7 Types of Bass Lines

Get the Low Down

Bassist Pino Palladino. Ethan Miller / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

There are a number of different types of bass parts, but the primary role of the bass in a rhythm section is the same: defining the harmonic structure by emphasizing the chord roots, generally on the first beat of the measure. Beyond that, the different types of bass line help define the music’s style and sense of forward momentum.

When crafting any bass part, it is useful to think of target notes and approach notes. A target note is one that the bass is really most responsible for playing. It’s the most important part of the job. Again, the chord root on beat 1 is a common target. When planning the line, a bass player begins by considering which notes are obligatory targets. Then, the next consideration is how those targets will be approached, often by non-chord tones so as to create a sense of forward momentum, and tension and release, though sometimes repeated as a pedal to reinforce the harmony.

In addition to targets and approaches, the bass can play percussive “skips” by strumming a muted string to get a percussive articulation sound, just to add life to the line, immediately preceding a target note usually by a third of a beat.

Here are the most common types of bass lines, or approaches to creating bass parts.

  1. Making the changes. In pretty much any contemporary groove-based style, the bass’s priority is to “make the changes,” or ground the tune’s harmonic structure. Most simply, the bass plays steady long-duration notes (whole notes, half notes., etc.), sounding chord tones on the strong beats of a measure, often coinciding with the simple rhythms played by the kick drum. So, in 4/4 meter, usually the bass plays the root on beat 1, and often the root, 5, or octave on beat 3. A variation of long-duration notes is to play a pedal point, or one note through various chord changes.
    A bass part does not need to be particularly linear or distinctive; simply sounding the root at each chord “change” is the core responsibility of the bass player, and thus, the most bass’s basic and critical function in a groove.
    When the bass player pares down and focuses on “making the changes,” they are honing in on the most fundamental level of harmonic outlining—pure backbone stuff. For a bass, there is no shame in simplicity.
  2. Playing time. When a bass player “plays time,” every beat of the measure is articulated, rather than just playing long-duration notes. This gives more motion to the groove. This approach can take many forms, from repeated notes, to alternating roots and 5s, to walking bass lines. Again, it tends to match the kick drum rhythms. Often, the term "playing time" is used in jazz contexts, as the antithesis of "stop time" (see below).
  3. Walking bass line. When a bass “walks,” it plays time using a linear approach, moving primarily in even quarter notes, with a swing feel. Beyond just chord tones, the diatonic scale may be used and supplemented with chromatic passing notes to help facilitate placing the intended target chord tone on the intended beat. While beat 1 still usually has the chord root, there is a sense of motion and journeying for the line, as it strings together important tones of a chord progression. Beats 2 and be 4 are particularly likely to be points of tension, leading to resolution at beats 3 and beat 1 of the next measure. The steady quarter notes might be embellished with an occasional upbeat anticipation of just a third of a beat, to keep things moving. Walking bass lines are particularly common in jazz, boogie-woogie, and country styles.
  4. Riffs. A bass riff is a repeated lick—that is, a short, melody-like figure. Riff bass lines are particularly common rock and R&B styles. Some famous bass riffs: “Money” by Pink Floyd, “Green Onions” by Booker T and the MGs, and the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
  5. Stop time. In a stop time part, the bass (with the rest of the ensemble) plays a short initial rhythm, generally the chord root on beat 1, possibly with a rhythmic figure, but then the bass and the rest of the rhythm section are silent for a few beats, while the melody plays alone, like a call and response, or like shooting a yo-yo off a cliff. It’s primarily a jazz and blues technique. “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a famous example.
  6. Afro-Cuban/Latin/South American Patterns. Bass lines in Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and related styles from Latin and South America generally outline various repeating traditional rhythmic patterns, which might last one or two measures. The rhythms tend to be syncopated, and the notes focus on the root, 5, and octave. “Oye Como Va” is a good example, with versions worth hearing by Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, and others.
  7. Solo. Of course, a bass can also solo, and there are various types of solo line styles. At this point, it breaks character and plays more melodically, expanding its role from simply defining the harmony, and instead following the same melodic parameters as other instruments. However, many bass players will even make fleeting references to the essential bass functions while they are playing a solo and the rest of the band is slacking, even if it is just to steal a quick root here and there, as a grace note. Because, you see, somebody still has to be the grown-up in the room.

The boundaries sometimes blur between these approaches and terms. A walking bass line will play time as it makes the changes, for example. Also, the same piece will often use more than one, changing approach from chorus to chorus in order to give variety and shape to an arrangement. For example, a bass might just make the changes during the head (melody), walk during the solos, and eventually do a stop time chorus or two to build tension to the out head. And a bass might occasionally play a fill for a couple beats within a chorus, if the arrangement calls for it. So, these are general approaches and terms, and not intended as hard-and-fast rules or strictly defined types.  But understanding the overall approach can help you clarify what you are doing and lead you to new ideas.