Almost all music is centered around chords. Chords define the harmonic structure of each song and tell you which notes will sound good and which won’t. If you study music theory, you’ll spend a lot of time learning about what the different chords are and how they lead from one to another.
Guitarists and pianists play full chords, simultaneously sounding every note that makes up each chord. They are the ones who really fill out the harmonies. As a bass player, your relationship with chords is a little different. You don’t play every note in a chord, but your deep, low tones ground the chord and help define its sound.
What are Chords?
A chord, by definition, is a group of two or more notes played together. Generally, it is three or four notes and they are separated from each other by intervals of major and minor thirds. Each chord has a root note, the foundation upon which the chord is built, and a “quality,” the structure of the other notes that make up the chord. For example, a C minor chord has the notes C, Eb, and G. Its root note is C and its quality is “minor.”
There are many qualities of chords. Some examples are major, minor, major seven, minor seven, diminished and augmented, and the list goes on. Each one has a different character, created by the different musical intervals between the chord tones.
Importance of Chords on Bass
Your primary job as a bass player, besides rhythmic support, is to provide the foundation for the chords. Your low notes really give a solid tonal grounding to guide listeners’ ears in following the shifts of harmony. For the most part, this means playing the roots of the chords.
Seems pretty easy, right? If all you have to do is play the root notes, why learn all this extra stuff about chord structures? After all, the root note of each chord is the note it is named for. You just have to read the letters.
Well, that’s an option, and indeed it sounds perfectly fine when you do only that. In fact, you’d be surprised how often bass players do nothing else besides playing the roots, perhaps with some interesting groovy rhythms. However, you’ll have very limited creative options and you won’t be coming up with any killer bass lines that way.
Learning how to find the different chord tones and use them will let you play really interesting and great sounding bass lines while still fulfilling your job of grounding and supporting the harmonies of the song. Use the chord tones, especially the root, as your launching points to have some fun and get creative.
To figure out which notes are chord tones and which aren’t, you use chord patterns. First, you need to be familiar with note names on the bass so you can find the root of any chord. Next, you can go from there and find the chord tones based on your knowledge of chord patterns.
As an example, consider the C minor chord again. In any minor chord, there are three chord tones. The first is the root, the second is a minor third above the root, and the last is a fifth above the root. So, you would find the root note, in this case, located at the third fret of the A string. Then, you would find the next note three frets higher at the sixth fret (an E♭). Finally, the last note would be on the next string two frets higher, at the fifth fret (a G). This shape of finger positions is the same for any minor chord.
When you are playing with other musicians, you’ll often have a “chord progression,” a sequence of chords that you all play through. Find the root note for each chord, and just jam on that note at first. Then, try throwing in some other chord tones. The root should always be your home base, and should probably be the first note you play for each chord, but feel free to experiment around and find a bass line that sounds good.
Sometimes, you’ll see chords written using a slash or dividing line, with a chord on the top and a single note underneath. This is a special message to you, the bass player. The note written under the line is the note that should be played by the bass, instead of the root of the chord. Even if you had some other clever idea of what to play on that chord, you should play the note written.
An excellent way to practice chords is to play arpeggios. “Arpeggio” is just a fancy word for playing the chord tones up and down. You can “arpeggiate” up through multiple octaves, if you like, or just one. As you learn different chord patterns, you should practice them by playing arpeggios starting with different notes as the root. You can also use arpeggios in bass lines as well.