How to learn songs on the bass

There are only so many chords. Learn to predict which one’s next

By Jon Liebman
September 2, 2022

Suppose you want to come up with a bass line for a song. Where do you start? What’s the first thing you think about?

Maybe you listen to a recording of that song and try to copy the bass line. That’s a good way to learn – if you just want to imitate what you hear.

Not that there’s not a lot of benefit in copying what others have played. In fact, it’s a great way to learn and to arm yourself with new kinds of lines, licks, etc.

Give yourself an advantage

But wouldn’t you like a little more independence? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to hear the chord changes and be able to come up with your own original bass line?

I was talking with jazz bassist and composer Ben Allison recently in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview. Ben pointed out how chord progressions can often be predicted, based on similarities of how songs are structured. In other words, there’s a lot of common ground in the way chords are used in a song, regardless of the style of music.

“Most rock, pop, R&B, soul, salsa, any other musics that have important bass lines,” Ben says, “(are) usually fairly simple harmonically.”

Make use of what’s already there

As a bass player, you can use those common harmonic structures to your benefit.

“You’re going to be playing tunes that have some kind of standard chord progressions,” Ben adds, “so getting a good sense of what’s happening harmonically, understanding how traditional harmony works so that you can connect those chords and play those roots, you’ll recognize there’s a lot of repeated things in popular music.”

And therein lies your advantage. When you understand and can predict how the chords will change, you’ll be better equipped to make up your own bass lines, rather than just memorize what you hear on a record.

See if you can guess what’s coming next

There are only so many chords that can be included in a song. Pretty much all of them include the “I” chord, the “IV” chord and the “V” chord, so start there. The “iii” and “vi” chords are very common too. One of the cool things about being a bass player is that, once you play the root of the chord, your job is 25% done. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but I think you see my point.

If you take an educated guess about what’s going to happen next, you can begin the process of making up your own bass line in a way that fits the song. And don’t forget, the form of the song is a fixed length. After, say, 12 bars, 16 bars, 32 bars, however long the song is, it repeats, giving you a chance to get even deeper into the process. And it’s fun!

Put it to use in your bass playing

“There are conventions,” Ben says, “and so when you do a little bit of that work to kind of prep yourself and get a little bit of understanding of basic harmony, then you can start making up your own bass lines, and you can reference all the stuff that you’ve heard, but you’re not just locked into learning these specific notes in this specific order.”

Next time you hear a song, any song, try to analyze the chord sequence. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. See if you can notice how the progression moves. How many chords are there? Is the form some combination of the “I,” “IV” and “V” chords? What happens during the bridge? How does it come back to what was happening before? 

These are just examples, but paying attention to those kinds of things will help you gain a better understanding of how songs are put together and open the door for you to start creating your own lines.

“It frees you up to be more of a musician,” says Ben, “and that’s the way musicians feel. They may make up really cool bass lines, they may improvise them when they write them, they may read them, but at the end of the day, it’s all just music.”

Your turn. How do you go about learning a new song and creating your own bass lines? Leave a comment below and share your story. And be sure to watch my interview with Ben here.

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