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Touching Bass (Part 3)

Bass playing & programming

Article from Music Technology, April 1993

Getting deep, deep down in Part 3 of Simon Trask's series on the bassline.

Part 3 of our series and Simon Trask blames it on the boogie and plays it on the bass...

Last month we looked at how you can create a bassline for a song by drawing on the notes which define each chord used. For instance, under a C major chord you would use the notes C, E and G, under a D minor chord the notes D, F and A - and so on. The closing example, a boogie woogie bassline, showed how a one-bar bass 'riff' could be extended across a 12-bar blues progression by means of repetition and transposition. In fact, the boogie woogie piano style provides a rich vein of such bass riffs, a vein which is well worth mining - so don your hard hats 'cos we're going to start digging.

Before we come on to this month's musical examples, it's worth taking a brief historical look at boogie woogie. Its origins can be traced back to the late 19th Century and the southern states of America, where it grew out of the blues as a specifically piano-based style. In fact, boogie woogie was primarily a solo piano medium, with the player's left hand providing the bassline while the right hand added chords, melodies, runs and so on.

It was only later, in the '30s and '40s, when the boogie woogie style crossed over into mass popularity (ie. popularity with the white masses), that it was incorporated into the repertoires of singers and big bands.

The first recorded use of the term 'boogie woogie' is credited to 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie', a composition by one of the giants of the genre, Clarence 'Pinetop' Smith, which he recorded on the Vocalion record label in 1928.

The term is thought to have originated as a description for dancing and parties. In fact, the musical style took shape in the barrelhouses and at the rent parties which were common at the time; these were, after all, the days when music was played live by a pianist rather than on record by a DJ!

Growing as it did out of the blues, boogie woogie adopted the characteristic 12-bar chord scheme of the blues, although the actual chord sequence used would vary - sometimes within a single piece of music. The variations were confined, however, to the second and tenth bars of the sequence as you can see from the following chord schemes:


Before we look in depth at this month's musical examples, a few points need to be made. First, all the examples are meant to be played using an acoustic piano sound, if not actually on an acoustic piano. Second, I've given only the first example in full 12-bar format - for subsequent examples I've provided the riff and left you to extend it into a 12-bar progression yourself (using one or more of the schemes given above).

The third point I'd like to make is that music notation can only give you the skeleton of the music - it's only in performance that flesh can be added to the bones and life breathed into the body! Consequently, there's really no substitute for listening to recordings of the genuine article. From these you can learn not only what the right hand should be doing while the left hand thunders out the bassline, but you can also learn about the subtleties of timing which give well-played boogie woogie its characteristic swing.

Unfortunately, on the printed page boogie woogie music can look rather four-square - something it most certainly shouldn't be in practice.

Fortunately, nowadays you can buy inexpensive CD compilations which bring together classic recordings by the old masters of boogie woogie piano, namely Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and the aforementioned 'Pinetop' Smith. While the recording quality might not be up to much by today's high standards, the musical quality of these players' performances comes across loud and clear. For a contemporary take on boogie woogie, look no further than the inimitable Jools Holland, whose spirited playing really brings the music to life once more - it's about time he recorded a solo piano album.

For the sake of simplicity, I've written all the musical examples in the key of C, but don't infer from this that boogie woogie should only be played in C! To keep you on your toes, some of the examples are to be played as notated while others (those with the figure of eight hanging from the bass clef) are to be played an octave lower than notated.

I haven't given specific or even guide tempos, because boogie woogie can be played at anything from a leisurely, chugging 120bpm up to a full-steam-ahead 200+bpm! The allusions to the world of steam trains are deliberate. Pianists used to travel the freight trains from timber camp to timber camp, playing for the workers at each camp in the barrelhouses which were set up on site. Boogie woogie pieces were often given train-related names, while the rhythms of the railroad track found their way into the rhythms of the music in the left-hand bass patterns. In fact, when trying to capture the rhythmic feel of boogie woogie it's worth thinking of a train either chugging or racing along, depending on the tempo you're playing at.

So let's look at the first of this month's basslines, Example 1. Those of you who followed last month's examples may recognise this as Example 6 with slight modification; the quaver rest within the second beat of each bar helps give more 'snap' to the bassline. As you can see, the riff in bar one is not only repeated throughout the 12-bar progression, but also transposed to fit the chord sequence. The only notes used are the first (root), third and fifth of each chord (eg. C, E and G for C major), plus of course the root an octave higher.

The dotted rhythm is a characteristic feature of the boogie woogie bassline style. You may have gathered from last month's musical examples that a dot next to a note extends its duration by a half - ie. a dotted quaver is three semiquavers in duration compared to two semiquavers for an undotted quaver.

Example 2 introduces another characteristic feature of boogie woogie basslines, namely the sixth of the chord (in C this is the note A - ie. a sixth up from the root note, C). On the rhythmic front, steady streams of quavers are also characteristic of boogie woogie. Where the dotted quaver/semiquaver rhythm gives the music a bouncy feel, steady quavers impart more of an insistent, chugging quality - wholly appropriate given the music's rhythmic inspiration.

To get to grips with a musical style you need to be able to identify its characteristic elements. Example 3 brings several of these elements together: the alternating fifth and sixth (the G and A), the dotted quaver rhythm, and the use of an insistent root note (the C). Played in the low octave indicated, this sort of bass figure, with the root reinforced on every note, gives the music its pounding, insistent feel.

Example 4 returns to the stream of quavers, and once again 'outlines' the basic chordal harmony while also adding the sixth (C, E, G and A for C major); the extra element here is the octave leap. Play this riff at a fast tempo and it positively bristles with energy. As well as introducing plenty of pitch movement into the bassline, the octave leaps also add a rhythmic element known as 'syncopation', by emphasising the quaver offbeat within each crotchet/quarter-note beat. The strength of this syncopation depends on how much you emphasise the upper note of each octave leap in your playing.

Boogie woogie bass riffs are generally one bar long. Example 5, however, gives a possible two-bar riff, effectively an extension of Example 4. You would need to use the second 12-bar chord scheme given earlier for this one, though if you wanted to go from G to F in bars nine and ten you could play only the first bar of the two-bar riff in each of these bars.

In Example 6 I've given three versions of a bass figure. At the heart of this riff is another characteristic element of boogie woogie, namely the minor third moving to the major third. Convention demands that the minor third in this context (moving straight to the major third) is notated as a sharpened second, but conceptually it's really a flattened third, or a 'blue' note. The hash-like symbol in front of the D is called a 'sharp' (#); when it's placed in front of a note, it indicates that the note should be raised in pitch by a semitone.

As the harmony in this example is considered to be C major, the D# represents something we haven't encountered up till now in this series, namely a note which is 'outside' of the harmony - but which, effectively, can be considered an 'embellishment' of it.

Finally for this month I've taken some of the stylistic elements of boogie woogie which we've discussed and come up with a 'new' boogie woogie bassline, presented in two versions - see Example 7. The second version is perhaps a bit over the top (or should that be 'under the bottom'?!) - but what the hell!

Why not try making up some basslines of your own, drawing on the characteristic elements of the boogie woogie style which we've covered? Try working with dominant seventh harmonies instead of straight triads (adding Bb to a C chord, Eb to an F, and F to a G). Who knows, in trying to recreate an 'old' style you may come up with something fresh and exciting which you can use in your own music.

And why not try mixing 'old-style' basslines with modern rhythms - they might just mesh and produce a whole new style! Yes, it can happen. I was listening to K-Creative's album Q.E.D. (see interview elsewhere in this issue) while trying out some boogie woogie basslines, and quite by chance I hit on a combination of bassline and rhythm which worked brilliantly (and no, I'm not going to say any more!).

Until next month, then, keep your profile low and your knowledge bassic!

Series - "Touching Bass"

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All parts in this series:

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

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

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Music Technology - Apr 1993


Music Theory


Touching Bass

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

Feature by Simon Trask

Previous article in this issue:

> Zoom 9120

Next article in this issue:

> Soundcraft Spirit Folio

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