Here’s a clip of an English bass player, Johnny Copland, playing a short section of classic bass line from the Aretha Franklin song Until you come back to me. The original bass part was played by Chuck Rainey, a famous studio musician who’s played on thousands of songs.
You probably never noticed the bass line before. Who knows what the bass does anyway?[1. If you are a kid learning to play today this is what you use–a youtube clip of the body of some guy you’ve never met playing some famous bass/guitar/keyboard/drum part. Clips like this must be second only to videos of pets and babies on youtube.] But it’s pretty amazing. Mr Copland has kindly provided a transcription.
The bass line grooves; it propels the song along and adds to the feel of the tune. It helps keeps a “mellow” tune from sounding static and bland. It’s worth looking at what it’s doing and why it works.
Every chord has a “root” note, the note that gives it its name. It’s usually the lowest note in the chord. A chord has to have at least two other notes, and can have many more, but the bass players’s first order of business is the root note. And you usually want to hit the root note on the first beat of every measure (ROOT 2, 3, 4) . The second most common note to play would be the 5th note of the chord (if the root was a “C”, the fifth would be five notes away, a “G”). You’ve heard the root/five pattern a million times. It’s the opening of Steely Dan’s Rikki don’t lose that number; it’s the oom-pa of an oompa marching band. For Mary Poppins fans, it’s “do-so” in the sequence “do re mi fa so la ti do.” It’s a “strong” harmonic interval and sounds nice: the two notes don’t clash at all. For any bass player, the root and the five are the two basics. You can play other notes, as we’ll see, but most of the time if the root and the five are there everybody in the band feels happy.
Here’s a really basic, mundane bass line played behind that same song, just using a standard root/5-5 pattern as in the steely dan song. Dull, no?
Compare it to what Rainey plays, which is more like this:
Rainey’s line is rhythmically and harmonically much more interesting and much more effective. He’s very aware of the beat, and that’s the second part of a bass player’s job: bridging the harmonic content and the rhythm. Rainey plays a lot of notes, but what makes it work is the very specific notes he doesn’t play.
In this kind of R+B based music, the sound of the snare drum is very important. If you compare this tune to, say, this kind of beat, known as a “shuffle” beat:
On that kind of groove, a bass player typically plays one note for each beat, the notes of the chord that would be played, and plays right over the snare drum.
You can see that Aretha’s song depends on a different beat, and especially on a distinct snare drum hit on the two and the four of every measure. The snare drum is very prominent on this recording and it has a lot of reverb on it, which helps give it both “snap” and a relaxed, slightly behind the beat feel. In this kind of music, the snare hits are usually on the two and the four of every measure (one TWO three FOUR). Aretha sings “no you don’t call any (snare) more (snare)” “I sit (snare) and wait (snare)”
In this kind of music, the bass player wants to get out of the way of the snare drum, to leave a hole where that snare drum can really pop out. Watch it again and see how Rainey’s bass line plays around the snare, leaving it open so it rings out clearly. If you can read the music, you can see very clearly where the “rests” are–right where the snare drum is playing.
The line highlights the snare hits by anticipating them, then leaving that space open. As is so often the case with music, what’s not played is as important as what’s played. And what’s really great about Rainey’s bass is how it combines urgent and relaxed, how it builds tension towards those snare notes and then leaves them open.
He’s also “locked in” to what the kick drum, the bass drum is doing, which is 1 hit on the first beat, and multiple hits on the third beat. Sort of like this:
thump (snare) thump thump thump (snare)thump thump (snare). The bass player needs to be keyed nto that as well, so Rainey often starts each measure with a single note held longer, then a rest, te multiple notes, then a rest.
Rainey does a bunch of other cool stuff. In measure 9. where Aretha is singing “I want to tell you baby” Rainey play a low “E,” lets it ring, and then plays way up the neck, where bass players rarely get paid to play, to add the two notes that make up an E minor 7. And the song has a “half diminished” chord in it, with a root note in F#. That chord has a “flatted” fifth, a C instead of a C# sharp. It’s a “tense” chord that calls for resolution, and Rainey, recognizing that the song is building to a climax at that point, comes up with a really clever fast bass lick that plays all the most important notes of a F#minor 7 flat five. It’s a hard lick, and the timing is really complex and really effective.
Rainey also plays a lot of F#s, which is interesting. F# is the sixth note of an A major seven, and the seventh note of a G major seven, the fifth note of a B7 and the third note of a D major. The song is built around those four chords mostly, and Rainey takes care to play a note all the chords have in common. So even when he’s hopping around a lot, the bass line feels harmonically solid and rooted.
This is why I like playing bass–this kind of example. The bass line is highly sophisticated, but grooves hard and feels relaxed and “natural.” It’s funky and clever, earthy and smart. You can’t ask for more