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Bass is more than just a guitar with two fewer strings. It has a different tone, scale length, feel and musical role, and in many cases it requires a different conceptual and technical approach.
Guitarists who are new to playing bass will often double the guitar part one octave lower. There is certainly a place for lockstep octave doubling—just listen to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and Pantera’s “I’m Broken.”
But there is so much more that can be done with the bass guitar. As a bassist who later took up guitar, I have developed 20 general guidelines that I live by when I play the bass. Apply them to the instrument, and hear your playing improve as they help you to think and play like a real bass guitarist.
1. PLAY FOR THE SONG
More often than not, solid bass playing requires that you exercise restraint and subtlety rather than showcase your technique and slick moves. In many situations, it’s best to work mostly with the root notes of the chords and lock in with the drummer’s kick and snare drums.
2. LEARN TO WALK
“Walking bass” originated in jazz and blues, but it has since been adopted in other styles. The term refers to a way of playing in which the bass line remains in perpetual motion as opposed to staying on or reiterating one note. The line “walks” from one chord’s root note up or down to the next, mostly in a quarter-note rhythm, with the occasional embellishment.
To achieve this, you use “transition notes” to smoothly connect the dots and bridge the gap between different root notes as the chords change. The transition notes can be any combination of chord tones (arpeggios), scale tones that relate to the chords, or chromatic passing tones.
FIGURE 1 shows a stock blues walking bass line. Although the line is rhythmically animated, with staccato (short, clipped) swing eighth notes and a triplet fill at the end of each bar, it is fairly tame harmonically, as it uses mostly chord tones (the root, fifth and dominant seventh) with a brief chromatic run-up to the fifth.
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