Part of learning bass is understanding your role in the big picture
By Jon Liebman
July 21, 2023
As bass players, it’s been drilled into us from day one that in nearly every case, we’re supposed to play the root of the chord on the downbeat whenever a new chord is introduced.
Well… maybe that’s not so true after all.
You mean you’ve been lying to me this whole time???
“But Jon,” you say, “you’ve drilled into us from the beginning that we need to play the root on the downbeat, practically 99% of the time!”
Yes, that’s the generally accepted – and expected – practice for bass players. There’s even an old adage that says a bass player will never get fired for playing too many roots.
But that principle deserves a closer look.
Warning: the remainder of this blog should be read with caution.
The other side of the coin
I recently had a fascinating conversation with jazz bass legend Ron Carter, published as this week’s FBPO interview. During our discussion, I asked Maestro how he goes in search of “right” notes, given the framework in which we bass players need to follow, including playing the root of the chord on the downbeat.
Right off the bat, he didn’t agree with my premise.
“I’m not so committed to having to play the root on the downbeat of any measure,” he says. “You got four beats in that measure and you know how many beats there are per chord in that measure. That’s the number of choices you have. It need not be the root to be legitimate.”
But the people are counting on me.
As politely and respectfully as possible, I gently pushed back, pointing out that there’s an expectation from the rest of the band, and possibly even the audience, that they’re going to hear the bassist play the root of the chord on the downbeat. It’s what our ears want and need.
“I like roots,” Ron says, but I like to think, Jon, that I build my line to where the root is supposed to be acceptable (and) that my choice of a non-root note is not only more acceptable, but more challenging to the note that follows that non-root note.”
I was beyond intrigued. Please continue, Maestro…
Do we understand one another?
“My general thought, Jon, is (if) they keep saying, ‘Hey, man, play some roots,’ I kind of feel that they can only play their solo if there’s a root making that work. They’re asking me to downplay my ability, my interest, my concept of a bass line and the line I’m building for their entire solo for the entire evening. And if I have their attention, they understand that they’re including my information in the piano harmony, the drumbeat, the horns, the arrangement… that my note that I play individually and collectively for the whole night is as important as a piano voicing or a drum downbeat.”
He then illustrated his point with a great example.
The non-root in action
“When you play a blues in F,” he explained, “why can’t that first note be A? We agreed we’re in the key of F. Why can’t that first note be a B natural going to a C for the second beat? Then the third beat, F, for the root and then an octave lower for another root? That’s two (root) notes per measure. What does the guy want! Or gal – sorry, ladies.” [laughs]
I liked what was he saying. I was actually getting excited. Yet while I still feel this approach should be taken very carefully, I told him I like the way it opens up a way new way of thinking.
“Yes! Jon, that’s my job, man. Come on!” he said with a smile.
If you do it, be careful
It’s not a matter of un-learning everything we’ve been taught about what a bass player is supposed to do. Rather, it’s a more advanced way of thinking, with the potential to take music to a whole new level. It requires a lot of listening, a lot of sensitivity, and a lot of professionalism.
Of course it also requires a solid grounding in music theory and harmony in order to really pull it off. I absolutely love it and plan to experiment with this approach in my bass playing. Thank you, Maestro.
How about you?
Are you ready to learn bass? With my lessons and courses in the Bottom Line Club, you’ll build a solid foundation with an understanding of what’s required and expected of a bass player.
Full disclosure: I’m going to start you out learning to play the root of the chord on the downbeat. When you become a more advanced player, with a solid command of music theory you’ll also learn from me, we can talk about you working without a net. In the meantime, let’s get you started. Join the Bottom Line Club here.