How To Write And Record Better Bass Guitar Parts
In both live and studio settings, one of the most important elements is the bass line. Generally speaking, bass parts in modern day music have become considerably less melodic and on first listen sound very simplistic. However, when analyzed these lines are deceptively tricky and not as basic as you might think. There are a multitude of elements to take into consideration and the choices you make will have a huge impact on the overall presentation of a song.
Here are some things to think about when recording bass guitar parts.
I could write an entire article on just this topic alone 😉
I cannot stress how important it is to get the right tone for a particular recording. Tone covers the type of bass you use, how you record it (either via a DI, mic-ing up an amp or a mixture of both) and the way you choose to play it. Granted, most of us don’t have a huge rack of basses to choose from, but even if you only have one instrument at your disposal, you should still take the time to understand the different tones it can produce. The type of pick-ups as well as string selection will heavily influence the overall sound.
Something I pay close attention to is the way I play the bass. You’d be amazed at the variety of sounds you can get out of one instrument by simply approaching it slightly differently. If you play further up the neck, you’ll find all the warm tones. Closer to the bridge has more attack. Playing with just your thumb creates more thump and the traditional style of using your first two fingers is different again. Incorporating a guitar pick also creates a different type of tone.
Have fun. Experiment. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Listen to the song you are working on and figure out what type of tone would best suit the music. For a rock track, mid-bass heavy sounds that really cut are ideal. For acoustic based music you need something warmer and less invasive.
Try this: Find a track you really like and use it as a reference. Import it into your DAW and compare it to the song you are working on. How does their bass tone compare with yours?
Something else to consider is where you choose to play the notes on the fretboard. If you play an E on the 2nd fret of the D string, it sounds infinitely punchier than an E on the 7th fret of the A string, which is considerably warmer. The E and A strings are always rounder in tone and the D and G strings have a lot more attack.
Don’t Be Afraid to Play Simple Lines
I know many extremely proficient bass players who have so much technical knowledge, but when faced with studio situations they think that playing a ton of notes = doing a great job.
Many people seem almost terrified to play simple lines, thinking they’re not doing enough, but often this is all the song needs. Serve the music, play whatever the music needs!
Remember: When recording bass lines, the priority should be groove and good timing over complicated melodic lines.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments when playing beautiful melodic lines is completely appropriate – but those moments need to be few and far between, and they need to happen at very precise points within the song, lifting the music at exactly the right time.
First and foremost, the bass player should be attempting to connect with the drums as much as possible, creating a solid foundation for everyone else. Having said that, there are so many other things to think about when recording. You can also connect with guitar parts as well as vocals. Listen and ask yourself; does the guitar part have any specific lines or rhythms that would sound awesome if I played them too? Are there any vocal lines I can follow or incorporate into my playing?
Remember: you are the glue that connects everything together. Listen very carefully to the track and try to figure out how you can connect all these elements together. It’s not as easy as you might think! But taking the time to create carefully thought out bass lines makes all the difference.
Understand Your Role Within the Music
This helps enormously with figuring out what and how you are going to play. Always try to understand your role within the track. Is it to anchor everything? Is the bass a prominent feature of the track? Would it be better to play aggressively or more laid back?
Understand what the overall vibe is, what your role is within that vibe and how you can make the entire track even better.
Create Plenty of Space for Vocals
The single most important element of any song is the lead vocal line.
If you want to move around the neck more, always do it when the vocalist is singing something very basic or better still, when they aren’t singing at all. While they are singing you should be staying out of the way and leaving plenty of room for that to be the main focus for the listener.
Root, 3rd or 5th?
Another thing to consider when creating your bass parts is moving away from the root note. There are moments when choosing to play either a 3rd or 5th instead of the root note can change the whole vibe of the song in a very unique way. For example: if a chord sequence is G – D – Em, try playing: G – F# – Em. Another example would be if the chords were D – G – C, you might try playing D – B – C.
When the bass note differs from the main chord, a / is used in between the chord letter and the new bass note, like this: D/F# or G/B. As you may have guessed, the first letter is the main chord and the second letter after the slash is the bass note. This is very common in piano music and I learnt a lot about these chord variations by studying music written by Carol King.
There are a ton of wonderfully informative resources out there on this specific topic. Experiment. Find out what works 😊
An Exercise to Try:
Pick a track and learn the bass parts verbatim. Every time I do this exercise, I always learn something new. The notes that player is choosing to play, the way they are connecting them to each other, the overall tone of the bass as well as the way the bass parts connect with the rest of the music.
Try this for yourself. It will accelerate your learning enormously and you’ll pick up lots of ideas to incorporate into your playing and writing.
I hope some or all of these tips were useful. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, did I miss anything? What would you add to this list? Feel free to leave your comments below!