Kim Lajoie's blog

What it takes to write a killer bassline

by Kim Lajoie on January 17, 2011

Ever had trouble coming up with a bassline? Maybe you’ve got a beat going, or maybe you’re starting with a chord progression. Maybe you’ve already got the start of something going, but you’re not quite satisfied and you want to take it to the next level.

Generally speaking, there are three main aspects to laying down a bassline: choosing a sound, composing and performing. Ignoring any of these will make it very difficult to realise the potential of the music you’re working on.

  • Choosing a sound is important no matter what kind of music you’re working on. Whether you’re producing a teenage punk band’s first EP or composing an epic orchestral dance film soundtrack, you shouldn’t skip this step. Make this deliberate – take the time to think about the sonic character of the bass. Is it loud or subdued? Clean or dirty? Heavy or funky? P-bass or Stingray? Sawtooth or squarewave?
  • Composing the bassline is also something that need to be done deliberately. Don’t fall into the trap of settling for something simple just for the sake of it. Sometimes a simple bassline is the right choice, but not always. Don’t be lazy! Think about how rhythmically complex the part needs to be (how much syncopation, how much groove). Think about how melodically complex the part needs to be (how many notes, how consonant/dissonant). Every song has its own balance, its own sweet spot.
  • Performing the bassline is just as important as choosing a sound and composing the part. Pay attention here – whether you’re the performer or you’re directing someone else. The performance is the difference between ‘yeah’ and ‘meh’. If the song calls for electric bass, sometimes it’s worthwhile hiring a decent session player – especially if you need groove! Even if your bassline is sequenced (and meant to sound that way), there is performance in adjusting synthesis/effects parameters. Don’t just draw the changes with your mouse as automation – grab some knobs and perform it!

With practice and study, you’ll be able to rely on your experience and music theory knowledge to reliably and consistently come up with good basslines.

The experience part is being able to hear in your head the main features of the bassline – the timing and groove, and the harmony and melodic movement. It’s a skill in being able to say ‘oh, this song goes like *this*, it needs *this* kind of bassline’. It requires having a wide range of musical taste and knowledge, and being able to draw upon that in a musical context.

The music theory knowledge comes in when it’s time to choose the individual notes. It’s a skill in being able to work out what the harmony context of the song is (what the chords are, the scale/mode, the melodic language of the song, etc) and using that to know what notes will work well and best support the music.

-Kim.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *