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Touching Bass (Part 6)

Bass Playing & Programming

His name is Trask (Simon) - and he is funky. More hot tips on the bottom end for the keyboard-based musician, with a look at the styles and techniques of funk. You can’t get any lower.

It's time to get the funk outta your face and in the bass, as Simon Trask feels the rhythm in Part 6 of our series.

This month we're going to put aside the jazzy harmonic excursions of recent instalments, and focus instead on the rhythmic role of the bassline. Talk rhythm and of course you have to talk funk - and in particular Mr Superbaaad himself, James Brown. The string of classic funk vamps which he recorded in the late '60s/early '70s with the JBs laid solid foundations for a magnificent edifice of funk which still stands tall and proud to this day.

Tracks like 'Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing', 'Sex Machine' and, of course, 'Funky Drummer' not only provided the funk grooves which were later to fuel a thousand hip hop tracks, but have also stood the test of time in their own right, sounding as vibrant and fresh today as they did when first released.

The funk style which James Brown and his musicians evolved is based around interlocking riff-orientated rhythmic parts in the bass, drums, guitar, organ and horns, often played for extended periods on a single harmony and only shifting to a different chord for a contrasting middle or bridge section. Harmonies are often dominant in character ie. the chord includes notes a major 3rd and a minor 7th up from the root; the absence of resolution to the tonic chord a fifth lower (the traditional V-I cadence of Western music) translates as a feeling of tension or 'suspense' in the music. It could be said that these 'dominant harmonies' are in fact tonic harmonies in the Mixolydian mode, but we won't get into that here! (Good - Ed.) In contrast to last month's examples, then, this month's have no chord progressions for you to get to grips with. Instead, you can play a single dominant 7th, dominant 9th or - if you're feeling adventurous - dominant 7th sharpened 9th chord over each example!

Rhythm in funk music is based on 16th-note divisions of the beat and on syncopation (ie. the placing of rhythmic emphasis on 'offbeat' notes - in a 16th-note context, the 2nd and 4th 16ths in each quarter-note beat). You'll notice that all this month's examples are 16th note-based; if you're not used to counting, let alone feeling, in 16ths, select a 16th-note metronome beat on your sequencer, or record a steady stream of 16th notes using a 'metronomic' percussion sound, and play along to it for practice. Tempo for this month's examples, incidentally, should be in the range 96-120bpm.

These examples, then, are drawn stylistically, though not literally, from the JBs recordings of the period mentioned earlier - a period in which the bassists pumping out the lines were, variously, 'Sweet Charles' Sherrell, Fred Thomas, and future P-funker William 'Bootsy' Collins. The key to these lines is fluidity; there's a flowing quality to the basslines of this period which the syncopations only serve to enhance. On a general rhythmic point, syncopation across the third beat is a characteristic feature of this music, and not just in the bass part - the syncopated snare hits across the third beat are perhaps the single most important rhythmic feature of the famous 'Funky Drummer' rhythm.

Many of the examples, you'll notice, are in the form of one-bar riffs; you could simply repeat these riffs unchanged (the 'sample loop' approach), or you could do what the bassists of the time did, which was to vary them while adhering to an overall 'shape' or 'rhythmic concept'. Where I've given (a) and (b) examples, these can be looked on not so much as different basslines as variations on an idea. From these variations you should be able to get an idea of how a bassline can be subtly changed during the course of a track.

The same applies to the two-bar basslines - Examples 8(a), 8(b) and 8(c) perhaps most clearly illustrate this subtle approach. It is subtle changes (not only confined to the bassline) which give the original music its organic quality. However, straight repetition is also in the nature of this music, and there are instances where the bassline repeats unchanged almost throughout a track - 'Hot Pants' is a good example.

Of course, to be able to introduce variations in a spontaneous and musically responsive way requires familiarity with the musical style, and that really means immersing yourself in recordings of the period; check out the compilation albums In The Jungle Groove, Doing It To Death, James Brown's Funky People and James Brown's Funky People (Part 2) if you really want to get up, get into it and get involved!

Example 4(b) plays a different role to the other (b) examples, in that it's more of a middle-section contrast to 4(a). In this case the harmony shifts up a minor third from 4(a)'s G7 to Bb7. Incidentally, in all these examples you can tell what the root note of the harmony should be by looking at the first note of the (first) bar. The root isn't invariably stated on the first downbeat in JBs basslines, but the practice is common, because the other parts don't always make the root clear.

A few further words about the melodic/harmonic aspects of the basslines are in order. Essentially, these basslines 'describe' the (7th) harmony in linear fashion. The concepts of passing and chromatic passing notes, as employed for instance in Examples 1(a) and 1(b), should already be familiar to you from previous instalments of the series. Note also the use of octaves, typically with root notes; as well as introducing melodic variety, leaps up an octave can also serve to highlight syncopated notes (eg. in Example 4(a) and Example 8(a)). Finally, the high Eb in Example 9 is conceptually a sharpened 9th rather than a minor 3rd, with the intended harmony being dominant on C.

Have fun with the funk this month - and rest assured, we haven't finished with funky basslines yet, no sirree...

Some notational features used this month

An accidental between the bass clef and the time signature on the stave indicates the 'key signature' of the music. The key signature provides a 'shorthand' way of indicating that certain notes should always be played flat or sharp. In Examples 1(a) and 1(b), for instance, the key signature tells us that all F notes in the music are to be played as F#; if a specific F is to be played unsharpened, this would be indicated by placing a natural sign in front of it.

A dot underneath or above a notehead (as in Example 2) indicates that the note should be played staccato ie. 'clipped'. This is part and parcel of the desired rhythmic effect, and so shouldn't be ignored.

A curved line joining two successive notes of the same pitch indicates that the notes are to be "tied" ie. the first note should be held for the duration of both the first and second notes.


Read the next part in this series:
Touching Bass (Part 7)

Previous Article in this issue

Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music

Next article in this issue

Soundcraft Spirit Auto

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Jul 1993


Music Theory


Touching Bass

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 (Viewing) | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Feature by Simon Trask

Previous article in this issue:

> Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and ...

Next article in this issue:

> Soundcraft Spirit Auto

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