Why I like playing the bass

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.


Until You come Back to Me (That’s all I want to do)


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?

aretha plain

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



  • Based on your description, bass requires a very sophisticated and restrained approach to music. Yet bass has a low reputation as being an “easy” instrument, at least among teenagers looking to put together bands in their parents’ basements. Why is that? Is it a function of the role bass plays in rock music? (I hope this question doesn’t cause offense! I don’t share that opinion of the bass. I’m just thinking back to my younger days, when I was on the periphery of various bands, and the bassist was always treated as an easily replaceable member.)

  • My feeling is all instruments are equally hard to master, but some have a lower bar for beginners. Bass in a rock band, or a country band, is really simple some of the time, or a lot of the time. But it pretty quickly turns out you need all the same things anybody else needs–taste, a good sense of time, knowledge of harmony etc etc.

    The Rainey clip is on the extreme end. It’s very notey and he takes a lot of liberties. But he’s really really good. You might remember the “Sanford and Son” theme? That’s him.

    It’s not a glamour job though. That’s mostly why there are fewer bass players. It’s not a front-man kind of instrument, with few exceptions (McCartney, Sting)

  • Great post. I’m interested in the history of this kind of bass playing. When/how would you say this sort of notey, rhythmically complex style developed? Sublette implies it started with Cachao. I’m not sure, but it does seem to me that the walking bass line of swing jazz was rhythmically simple: 1,2,3,4. The so-called anticipated bass of Cuban music introduced syncopation. So maybe there’s something to it? What other geneaologies can you trace?

  • Jamerson Jamerson Jamerson. As far as i know its all jamerson. Butnwhere he gets it i dont know. He was an upright player, and a jazzbo, and his early motown recordings are nothing special. Dancing in the streets is on upright. Btu then in the early 60s he develops a really startling new style thats really notey. But its also really harmonically slick, in the same way the rainey bass line is. Its not just a nuch of roots and fives, its leadign tones and higher harmonics. By the mid 60s this more noted style is common. Compare duck Dunn with booker t and tommy cogbill on dusty springfields son of a preacher man, or it’s gonna rain.

    I need to see Sublettes argument, but i think that’s just ridiculous about cachao. You just can’t do this style on upright. Does cachaca ever play anything other than root-3-5? I really don’t know, but typically that’s all I hear

  • But at the same time it’s true that the basic drum beat is “Latin” in that generic n American way. So I’d be interested in exploring the idea. I’m inclined to say that the electric bass has a lot to do with changes in drum patterns.

  • Just a hunch, but I’d guess that Jamerson is responsible for the “notiness” – the harmonic complexity. (And Sublette gives him a lot of credit too) But the loosening up of the rhythm seems like a rethinking of the role the bass is playing in the band, bigger than just one musician.

  • Great post, Mike. I certainly agree with you about the essence of bass playing especially the role the bass has in driving the song forward.

    I recently had a similar experience of “bass appreciation”. I’ve been reading “The Wrecking Crew” which tells the story of the session musicians that played on so many of the pop and rock California recordings from the sixties (Beach Boys, Byrds, Monkees, etc, etc.)

    One of the chapters is devoted to the Grass Roots and the recording session for “Midnight Confessions”. Apparently the song needed an intro and bassist Carol Kaye (along with drummer Hal Blaine) improvised the now famous lead-in. I confess that the song has always been a guilty pleasure so I gave it another listen (several actually), focusing on the bass.

    Kaye’s playing is nothing short of perfection. Along with Blaine she drives the song forward with a very rhythmic line that goes beyond I-V and has some pretty nifty runs to boot. On a casual listen the role of the rhythm section is so subtle it’s easy to miss, but on detailed listening it’s apparent that the bass and drums are what sets the song apart.

    Here’s to all the great session bassists!

  • Great post-just some observations: I do think in some genres the perception is that bass is a quick-start instrument: In metal or pop or (especially) bluegrass, you can go a long way thumping the root and fifth of chords. I have even heard of bass being the consolation-prize for garage bands: “I can’t play guitar as well as Johnny, but I want to be in a band, so I will just play bass.”
    However, I don’t know any jazz musicians who think that way. With its peculiar chord voicings, jazz bass is challenging.
    While I appreciate your perspective, I would argue that this is what’s great about MUSIC: a rhythm guitar player can play it straight, or he can add sevenths and ninths, or any number of embellishments, not to mention the actual timing of the piece.
    My primary interest is acoustic music, and I have been on stage with a lot of stand-up bass players who resent the notion that all they do is play roots and fifths. Good taste is not common enough, and I think listening to band members is an underdeveloped skill, but I also think bass players might just be the least-appreciated members of a typical band.

  • JeffInOhio wrote:

    Hey Mike, Jeff from TNC/Atlantic. Great post, your musical training is much deeper then mine, I’m mostly a seat of the pants cowboy chord playing folky who came up through punk rock clubs and have met some pretty cool people along the way.

    You can hear the sessions I did with Bob in the link below. The stand out track for me with him is the Fred Neil cover “Little Bit of Rain.” Especially when you consider moments before he cut that bass line, he was in the control room listening to the demo and saying “This is a fucking dirge, it’s killing me. I’m dying. Really? This slow? Jesus. A fucking dirge.” That’s Ed Greene on drums.


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