By Patrick Pfeiffer

Two of the most common approaches to a killer bass line are the straight and syncopated rhythmic styles. In both cases, the harmony of the bass part stays pretty much on one note, usually the root. Where they differ is in their rhythm. In straight rhythm, the notes are played on the beat; in syncopated, some of them are played between the beats. The effects are quite different.

Pumping eighth notes

Pumping eighth notes is a common bass style in pop, rock, hard rock, punk, and songs with a driving beat. The Beatles’ tune “Get Back” is a perfect example, as are “Please Please Me” and “Back in the USSR.” Beyond The Beatles, you can listen to U2’s Adam Clayton laying it down on “Beautiful Day.” You can also use this style for slower songs, like Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.”

You can play this technique by evenly subdividing the beat, effectively doubling the feel of the tempo, and pumping eighth notes without actually playing the chords any faster. You’re simply doubling the number of hits per chord. To make this technique interesting and to give the music a lift, you can practice occasionally striking the next chord an eighth note early. It’s a harmonic syncopation rather than a rhythmic one.

Check out this song. First, pump eighth notes, changing the root at the beginning of each new chord.

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Play it again, occasionally moving to the new chord an eighth note early and see how you like the sound.

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Check out this song using pumping eighth notes. The chords don’t change, nor does the tempo, but occasionally the bassist plays an eighth note a little earlier than the chord officially changes, giving the music a less regimented feel.

Syncopating the bass beat

Playing a syncopated bass part requires you to skip occasional beats and to play in between others. Musicians often refer to this method as “singer-songwriter” accompaniment, and it’s one of the most commonly used bass lines. The Beatles use it on “Ticket to Ride,” “And I Love Her,” and “In my Life.” You can also hear this technique played on Bruce Sringsteen’s “Badlands” and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”

On some tunes, you may hear the bass part as simply syncopation on one note; on others, you hear syncopation that has a more active harmony, with other chord tones thrown in.

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The first time through, the bass part includes only the roots of the chords; the next time around, it includes chord tones. Both are syncopated.

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Check out this song using syncopation.