3 Tips For Soulful Bass Lines

Hey all, John here; I’ve been privileged to contribute bass composition for all of the Soul Surplus tracks so far. I’ve been playing bass guitar for almost 13 years along with another 10 years prior, to me focusing on bass, of me playing trombone and tuba.

I’m grateful to have experienced many scenarios that inform how I approach playing a bass line; whether it’s been through playing gospel music in church, being a session bassist for various projects, playing tuba and trombone in marching band in school, being a part of a horn section in a neo-soul band, or even touring as a bassist for hip hop artists, it all has played a part in creating who I am musically today.

This week I want to share 3 tips that I’ve learned over my musical career for creating bass lines that groove and are soulful! These tips can literally be applied by those of you who actually play bass or by producers who don’t have access to a real bassist but want an authentic bass sound!

1. “Less is always more”

A key to having good soulful bass on a track is to think of it as a foundation for the whole musical piece. When we think of what it takes to hold up a huge building like a skyscraper we think of a “solid and sturdy” base that can hold the weight of the rest of the structure. Basically something that isn’t going ‘anywhere, most likely simple, yet reliable.

Bass can be thought of in this way because usually in soul and hip hop a heavy loopable bass line carries the track in a way that allows melody and harmony to happen with enough consistency to invoke the feeling of a deeper rhythm and groove. If the bass line is simple, yet solid, it creates a greater capacity to hold the other aspects and instrumentation of a song up, instead of competing for listeners’ ears.

Another analogy one could think of is that the bass can be like the “glue” between rhythm and melody. Producers and bass players alike can find that approaching your bass lines intentionally with the goal in-mind that the beat and bass line should be synced almost as one in many cases, yet the bass should simultaneously lay the bed for the harmony and melody to shine out! An example of this would be to maybe choose to hold 1 bass note for 4 beats instead of playing a more complicated line with different notes on every beat.


2. “Let the snare breathe!”

I use this lingo to try and communicate an aspect of grooving that really is focused around rests (space or breaks, whatever you want to call it!) and down beats. An old wise man told me that, “what you don’t play is more important than what you do play.” I’ve taken that to mean that even the rests (the breaks and moments that you don’t play) should actually be treated with importance like they are musical notes! Handwritten music has done this for centuries, but thinking about it as a bassist for soul and hip hop can be crucial!

If you study any soul or old R&B records many times the bass guitar and the kick drum will play the same rhythms while the bassist will rest (not play) when the drummer hits the snare. So if a song has 4 beats in a measure, the bass and the kick drum will strike on beats 1 and 3, while the snare will hit on beats 2 and 4 with the bass laying out.

This is what I call letting the snare breathe! It instantly creates a tighter groove that is clean; it makes the down beats hit harder and makes the up-beats smack higher with more air because of the space that is created with the bass laying out. (An advanced tip would be for the bassist to play ghost notes and rhythmic sounds that have no notation on the up beats mimicking the snare!) Obviously this is the very basic foundation of groove and ultimately the possibilities for bass and drum union in a groove is endless!


3. “Finally, pick your spots wisely!”

To build upon the previous points of playing less, and giving space, a bassist is now able to step out and have special moments that can be called, “runs or fills.” Applying this step last after the first two will make the moments shine even more!

To think about it from a rhythmic perspective most drummers will choose to naturally fill or do a pick up on beat 7 and finish it on beat 8 of an 8 beat sequence. If this is confusing for those who are not that musically inclined, just open up an empty session in your DAW and turn on the metronome (most should automatically start with a 4/4 time signature). Literally sit and count two bars, the 3rd and 4th beat of the second bar is what I spoke about above. This is the basic place to put a “drum fill or pick up.”

The problem is that in music sometimes a lot of musicians will naturally fill as well at the same spot as the drum fill or pick up. Though this can be good in creating uniformity and “good feel” with a track, it can also crowd a track if not used correctly.

What I’ve learned over time, especially as a session musician, is that if the bassist actually fills on up-beats, or when a singer/melody or lead instrument breathes, there is a lot more space for the fill and it doesn’t take away from the foundation of the groove. This is a great way to bring attention to bass for a moment when its been hiding in the background doing the dirty work of laying foundation.

Ultimately an advanced application of this last point correlated with the previous two points can have a bassist develop an approach that is so solid and syncopated that even if they are busy and doing a lot of fills it won’t disrupt the groove, it will actually enhance it by laying further foundation and moving the track along. I think of it as “playing through the groove.” A prime example of this is the infamous James Jamerson who coined this style of playing on many early Motown records.

Overall these 3 steps that I have mentioned only are the tip of the iceberg in laying soulful bass lines on tracks, but I promise that if you try and apply these approaches to your bass lines, (whether you are a bassist or a producer doing your own bass) you will immediately see a difference in the whole feel and sound of your music!

- John