Using bass lines in comping for solo or duo situations

Playing solo guitar, or accompanying a singer or melody player in a duo format, presents some challenges, choices, and extra responsibilities. When going it alone, guitarists (like our piano playing colleagues) are well equipped to play melody, harmony, and bass. This month’s column focuses on some effective ways we can use bass lines in our comping.

It helps to start with something that you already know, like a simple root-5th pattern with the bass notes on beats 1 and 3 for an example. Scale-based bass lines can begin to grow from the simple root-5th pattern. Here are some common scale-based lines that you’ve heard and probably played. In the second and third measures, the bass notes are taking up 3 out of 4 beats in the measure, with one strum falling on beat 2. We’ll see this pay off again later as the bass lines state the harmony without assistance from the chords.

To play a walking bass line, or all quarter notes, practice playing the lines separately before adding in chords. The following example is a familiar chord progression which I’ll call “Autumn Sleeves.” You’ll see the root at the point of each chord change. Also used are approach notes. These notes can very effectively fill the space between the 5th of one chord and the root of the next chord. If a chord lasts for more than one measure, we can even use our approach notes to connect chord tones.

Next comes adding the chord to the bass line. A little bit of chord goes a long way when playing this style of accompaniment. Just practice on a C chord to get into it. There is a bass note on each of the four beats. Start by just playing the chord on the “and” of beat 1 and then try adding a chord to the “and” of beat 3 as shown. My friend Charles Chapman calls this “the hiccup method.” Again, stay on C until you feel the groove, then move on to the next measure.

Now let’s put it all together with the same 8 bars of “Autumn Sleeves.”

There is a leap of faith involved when playing bass lines along with chords in an accompaniment role. When we allow ourselves to “let go,” grabbing and holding steadfastly onto the chord shape becomes less important than setting up a nice swinging groove with just enough chordal information to support the melody.

Jane Miller
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to lead- ing her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.

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