Playing bass is more than just roots and fifths

Knowing the song and understanding what’s behind the notes will take you much further

By Jon Liebman
December 15, 2023

How many tunes do you know?

And by that, I mean how many tunes do you really know?

Does the fact that you’re a bass player mean your responsibility starts and ends with just knowing the chords and being able to play the roots and fifths?

I got to thinking about it when I was talking to former Santana bassist Keith Jones the other day, in a conversation published as this week’s FBPO interview.

I asked Keith what advice he could impart to someone who wants to learn bass, particularly an older student.

Keep the big picture in mind… but don’t forget the fundamentals

When it comes to playing bass, Keith likes to take a global approach.

“If you’re learning a tune,” he says, “actually pick out the melody on the bass instead of just playing the bass note.”

I wholeheartedly agree with what Keith says. But you may be asking the obvious question: Why?

“Learn that stuff and it will open up a whole new experience,” Keith says, “a whole new world as a bassist.”

As a bass player, roots are important. “One-five” patterns are important. Don’t brush those things off because you think they’re “easy” or not a big deal. They ARE a big deal, so when you need to play them, make sure you give them everything you’ve got.

That said, there’s more to playing bass than getting really good at playing roots and fifths.

When it’s okay – and not okay – to play more

Fills are important too. So are those little nuances, when you play them in just the right way. Understanding those things, and what’s behind them, will make you a better bass player and a more well-rounded musician.

“You’ll find that as you get more into learning the melodic part that you can play more,” Keith says. “You can pick some other notes so the bass actually becomes another voice, not just not just a support instrument.”

Again, I agree, but with an important caveat: Proceed with great caution.

You’re not there to play solos all night. You’re not there to play every note you know. You’re there to lock in with the drummer, set the foundation for the band, and make the music feel good. 

For those times when it is okay, even desirable, to branch out from playing just roots and fifths, don’t lose sight of your role as the bass player in the band. 

“When you do play with other people,” Keith says, “you’ll make adjustments, depending on what the instrumentation is.”

It all starts with knowing the song

Even when you are playing primarily roots and fifths, there’s a tremendous advantage to really knowing the song. It helps you convey the true spirit of the song’s message and play with the right kind of emotion and expression.

Like a lot of things, it’s a balancing act. When you learn the song, your musical sensitivity will tell you when to play less and when to play more.

So learn all you can, but keep it in your back pocket. You can pull it out if and when it helps the song. 

“You gotta know what the melody is,” says Keith. “You gotta know what the chords are.”

How about you?

Have you ever felt like your bass playing needs a little something more than just roots and fifths, but you don’t know what to add? Or, do you feel like roots and fifths are all you ever need and you’re totally happy with that? 

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. Then be sure to check out my interview with Keith here.

Comments on Playing bass is more than just roots and fifths

  1. Bob Turek says:

    Great way to look at this, been playing but didn’t think about listening to the song a different way. Thanks!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Glad you got something out of it, Bob. Thanks for weighing in!

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