The Space Between: A Bassist’s Guide to Note Length

How resisting the urge to move on too quickly can help you lock into the groove.


Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to leave space for the drummer’s snare.
• Understand how different note lengths affect the groove.
• Develop a simpler and more musically sound approach to bass lines.


Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Earlier this year, I attacked my garage to clean out the clutter that had accumulated over the last few years. That got me thinking about my bass playing—and that I’d rather be playing bass than cleaning up!

Through the years, I’ve consciously cleaned up my bass playing by paying close attention to note length, note choice, and tone. These three factors can dramatically alter a groove, and the goal is to use them effectively to achieve a feel that will have everyone singing your praises.

When I first moved to L.A. and started my recording career, I got an education on note length and choice and how much it can affect a song’s groove. Several producers I worked with were very specific about how long I should hold out a note and where I should play it on the bass to maximize a song’s feel. I realized how much each note factors into allowing a song to groove to its full potential.

To illustrate how much of a difference a note’s duration can have on a groove, I’ll play most of these examples two ways to contrast the difference in feel. In this lesson, I’ll demonstrate a few of my go-to methods for maximizing groove in a song.

In Ex. 1, I play a bass line with sustaining notes that create space on beats 2 and 4. Another way to tighten up the groove is to cut off the notes on beats 2 and 4 (Ex. 2). This allows the snare to be heard in all its glory. It’s especially nice if the snare is fat and gushy. This works very well in verses and allows you to build throughout the song by holding the notes longer as the music unfolds.

Click here for Ex. 1

Click here for Ex. 2

Next, we’ll work on a variation of the muting theme. The idea is to rest on beat 2 but fill up beat 4 with some longer notes and fills. This is a great starting place to support a soloist if you’re playing some New Orleans-style funk (think the Meters). In Ex. 3, I held some notes a bit too long to provide a basis of comparison, then in Ex. 4, I shortened the length of the notes on beat 2 and added some fills. See how different that sounds? Again, you can lengthen the notes as the soloist builds and becomes more dynamic. Guitar players usually love this.

Click here for Ex. 3

Click here for Ex. 4

If the song has a steady eighth-note pulse, you can still make it groove by playing the notes on the downbeat shorter than the notes on the upbeat. Ex. 5 is an essential groove to have under your fingers, and it can swing like a mofo if you want it to! Once again, you can lengthen the notes as the song moves along. This gives you somewhere to go dynamically. First, here’s the sound of even eighth-notes.

Click here for Ex. 5

Now, I’ll demonstrate mixing up the lengths of the eighth-notes (Ex. 6).

Click here for Ex. 6

The next two examples focus on note choice and tone. Note choice is both what pitch you play and where you choose to play it on the fretboard, which will affect the tone greatly. In Ex. 7, I’m playing on a simple two-measure chord progression.

On beat 3 of the first measure, I’m playing a B (the 3 of G7) to give the song a little lift and outline the chord quality. I’m playing it high up the neck, on the 14th fret of the 3rd string, which gives it a rich and supportive sound so the groove still feels fat. If I played B on the 2nd string it would sound thin, which is not what I’m going for here. Also, if I played it down an octave it wouldn’t provide the lift, and would sound a bit muddy to me. This is all about individual taste, but I prefer the tone of the lower strings and play them as often as I can.

Click here for Ex. 7

This last example (Ex. 8) is all about the beauty of simply holding down the bottom with some juicy root notes. Not every song wants to be injected with the funk, so here I’m playing whole notes (almost) on the root, and to create a little motion I’m alternating the octave on each measure. This keeps things from sounding too stale. Try it out when you have a few measures of the same chord. Again, rather than playing the higher notes on thinner strings in lower positions, I reach them by sliding up on the bottom strings. This gives the notes a fatter sound.

Click here for Ex. 8

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