
7. If the Bass Plays Without Drums and Vice Versa, Make Sure There’s a Good Reason
Bass guitar is an instrument that works best when locked into a groove with a drumset player, and as a result, it’s fairly unwieldy when the drum player tacets. The best way to handle this texture is writing for long, sustained tones and melodic lines. In any sort of real “groove,” the drums are sorely missed, and the net effect – no matter how rhythmically tight the bass player – is a less cohesive ensemble sound. Tread lightly.
The flip side of this holds true as well. Drums playing any sort of groove above mp without bass guitar has a specific sort of texture, one that generally creates tension until the bass guitar enters. The louder the dynamic, the greater the tension. This is a favorite arranging device of jazz musicians, where a soloist and a drummer will take off into outer space without the bass, and land back into reality once the bass enters again 30 minutes later. It’s a very specific texture that can be devastatingly effective if used correctly.
8. Bass Harmonics
This is one that a lot of arrangers are hip to, but it still bears mentioning because of how much fun they are to play. Electric bass harmonics are unlike any other sound – they’re closer to the sound of a Fender Rhodes than a bass guitar. Jaco Pastorius’ Portrait of Tracy set the benchmark. The most practical harmonics and their locations relative to an open string are below.
|Octave + 5th
|2 Octaves + Major 3rd
|2 Octaves + 5th
Notating harmonics is always confusing because there isn’t an agreed standard for all string instruments, and fashions of notating harmonics have changed over time. As far as my experience goes, the easiest for bass players to read is to indicate the corresponding fretted note and place a circle “harmonic” notation above it. For example, in the case of a harmonic 2 octaves higher than the open G string, the best way to notate that is to write a “C” (the note normally played on the 5th fret) and then write the harmonic symbol above that. In case there is any confusion, one can write “5th fret harmonic on G String” above and the intention will be crystal clear.