Writing your own bass lines based on chord progressions. How do bassists do it? While there’s no magic mould, thankfully, there’s a fair number of guidelines you can use to come up with solid bass lines of your own. Experiment using the tips in this humble guide and chances are you’ll make great strides

A Bassist’s Guide to Writing Bass Lines

The Role of the Bass

Before diving into the practicalities of writing bass lines, it’s worth thinking about the role that the bass guitar has within a band. “I’m siding with French-Canadian bassist, Alain Caron’s vision”, says bass guitar teacher, Davy de Wit. “Caron sees the bassist as the head of the family and the foundation of the band. The bassist’s the one who marks out the basics, keeps everything together musically and makes sure that the other band members can thrive. Offering guidance in the form of rhythmic direction, bassists determine the groove both harmonically and melodically.” If you ask Davy, a well-written piece basically doesn’t need more than a bass line and a melody. “It’s about the synergy between the bass and the melody.” Davy thinks of music as a painting: “I see the melody as the main subject in the painting, where the bass line outlines the background to define what’s happening in the foreground. To me, chords are the different colours that help to further clarify the meaning of the piece. Brilliant works in black-and-white show that you don’t always need colour. What I’m trying to say is that whenever you’ve got a bass line and melody that work well together, what you have already has a right to exist based on those two components. Take the jazz-standard ‘All The Things You Are’ for example: when it comes to the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic responsibilities within a band, it’s mostly about the interaction between the bassist and its rhythm-focussed partner: the drummer. “I try to think of the bass and drums as a single instrument. The collaboration between both is just like marriage, where it’s about understanding and completing each other”, Davy says.

Locking In With The Drums

Let’s look at real life. How do you come up with a solid bass line for a song that already has a fixed chord progression? Sure, the rules are flexible and it’s pretty much ‘anything goes’, but you and the rest of the band might prefer to write something that actually makes you, and the crowd in particular, happy. Say you’re the bass player of a band that’s just finished writing a new song. The lyrics, melody and chord progression have been prepared and even the drummer already has a plan for their part. All you need now are the bass lines.

First, start by focusing on the rhythm. Find the right spots in each bar to drop your bass notes and figure out how long the notes should last. “For me, the drum part is the template I use to fill in the bass notes rhythmically”, Davy explains. “The goal is usually to ‘lock in’ with the drums, taking the bass drum as the rhythmic starting point. Here, locking refers to the way the bass and drums collide to kind of blend into a single instrument. If it has the right sound (attack), a bass guitar can replace or complement a kick drum.” For more on the latter, see the Complementary Rhythms segment below.

Rhythmic Padding

Remember that we’re not talking about note choices yet. We’re still looking at note placement and note duration here. To make any bass line more interesting, you can flesh out its core using fills. “Listen closely to the drum parts and the tiniest rhythmic unit in it”, Davy advises. “With the tiniest rhythmic unit, I’m referring to that part of the drum kit where any played notes are grouped together the closest. In most cases, it’s the hi-hat which, for me, serves sort of like the second hand of a clock but for the drums. The rhythm part and note length of the hi-hat are the starting point from which I flesh out the song to taste. Just how thick you should pad your bass lines further depends on your own style or the style of music.” Once you’ve found the right spot in each measure to play the bass notes, the next question is how long each note should last. “I personally focus on the length of any cymbal notes, including the hi-hats. Whenever the cymbal notes are short, for example in the case of closed hi-hats, I play short bass notes”, Davy says. “Whenever the notes are stretched using, say, open hi-hats or a ride cymbal, I often match the duration of my notes accordingly. This usually works really well as a rule of thumb, even if in the end things also depend on the rest of the band and your frame of style. Either way, locking in with the bass drum and matching the duration of your notes with the drummer’s cymbal work makes sure you’re never in the way of things, serving a bigger whole.”

Strong and Weak Beats

When deciding which notes to use, it’s important to keep in mind the concept of strong beats (count 1 and 3, downbeat) and weak beats (count 2 and 4, upbeat or backbeat). The stronger counts are usually reserved for important notes (chord notes), while the weaker counts are for fills, which we will dig into deeper later on in this article. “I’ve noticed that many bassists spread their fills across the bars randomly”, Davy says. “But it’d be better to add structure. If you’ve got groups of four bars, what often works really well is to limit yourself to the basic groove for the four beats of the first and third measure. Meanwhile, you can use the second and fourth measure to enrich the sound with fills. Here, the fourth measure lends itself to more variation, since it forms the transition to the next cycle. Adding fills to the measures this way will automatically give the piece a clear structure.” Regarding collaboration with the drummer in relation to fills, Davy hands out the following advice: “If you’re in a band, try to avoid playing your fills at the same time as the rest of the band. Instead, get everyone to listen to each other, complete each other and, most importantly, give each other some room. In other words, stop ‘talking’ at the same time and give any listeners something coherent to enjoy.”

Note Choices

Figured out when and for how long you’re going to play your notes? Good, that means it’s time to decide on the specifics. Before we go any further, remember the bit on strong and weak beats because these play a large part in picking the right notes. Also, since it’s by far the most popular option, we’re going with a quarter note beat (4/4, or common time) for the example that’s about to follow. We’ll also explain the guidelines for playing in time. These ‘rules’ cover the basics for all other styles.

Bass Lines in Twos

Playing bass lines in twos means dropping a note on the strong beats (count 1 and 3). On the first count, it’s common to play the root note of the eponymous chord so, in the case of an A7 chord (A – C# – E – G), play an A on the first count. On the third count, it’s normal to play only one of the notes in the chord. This can be the root note, though it’s usually the fifth (the E note in the A7 chord). Coming from the root note, the fifth is the least ‘exciting’ since, aside from the octave, the fifth is most closely related to the root note. Take the C-major chord (C-E-G) for example. Here, the G note is the fifth which is most commonly played on the third count. In a lot of styles, including country and folk, the bass line is often limited to the root note on the first count and the fifth on the third count. This is called alternate bass. Go ahead, give it a try and chances are you’ll recognise the sound immediately. Thirds and sevenths, if any sevenths are part of the chord that is, can also be used for alternating bass lines. In terms of tension build-up, the order in relation to the root note is fifth > third > seventh, and it’s important to bear in mind that your decisions will always be influenced by the chord that follows next and the best way to usher it in. Since we’re now getting into chords, it’s probably worth mentioning that in order to come up with great bass lines, you need to know a thing or two about chords. At the least, you should know all major, minor, dominant seventh and minor seventh chords in all popular keys (C, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb), or at least be able to work out how each chord is formed. If you know little to nothing about chords, we recommend that you check out our Chord Theory blog first.

Bass Lines in Fours

Playing a bass line in fours is called a walking bass, which is basically nothing more than a fleshed out bass line played in twos.

  1. The easiest way to beef up a bass line played in twos is through repetition (e.g. 1-1-5-5 = 2x root note, 2x 5th). While this should work just fine in most styles, you could just fill out the second and fourth count using:
  2. The other chord notes.
  3. The non-chord notes (the 2nd, 4th and 6th note from the scale in the form of delays or transit notes (see next section).
  4. The lead notes (see next section).

Delay and Transition Notes

Delayed notes are non-chord notes from the scale which sit a whole or half a step away from the chord notes. Take the chord Cmaj7 for example. The scale notes are C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C, the chord notes are C – E – G – B (1-3-5-7) and the delays are 2, 4 and 6 (D – F – A). Imagine playing this bass line over Cmaj7: / C F E D / C. Here, the F note is a delay played before the E while the D is the delay played before the C. The D sits between E and C in the scale and serves as a so-called transition note. A transition note links two chord notes and is basically nothing but a delayed note in a ‘transitional motion’.

Leading Notes

Leading notes are notes that sit half a step below (lower-leading note) or above notes (upper-leading note), which means they aren’t necessarily part of the scale. For example, the C note comes with a B as the lower-leading note and a D-flat as the upper-leading note. Since the leading note is so close to the target note in pitch, the leading note has that extra tension and a bigger urge to ‘resolve’. All it wants is to get to that target note and you can actually hear the tension in the sound, resulting in the introduction to a new chord. A lead note can also be a delay at the same time (see above). Here’s an example of a bass line with leading notes based on the C major chord: | C F E B | C. Here, the F functions as both a delay before the E and as a lower-leading note for the C. The B, meanwhile, serves as the upper-lead note for the C. This example can also be reversed or combined: | C D# E Db | C The D# is the lower-leading note for the E, the D-flat is the upper-leading note for the C.


Here are some examples of combinations across Am7 to D7. Say you have two bars: the first bar is an Am7 (A-C-E-G), the second bar is a D7 (D-F#-A-C). Here’s one way to ‘walk’ from the Am7 to the D7 in the first measure:

| A B C C# | D

On beat 1: Play an A (1, root)
On beat 2: Play a B (transition note)
On beat 3: Play a C (chord note)
On beat 4: Play a C-sharp (lower-leading note for the D)

Alternatively, you could go for:

| A F E Eb | D

On beat 1: A (1, root)
On beat 2: F (delay)
On beat 3: E (chord note, more specifically the fifth)
On beat 4: E-flat (upper-leading note for the d)

Order of Choosing

Now it’s time to decide on the most convenient order of steps you need to take to figure out your bass notes. Davy: ”When I construct my bass lines, I determine the note material the following way: first beat 1, then beat 3, then fill up from there with beat 2, then count 1 of the next measure and fill from there with beat 4. So: 1-3-2-1-4. It’s the chunkier measures before the padding for the light measures. You can only pad things out properly after you have determined where you’re going.” Davy continues: ”Also, try to choose (anticipate) the note material you use to fill up beats 2 and 4. With a new chord in the next bar, you need to prepare the listener for that transition since, as mentioned earlier, bassists have a guiding function to give the listener clarity as to which harmonic direction the piece takes. From here on out, there are countless options. Ultimately, it’s important not to let the knowledge, but your musicality determine your choices.”

Time to Experiment

If your head hasn’t exploded yet, you now know the basics when it comes to creating bass lines that work, so: experiment with what we’ve explained here and listen to the bass lines in the songs of the style you’re playing. Once you’ve found the notes, try to understand how that bass line relates to the chord of the measure and the chord of the next measure. Then, try to figure out how it all relates to the principles explained here. ”Many bass players will be fine never knowing exactly which notes they play and how chords are constructed,” says Davy de Wit. ”On the other hand, I keep hearing the same, often copied lines from so many blues bassists. If you know more about keys, chords and you understand how bass lines are put together and how they work, then your options as a bassist expand greatly. Discover your own preferences and develop your own style as you go and it’ll only become more exciting.

Good to know

Complementary Rhythm

In the article, it’s explained that bass notes often coincide with bass drums (locking). Sometimes, the choice is made to supplement the bass drum in one part with a bass note in another. This is called a complementary rhythm, a concept that can be heard in Costa della Vita by Tina Turner and Eros Ramazzotti. In the piece, the bass note follows one sixteenth after the bass drum. Funny by jazz bassist Marcus Miller does the opposite since, here, the bass note is played just before the bass drum. One rule for complementary playing is super tight timing and preferably a sound that corresponds in terms of attack and sound to the sound of the bass drum. Since it’s impossible to hide behind the fat sound of the kick drum, any timing mistakes will be more obvious.

Try to Leave Out Counts or Bars

“Don’t be afraid to skip a count or even a full measure”, Davy advises. “By leaving stuff out, listeners will start longing for that groove again. People tend to appreciate things more when you take something away before waiting a little while to give it back again.”


Try to create contrasts within your bass lines by striking the right balance between high, low, short and long notes. Needless to say, highs can be offset with lows, and short sounds can be alternated with more stretched out notes or vice versa. Whatever you do, ensure a flowing, logical whole.

See Also

» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols
» The Fretless Bass: The Pros & Cons
» 4 or 5-String Bass: How Much is Just Enough?
» Precision Bass vs Jazz Bass: which model is right for you?

» Electric Bass Guitars
» Acoustic Bass Guitars
» Double Basses
» Bass Guitar Books
» All Bass Guitars and Accessories

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply