Hi! My name is Kaitie. I’m a professional bassist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. I am going to teach you several important concepts that will allow you to play bass guitar in a band. In my opinion, playing bass guitar in a band is one of the best ways to improve your skills as a musician. The following tips will help build your confidence and allow you to shine in the role of the bass player.
In this post you will learn: the role of the bassist in a band, how to create bass lines based on chord progressions, playing in time with a drummer, and understanding body language.
To help you practice, please download the Simple Bass Groove PDF that I’ve put together to help you put the ideas into practice right away!
What is the bass players role in a band?
The role of the bassist in every band is to outline the harmonic structure of the chords, and help establish the groove. Okay, what does this all mean?! Let me explain.
Songs are generally based on chords, and those chords are based on the harmonic structure of a song. The bass players job is to create a bass line that outlines those chords (more on the specific notes later.)
In a band, the bass is right at the intersection of the rhythm and harmony. Therefore, the bass and drums need to be on the same page about everything, seamlessly… intuitively. If the bass player and drummer are not on the same page with the tempo, the song might feel disjointed. The song could begin to lag or rush ahead. The bass and drums need to work together to keep the song in the “pocket.”
Creating your musical pallet
Creating a bass line is like painting a picture. You have your empty canvas and your pallet of paints. Your pallet is all the riff, rhythms, scales and arpeggios and all the tools that you’ve acquired from your studies – Kaitie
What notes should the bass player play in a band?
As mentioned earlier, the bassist should aim to outline the chords of a song. In a bar of 4/4 time (4 counts) the bassist will generally play a chord tone on the first count of the bar.
What are chord tones?
At a minimum, chords are made up of 3 notes. The root, 3rd, 5th or Octave. In a C major chord, the chord tones are C, (root) E, (3rd) G, (5th) and C (Octave). A good rule of thumb would be to try and play one of those chord tones on beat 1 of the bar. On other beats, you have the option to play other chord tones, notes of the scale you’re in, the Pentatonic scale, non-chord tones and many more options.
Creating a bass line is kind of like going through a maze. Think about what is the best way to get through that maze? It’s kind of like a puzzle that you are always trying to solve. – Kaitie
You’ll notice that I’m playing the Root note on beat 1 of the bar and then playing other chord tones or scale notes on the other beats.
Here are a few other free downloads from my book that explain how to easily play 5ths and octaves.
Get my book: Bass Method: Level 1, to understand all these concepts in greater detail:
Playing bass guitar in a band is all about efficiency. There are a lot of places on the neck to play the same bass line. For example, the G-note appears in several different areas of the bass. There’s always more than one way to play something. Try to figure out what part on the bass will allow you to play your bass line so that you’re not jumping around every which way. Aim to make it easy on yourself. This will allow you to play more challenging, fast and complex patterns when you need to.
How to come up with a bass line for a song
A great way to come up with a bass line is to record yourself while you play. Let yourself experiment and try different ideas based on the harmonic structure and rhythm of the song. Afterwards, you can listen back and decide what parts you like best and settle on a good idea to be the final bass line of the song.
I like to think about ways that I can make it fun without just playing root notes. – Kaitie
Think about the Feel
At the end of the day, it all comes down to how the song feels. When it feels right, you know you have a good bass line.
Body Language and Communication
When playing with a guitarist or pianist, pay attention to their hands. This will help you understand the rhythm’s they are playing. if it’s a guitar, you can look to see what notes they are playing on their fretboard (as long as they are not using a capo).
It’s also important to look at not just their hands but also their eyes, face, and whole body. Playing music with others is all about communication – both spoken and unspoken, a lot of times we communicate via body language or other non-verbal cues – this is why we have to pay attention to one another both visually and aurally. Singers will also cue via eye contact or hand signals – so it’s important to watch them as well.
Pay attention to dynamics (volume)
If other musicians increase their dynamics (how loudly they are playing) this might be a cue that something is about to happen – a new section of the song perhaps. Often the cues can be quite subtle, so always have your ears and eyes open.
Playing Bass Guitar in a Band with Drums
Bass players have a special role to play in the band. Not only do they outline the harmonic structure for all the band members (guitar, vocals, keys, any other melodic/harmonic instruments), but they also have to keep the groove/rhythm along with the drummer. Therefore the bassist has to communicate with the drummer closely through all the communication methods already mentioned above.
Place yourself close to the drummer
It’s a good idea for the bass player and the drummer to position themselves closely in the band setup, again to increase the ability to communicate properly.
You may have heard of people talk about the rhythm section being “locked in” or “in the pocket” – This basically means that the bass player and drummer are seamlessly and intuitively connected in terms of feeling, tempo and rhythm.
Changing Sections in a Song
If there’s a new section coming up in the song, look at your drummer, make eye contact, make sure he/she is aware and you are both on the same page. Do the same with your other bandmates. Mix up your bass line with a riff or fill to highlight the section change. Consider using some of the tools suggested above (i.e. roots, fifths, thirds, arpeggios, pentatonic scales, etc.)
What are bass fills?
Usually bass fills are improvised, but certain songs might have “signature” bass licks or riffs that would be played during section changes. For example, in the song Superstition by Stevie Wonder, the first time the horn riff comes in the bass player plays a fill to indicate the change is coming. The drummer also plays a fill into this section.
See me play the bass fill on Superstition:
You could decide to prepare some riffs that you want to play in certain sections of a song so that when you perform them, you already have them on hand. Or you could choose to improvise the fills.
Practice tips for improving your ability to “lock-in” with a drummer
At home, practice playing with a metronome, drum machine, and/or along with tracks and sync your playing to the drummer/beat. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about other things, after all, as bass players we have more than one job to do! We may start thinking about the chordal structure of the song, what notes to play, what other musicians in the band are playing, we may be listening to someone’s solo, trying to follow the form of the tune, etc. but it’s always important to make sure that we check in frequently with the drums or beat/groove to make sure we are still in sync with that.
The Groove must come first!
This might mean simplifying your bass line in order to pay more attention to the groove than in playing something that might be taking your attention away from that or that might be sacrificing the groove in order to play – the groove must come first!
Metronome practice tips
- Incorporate your body when you practice with the metronome. Tap your foot along to the beat as this will help you to be more invested in the beat and pay more attention to it.
- If you are struggling to play with a metronome, put the bass down. Simply clap the rhythm of the bass line along with the metronome or tap your leg. Whatever works for you. Once you can clap the rhythm with the metronome, try it with your bass again.
- You can also practice counting with a metronome using open strings. This eliminates the need to worry too much about what the left hand is doing on the bass, so you can focus more on the time with the metronome.
Download this free PDF from my book to help you understand how to play rhythms on open strings.
Slow down the track
Use Guitar Rig or Audacity, you can slow down a recording without affecting the pitch. Practice the song at a tempo that is comfortable enough for you to be able to play the groove in time. Start slowly and gradually speed it up until it’s at the desired tempo. You may even do something similar when playing bass guitar in a a band. With your bandmates, practice playing songs slower at first and slowly bringing them up to tempo. However, more often than not, you will be doing this alone at home so that when you get to band rehearsal you can play the song at the correct tempo with the rest of the band.
Sign up for Bass Lessons with Me
If you are interested in private bass lessons to help you develop playing bass guitar in a band, I’m here to help! I teach online from my studio in Vancouver, British Columbia to students anywhere in the world. I look forward to hearing from you.