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The Untold Secret

to Melodic Bass


I. Anchors, Pivots and Lead-Ins

The Rules
Internal Dynamics
Rhythmic Overlays
Harmonic Dynamics
Anchor examples
Oppostion and the beginnings of melody
Where do we get our pivots?
Roots and fifths
Lead-In Examples
Embellishment of Fixed Bass Lines
Anchors, Pivots and Lead-Ins in Static Harmony

II. Internal Dynamics

The Substrate of Swing

Rhythmic Overlays
Nursery Rhymes
Shave and a Haircut
Triplet Arrays
Second Line (and Clave)
Harmonic Dynamics
In Conclusion
About the book and the author

I. Anchors, Pivots and Lead-Ins

The secret to confidence in playing the bassor in anything, for that matteris
knowing what youre doing. When youre playing the bass, having knowledge of the
harmonythe chord changesis not only vital, its inescapable. You have to know the
chord changes. This book assumes that you know the changes, or have developed the
ability to figure them out quickly. Learning chord changesand tunesis a great
subject, worthy of a whole other book, but this book is about what to play on them; how
to create bass lines, melodies, or patterns in any style. Well learn how to think like a
composer of bass lines; how to plan ahead, and make choices that are appropriate to the
style of the song.
Most music well play has an underlying structurea formwhether its a 12bar Blues, a 32-bar standard in AABA form (or 16&16), or whatever else it might be,
depending on what the composer wrote. Within that form, the harmony progresses with
its harmonic rhythm, meaning that the chords happen at certain times every time we
play through the form of the song. The underlying rhythm is very important to the choices
that we make as well; the rhythmic environment determines the style, whether its
swing, 2-beat, cha-cha, bossa, samba, merengue, waltz, shuffle, or any of countless
variants that fall under the heading of contemporary, whether its rock, funk, hip-hop,
house, new age, alternative, or whatever else.
So, what notes do we play? How do we make interesting, melodic lines, enhance the
music, yet at the same time follow the ruleswhich basically means play for the
music, make what we play fit the music and serve the music and our fellow players
and still be able to make a statement, put our stamp on the music? How can we assert
a musical identity, be creative, and yet take care of business at the same time?
By using the hidden power of the structure of harmony and rhythm!
The root of the chord is the strongest sound we can make on the bass, and essential
to our role; the notes of the chords contain a property that we could describe as
harmonic magnetism. We are going to explore these magnetic points with a primary
focus on anchors and pivots. Once we cover these points of responsibility, we are
free to create and embellish, using lead-ins. As we develop these melodies, they can
be enhanced further by the incorporation of dynamics; volume rises and falls with the
rise and fall of tension and release.


The bass is primarily responsible to provide anchor notes at certain points in the
music. Simply put: we are generally responsible to play a root in a low register when a
harmony first occurs; doing so underscores to the band this is the chord! If we cover
the basic areas of our responsibility as bass playerswhich involve showing up at
definable points in the music with the right informationthen we have considerable
freedom in how we get to the next signpost or anchor point.
A pivot is similar to an anchor in that it communicates fundamental harmony at an
expected time; however, it is most often not the root of the chord, and not at the
beginning of the harmonic instance; the most common pivot is the fifth of the chordbut
it can be any chord tone, depending on taste and circumstances; and its most common
location in the rhythm is on the 3rd beat, assuming 4/4or, rather, halfway through the
bar. There are many popular songs built around a specific bass line; in these songs, the
pivot contained in the fixed line is part of the bassists responsibility, but development
can still occur within these kinds of frameworks. We will explore this as the book
Lead-Ins are the connecting materialthese are the bassists creative opportunity.
Once the bassist has delivered an anchor, he can employ lead-ins of a wide variety to
approach the next benchmarkthe pivotand then transition from the pivot to the next
anchor. Lead-ins come in all shapes and sizes, rhythmic and melodic configurations, and
they are the bassists playgound.
The Rules
As is the case in every set of rules, rules are made to be broken. It is not always the
case that the bass has to play an anchor on the first beat of every chord change. As
development progresses, anchors and pivots can be rhythmically displaced. Sometimes,
in walking bass lines, the distances between anchors can increase; lead-ins can occur on
strong rhythmic beats, pivots can be used as anchors, and lead-ins can be extended. We
will talk about all of these options as the book progresses.
Internal Dynamics

We are also going to cover the subject of internal rhythmic dynamics, which we
would define as dynamic variation within a particular musical phrase. Tension and
release is as important in rhythm as it is in melody, and the foundation of rhythmic music
of all kinds is accents, where they fall, and how much emphasis they get. Bassists need
to know something about the traditions that exist here, which seem to have been largely
overlooked in written pedagogy, but have been transmitted orally since the first strike of
a drum.
Rhythmic Overlays
Rhythmic Overlays are defined patterns of accents superimposed on the rhythmic
substrate, derived from numeric patterns or other material such as the rhythm of lyrics.
In the section on overlays, below, we will discuss some ot the sources for these
Harmonic Dynamics
This is a term we havent seen before in our musical studies; it shows up in
biophysics and chemistry referring to something else entirely, but this term will be used
to describe relationships between musical harmonic events such as cadences (and their
resolution) and the volume level or intensity with which they are played. We can define
harmonic dynamics as changes of volume and intensity suggested by the progression
of the chords through tension and resolution.


Anchor examples
As previously stated, an anchor is a root in a low register that either introduces or
confirms the current chord. Here is are some examples of anchors in action:
(For the purpose of this chapter, we will use only the first four bars of a C major

Although these are all quite different, they all consist only of anchors. They are
serviceable, and even appropriate under certain circumstances. Yet more variation can
be achieved by the use of internal dynamics:

Lets look at these same examples with different accent overlays. What does it do to
the feel?

Well discuss the stylistic implications of these different accent patterns later in the

book, and also go into the multiple layers of accenting. We have found that there are
primary, secondary, tertiary (and so on) accent layers, which we will also discuss
later in the book; a look at the examples above will give a hint as to how these work.
The use of accents is an essential parameter in establishing feel, or style. Accents are
dynamics. For our purposes, we can define internal dynamics as changes of volume
and intensity within a phrase or bar through the use of accents. We might think of
dynamics in general as referring to all changes of volume and intensity in
performance, including accents, crescendos, diminuendos, sforzandos, et cetera.
We could say many things about these examples above, but one thing we could NOT
call them is melodic.
Striving for melody
Were going to be using the term melodic often throughout this book lets stop a
minute and define it. For our purposes, melodic means: an attribute of a series of
notes containing both harmonic and non-harmonic tones creating tension and release
against the underlying harmony.
Websters says: 1: a sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds:
tunefulness 2: a rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole
I like our definition better.
So, why would these examples above not be thought of as melodic?
They contain no opposition to the fundamental harmony. They are all simply a
statement of the root of the chord, the most fundamental sound we can generate.
Oppostion and the beginnings of melody
One of the hallmarks of swing, or rhythmic music in general, is an attribute (to
paraphrase Steven Colbert) that we can call back-and-forth-iness. This, then that,
Yin, then yang, See, then saw you get the idea. Swing. Rocking back and forth.
The sense of motion in music. This brings us to the idea of the pivot.


Where do we get our pivots?

The overtone series is a good place to start our search.
The structure of music roughly emulates the overtone series; big intervals on the

bottom, chords in the middle, scales on top. The overtone series is derived by
subdividing a string, or vibrating air column, by its series of rationic fractions. As it
vibrates in whole, a string simultaneously vibrates also in half, thirds, fourths, fifths, et
cetera, all the way up to infinity in theory, although in actuality the series is constrained
by the limitations of the materials. It is interesting to observe that these notes, when
played, are referred to as harmonics. Another interesting thing about this is structure
of the resulting intervallic array, and the notes produced. The notes are: one octave up,
an octave and a fifth, the root two octaves up, a third, the fifth again, then a note
somewhere between the sixth and seventh, then the root again, then on into the scale:

I have found that this series is an excellent guide for judging the appropriateness (or
the safety) of other note choices for a bass playerparticularly for the pivot, which
we can define as the primary oppositional note to the root. The first stop out on the
overtone series after the octave, which can also act as a pivotis the fifth.
Roots and fifths
Bass players have put their kids through college playing roots and fifths. The fifth is
the most common pivot (although there can be others). Its a harmonic tone, but in the
realm of the bass, its less harmonic than the root, and can be used to oppose the root
in the creation of bass parts; to go back and forth to, creating a pivot.

What can we observe about this example? What is going on rhythmically? Were
looking at the most common, default bass part known to manthe basic two-beat bass
line yet theres more to it than meets the eye. Where does the pivot fall? In this
example, its on the third beat. This is the most common location for a pivot, whether
its the fifth of the chord or not, especially in the context of a two feel; its halfway to
the next anchor. We could describe the third beat as a rhythmic pivot.
In the following example, you can see a larger accent on the third beat of the fourth
bar. This is an example of accent layering; there are accents in the previous three bars
on the third beat, but there is a larger accent in the fourth bar, indicating the end of a
phrase. Not all accents are created equal we need to incorporate accents as a matter
of course to add dynamic interest to a groove; its an integral part of the creation of
feel. However, there are larger units of phrasing occurring as we go, and using a

greater degree of emphasis to indicate these larger units adds depth and dimension to the
development, and brings a larger sense of form and shape to the performance.
Awareness of the power of dynamic development using accent layers is a potent tool in
the bassists arsenal of ideas.
We will explore different accent schemes later in the book; there are no hard-andfast rules as to the beats on which they should occur. The accent schemes as they are
depicted here are useful, and acceptable as a starting point; but, the message from this
should be simply to use them, experiment with them, and become aware of their
communicative power.
This is an example of a four-beat (walking) line consisting entirely of roots and

Heres another line with the pivot falling on different beats and registers, another
way to create variety and interest while using only roots and fifths. Some great bass
players use these kinds of lines as the primary elements of their style. Given the fact that
these lines contain the anchors, and opposition to the anchors as represented by the
pivots, they can be described as melodic, in a very basic sense.

What happens now if we drop the pivot down in register?

This is an interesting effect! I was instructed by the Brazilian percussionist and

teacher Van der Lei Periera that playing the fifth below the root was essential to the
style of the bossa nova; theres an underlying lope created by the recurrent accents on
the pivots. Before we go on, try that same exercise, but put the pivot up an octave. Is the
effect stronger or weaker?
A low note on a strong beat is an accent, by default; the lower the note, the stronger
the accent, within limits; notes below a certain point lose their punch. (The notes
available on the bass are within the range that produces the effect.) A pivot in a low
register has a stronger oppositional effect than the fifth above the root. Strength in

opposition is good, musically speaking, because it increases contrast, and that is usually
desirable. Stressing opposition notes or harmonies is a standard interpretive technique,
taught widely in classical pedagogy, and one of the primary building blocks of dynamic
Here are pivots that are not the fifth:

This next area is exciting; as we said earlier, its the bassists playground; a
creative opportunity, and also a hallmark of style. For our purposes, we can define
lead-ins as melodic material used to approach, set up or embellish anchors and/or
pivots. Lead-ins can consist of either harmonic (chord) or non-harmonic tones; they can
be derived from scalesdiatonic, pentatonic, chromaticor intervallic patterns. Their
content is less important than their resolution. Between an anchor and a pivot, or an
anchor and the next anchor, theres a whole lot of leeway as far as choice of notes is
concerned. Lead-ins can approach the target from above or below, or both. Once the
bass has established the fundamental of the chord, the remainder of the chords duration
is about style and direction. In walking jazz bass, lead-ins are generally used to
establish a sense of forward motion, to give the line some logic and enhance the
unfolding of the harmony by setting up an expectation as to what the next chord might be.
In other styles, lead-ins are used to ornament and embellish static harmony by providing
a sense of motion within each particular pattern.
Given the unlimited possibilities opened up by this conceptual approach, we are not
going to attempt to cover all the possibilities with the following examples, but only
provide examples sufficient to illustrate the general ideas put forth.
Lead-In Examples
This example consists of anchor, lead-in, pivot, lead-in
Note: from this point, examples are annotated as follows:
a = anchor

l-i= lead-in
p = pivot
ct = chord tone
Notice the chromatic lead-ins in bars 3 and 4:

Here we return to the lead-in and then skip back to the anchor:

Here we are omitting the pivots and playing lead-ins for the rest of the bar:

Here were using chord tones for the lead-ins. Notice that weve annotated each
inverted arpeggio as a lead-in unit, even though each of these happens to contain the
pivot on the third beat. Arpeggios are a musical idea with such familiarity and integrity
to the ear that they tend to be perceived as integral units.

Heres a line using pentatonic lead-ins. These are also immediately recognizable
musical chunks and can be thought of as such. In our experience, weve found triads
and pentatonics to be extremely reliable resources for note choice; you might hear the
familiarity of these lines as you play them. Theyve been used by thousands of players
for a long time because they work!:

Here are some chromatic lead-ins to the pivots and anchors (here the pivot, rather
than being on the third beat, is on one of the second bar:

Here is a line using various lead-ins and pivots. Notice that some anchors are

delayed; and there are examples of lead-ins that consist of neighbor tones on either side
of (above and below) the target note. There is also an instance where the anchor is
delayed until later in the bar:

Embellishment of Fixed Bass Lines

After I passed the audition for Horace Silvers band, others who had played on the
band previously warned me that Horace wrote all these fixed bass lines, and you had to
play them without variation. This proved not to be entirely accurate; I can credit my
experience with Horace for some of my insight as to what makes a bass line work.
Horace wrote bass lines with a particular structure, but if the anchors and pivots were
covered as predetermined by his fixed line, there was considerable room for variations
in the lead-ins. Horaces instinct, what he wanted and expected to hearhis tolerance
for variationwas very instructive to me.
Heres the fixed line for Song For My Father: (next page)

Here is a nonpermissable variation can you tell why this would make Horace uncomfortable? How
many things do you think might be wrong with these 4 bars?

Heres an example
of a line he might tolerate:

What was present in

Ex. 30 that was also present in the original line?
There were some lines he wrote that were specific extended melodies, and it was
suggested to me by the drummer Harold White that it would help to make up a phrase to
recite in my head (or sotto voce) that fit the melody, and make a chant out of it. This
worked quite well, and it was really powerful to experience the performance of a piece
as a form of prayer or meditation.

Anchors, Pivots and Lead-Ins in Static Harmony

What if we have 8 bars or more of a particular chord? Or maybe even a whole
song? My weakness at this particular task was gently pointed out by Horace when he
turned and threw me a solo on his tune Sister Sadie and said, Walk! I hadnt a clue,
at the time (1978). I had to learn how to make melodiesand not just a few melodies,
but really how to compose a melody on the fly, in order to be successful in this.

Here are some examples of ornamentation on a static chord:

What are some of the melodic devices we employed? How did we create a backand-forth sense within the static harmony? Were all lead-ins stepwise? Were there other
chords suggested by the shape of the linediatonic neighbors, perhaps? Pentatonics?
A very good exercise is to play as long as we can stand on just one chord, and
create structures based on the underlying harmony, set up expectations, play sequences,
create tension and resolutionin short, compose.
Here is a brief example of development of anchors and pivots using various melodic
lead-ins in a sixteenth-note environment. Notice the placement of the main accentits
on the one. James Brown stated in an interview on PBS some years ago, that with
regard to his style of music, its all about the ONE! Here the line gets a real feel to it
as the lead-ins are slightly underplayed and the anchors and pivots are accented. Try
exaggerating the amount of accent and see what happens to the feel:

Internal Dynamics
Internal Dynamics is an area that seems to be largely ignored in the teaching of Jazz,
while at the same time is one of the most essential components of swing. Accents and
phrasing are essential; music that is played without this awareness is flat and
monotonous, and people who are playing without employing knowledge of these tools
are usually destructive to the music.
There is a pedagogy called Eurythmics pioneered by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, which
was taken up by the composer Carl Orff, and is now sporadically present in the
American music education system largely through the efforts of the American OrffSchulwerk Association (AOSA). Their method offers positive, integrative musical
experiences to children through the use of rhythm and song in ensembles. These methods
expose the student to the fun of music-making, largely through the use of rhythm and
dynamics, enabling students to get the feeling of music through the motion it takes to
make it; swing is about motion.
There is a lot of misinformation, confusion, and toxic pedagogy with regard to
swing, accents, phrasing, and how they work together. Two of the most abused and
misunderstood concepts are laying back and back-phrasing, and we will touch on
these as we go along. Swing depends on a constant underlying pulse, and tension and
release against the underlying pulse (pulling against the tempo) is a parameter available
to the performer; however, there is vast opportunity to create tension and release within
the pulsewithout violating the tempo streamthat is much more powerful and
effective. The problem comes when performers do the former without an understanding
of the latter. The underlying substrate of swing is triplets, and there are many things that
can be done, many traditions of development with triplets; different groupings, accent
patterns, overlays, and offsets of the triplet stream.
The greatest horn players Ive heard can lock in a rhythm section with a few
notes; Clark Terry and Houston Person come immediately to mind, although there are
many greatsMiles, Wayne, Trane, Freddie, Wynton, Frank Sinatra, etc. etc.; who put
the rhythm is where it is supposed to be; right with the rhythm section (or, sometimes,
where they intend the rhythm section to be playing it!). Their playing sounds free and
laid back because of their ability to recompose the rhythm with the use of devices
such as eighth note triplets offset by a triplet eighth note, or a series of quarter notes
with a similar offset, or many other possible rhythmic devices.:

Upon trying to write an example of what NOT to dodrag the tempo, or backphrase so far that the relationship between melody and harmony is brokenI found that
as soon as it was written, it looks like actual music. Its difficult to make nice
engraving look like something that sounds bad although, many nice engravings do
indeed sound bad.
There are rich traditions in rhythm that have been passed down orally; musicians
with ears or talent seem to soak some of these principles up by osmosis. Playing
rhythmically and using dynamic contrast can be great fun for the player, and rhythmic
expressiveness is a hallmark of dynamic performance that should be a point of strong
The Substrate of Swing
There is an underlying structure to swing:

There are traditional accent locations in the substrate, as you can see above.
Whenever there is an accent, there is an increased investment of energy in the
playing of it. For natural contrast, accents are usually followed by un-accented material,
requiring a different touch and investment of energy. There is some recovery time
required; the player needs to restrain himself and let go following the creation of the
accent; this contrast between the investment of energy and the subsequent letting go
creates feel, and transmits very directly into the listener.
There can be different layers of accents occurring at the same time. As you can see
in the example above, the last eighth note of each triplet gets an accent, while
simultaneously there is a larger accent on 2 and slightly less on 4, with a big accent on 3
of the fourth bar this is not a rigid prescription, but only a suggestion for an
interpretation of style, but when compared to a featureless un-accented recitation of the
same rhythms, it has a much greater sense of swing. It has feel, and character, and

sounds great! It breathes, and has life. It is a good idea to use various overlays to vary
the accent scheme; the examples thus far have all incorporated the accent scheme just
described; at times, though, accenting all notes, or un-accenting all notes, for some
period, produces an interesting effect. Also, reversing where the primary accents fall
making 4 the bigger accent, for exampleis a good change of pace. The objective is to
become aware of the power of accents, and to be able to use them intentionally to create
a desired effect.
Every jazz drummer has a characteristic and individual ride beat (although there
are some who have the capacity to vary their beat according to the style). The
characteristic feel comes from:
1. Which notes are accented? Some accent all the downbeats; some accent two and
four; some accent the triplet upbeats; this parameter is also a factor in the style of a
particular period.
2. Whether the accent pattern is regular or varied; some play the exact same feel all
the time; some styles depend on a certain array of accents, but the better drummers know
how to break it up and create phrasing with the construction of their ride beat, in any
3. How hard the accent is hit
4. How quick is the recovery time? How close is the triplet upbeat to the following
These are all factors that come together in an individual and create an individual
style. The greatest musicians are aware of all these parameters and are able to come up
with an appropriate feel for a particular band. Everybody in the band needs to have
some awareness of these parameters; when a band is not playing together, it is usually
from inflexibility, lack of awareness, or disagreements on this issue. Some drummers
believeor have been taughtthat they are the time-keeper, and will not
accommodate any other feel. Some people learn a particular style, and are not aware
how that style may be related to others, or what the elements of the style of those around
them might be. The ability to accommodate differences in style (and inflexible and
didactic drummers!) is vital indeed for a bass player.
There are also horn players and singers who have not learned the fundamentals of
rhythm, and are not aware of their responsibility to become one with the rhythm section.
Although they might believe they are making a powerful statement, or getting a lot of
feeling, if they are abusing the tempo stream, they are making the audienceand the
rhythm sections skin crawl. Back-phrasing must NOT be another word for dragging
the tempo! Back-phrasing should be: the active re-composition of the melody by
affirmatively performing alternative rhythms within the rhythmic stream.
The much-touted practice of laying back is another minefield of misunderstanding.
Count Basies Band had a distinctive sound, a very powerful swing, and many
described their rhythmic style as laying back, and there have been millions of attempts

to emulate the feel. The common, toxic misconception is that the feel of the band is
created by laying back on the offbeats; this interpretation of laying back is
pervasive and leads many brass and sax sections to drag the tempo; if this is what
laying back is taken to mean, it should stop immediately! Dragging the tempo does
NOT create swing!! Its only a sign of rhythmic ignorance; sometimes its mob
ignorance when a whole band is following an ignorant lead trumpet player.
In actuality, a close listen and careful analysis of the Basie style will show that the
offbeats are accented, and early creating a feel of settling on the downbeats. Those
who would lay back should investigate this conceptthe offbeats are early to allow
recovery time from the energy invested in the accentand then the band sits on the
downbeats or, more accurately, the downbeats are where they occur in the stream
on time.
There is one particular figure Ive heard Basies Band play many times; and they
have a unique way of interpreting the figure. The figure is the last 3 eighth notes of the

Ex. 36 above is how Ive heard them play it; its an evolved consensus, an oral
tradition in the band that this is how the figure is played.
This is an example of back-phrasing by actively re-composing the rhythmand
also an example of the oral transmission of culture; never mind what the paper says; this
is how we play that figure. I havent heard the band lately; I dont know if this is still in
practice, but this is what they were doing in the early 80s when I had the chance to play
with the band while working with Tony Bennett.
There is another way to look at and define laying back, which would involve
placing the accented offbeats closer to the following downbeat, necessitating a faster
recovery time. Yes, we can do anything we want, interpretively; but does it swing?
There is a distinctive effect created by delaying the offbeats, but the resulting feel has
more tension in it because of the sheer energy required for the fast recovery time to the
next downbeat. Too often, horn players or singers use this effect without regard for the
burden it places upon those living on the downbeats, namely the rhythm section. The
masters of this effect will exemplify the feel of the groove (Groove: the ongoing
feel of the time as created by the use of internal dynamics, phrasing, timing, and the
relationship between anchors and pivots in the bass) by incorporating downbeats into
their phrasing as well, thereby illustrating the feel of the groove theyre trying to create.
Too often, those laying back do so without an apparent regard for the groove as a
whole and without providing references in their phrasing to the following downbeats.
Rhythmic Overlays

One way of developing rhythm is through the use of overlays on the substrate.
Overlays can come from the rhythm of the songs lyric, or some other song or nursery
rhyme, or some grouping pattern such as hemiolas, triplet arrays of different sorts, or
through traditional rhythms like the second line rhythm (hand jive), or the various
forms of Clave. For our purposes, were going to avoid enumerating all of the
rhythmic patterns and traditions that exist from around the world; we are going to focus
on some devices used in Jazz.
Nursery Rhymes
One interesting source of phrasing input is the rhythmic schemes found in nursery
rhymes or childrens songs. An effective way to employ this technique is to sing the
song in our head as were playing, and use it as the source for our accents and phrasing.
Notice the different size accent marks in the following examples. This illustrates the
concept of accent layers that we mentioned earlier in the book; these different levels of
accenting serve to highlight the phrasing implied by the song rhythm overlays.
Here are a few examples that were shared with me by Harold White, Horace
Silvers drummer when I was on the band back in 1978:
Shortnin Bread

And here, the accent scheme applied to other notes:




phrase ties off on the 3rd beat of the 4th bar.

Using these kinds of schemes to provide an undercurrent of structure accomplishes
two objectives; the first is, it provides interest and variety in an accompaniment part;

and the other is it gives the player a plan, a sense of objective while playing,
increasing confidence and the ability to bring additional energy and personality into the
performance, thereby inspiring those around him.
Shave and a Haircut
Harold suggested another little song as a template for accent overlays:

Try creating a bass

line while superimposing its accent scheme:

Using the rhythm suggested by the lyric of the song is yet another way to add
phrasing. Im going to take it easy on my publisher and not include examples, for which
they would have to pay license fees; but, you can imagine for yourself how it would
sound and feel to think of the lyrics of a song like Cole Porters I Love You while
playing a bass line the lyric itself suggests an internal dynamic scheme for the bassist.
Hemiolas are groupings of 3 overlaid on a duple substrate, creating a feel of
rhythmic suspension:

Triplet Arrays

Second Line (and Clave)

The Second Line rhythm got its name from its use in early Jazz processional bands
in New Orleans; it is the rhythm played by the second line of drummers in the drum

Here it is overlayed on the rhythmic substrate (the Elvin Jones groove): (next

Here is a possible way to incorporate it in a bass line:

Occasionally, the groove is structured entirely around this rhythm:

Second line is one form of Clave, similar to the Cuban Son claveits the same

rhythm, except for the placement of the accent. There are many variants of Clave in the
various cultures of the Caribbean and South America, which comprise displacements or
restructuring of the rhythm. Here are a few different forms; all can be used as overlays
over jazz rhythm.
We should point out that the traditional bass lines in the Latin styles using Son Clave
are not built on the clave rhythm; the clave rhythm is played on the claves, a pair of
wooden sticks; this sound and rhythm is the unifying anchor of these Latin styles. For our
purposes here, we are including them only as resources for accent overlays in the
creation of jazz bass lines.

As we have pointed out

earlier, the Clave (which is Spanish for key) is played by a percussion instrument
dedicated to it. The style depends on it, as do the musicians who use it as a point of
reference to keep the band together. For our purposes, we will use the various rhythms
sporadically as overlays on the substrate, and intermittently at that, although these
structures are also used in composition for thematic purposes.
Harmonic Dynamics
As chord changes progress in a song, there is tension and release suggested by the
harmony. There is a simple key principle to dynamic performance that can be heard in
the work of the most accomplished musicians; this principle is that tension and
opposition are usually emphasized, dynamically, and there is letup on the releases and

In the bass, there are two ways to accomplish this dynamic enhancement; one is
through the use of dynamics (volume and intensity), and the other is through the use of
register. In the general case, lower notes are stronger and more impactful to the music;
and when the two methods are employed together, the effect creates a much more lively
and interesting performance, adds a sense of larger shape and presence to the phrasing,

and offers inspiration to others in the band, creating a greater sense of flow and majesty
to the music. In a word, the performance is more dynamic.
The example above shows a crescendo, which for the bass would occur after the
note is played, leading to the question how do I get louder on a note Ive already
plucked? The answer isvibrato. Application of vibrato to a sustained pizzicato note
can temporarily increase the volume, and definitely adds to the intensity of the note.
There are experienced musicians who do this automatically; others dont seem to be
aware at all of this parameter of performance enhancement, and although their work
might be competent otherwise, it will always fall short of its potential. Dynamics are the
crowning touch of musical performance, and knowledge of their power and appropriate
use is the mark of the true artist.
The functional purpose of the anchor and pivot is to create a sense of motion, of
back-and-forth, as we stated earlier. The pivot is an oppositional tone to the anchor; and
as such, its safe to emphasize it, even in a static harmonic environment. In the general
case, the pivot, if played below the anchor in register, will have an emphasized effect.
Heres a before and after example:

There is no hard-and-fast rule that the pivot should be under the anchor, but those
who put it there out of habit are showing an awareness of its dynamic, oppositional
value. Sometimes its desirable to save this stronger oppositional effect, such as in a
static environment to demarcate the end of a phrase:

Weve had the occasion to notice that violin sections in the better orchestras tend to
swell on the dominant preceding a resolution, and decrescendo on the resolution,
despite a lack of dynamic marking in the music.
Weve also noticed a tendencya natural tendencyfor the tempo itself to expand
and contract with rises and falls in dynamics. The late pianist Dorothy Donegan was a
vivid exemplar of this tendency; as she made her way through a bar, frequently the
individual beats would end up different lengths even as the underlying, larger pulse
remained relatively steady. In her boogie woogie lines, her left hand line would get
louder and a little slower as it ascended, then get softer and faster as it descended,
creating a very powerful propulsive effect. Some boogie-woogie pianists can tend to
sound mechanical; not Dorothy; she would always rock the house with her approach,
getting standing ovations after the third or fourth tune. Most musicians are taught that
rock-steady time is the most desirable, but the greatest artists allow the tempo to

breathe with the rise and fall of dynamics and harmonic flow. There is an important
distinction that should be drawn between, dynamic performance in a a rhythm section,
and un-informed back phrasing on the part of a lead voice, wherein the lead voice
pulls on the tempo, as discussed earlier in the book There is quite a difference
between these two effects.

In Conclusion
With the tools weve set forth here, its possible to approach the creation of bass
lines with a sense of plan. When we know that dynamic and harmonic contrast adds life
to a line, we are better able to invest additional energy in the performance, and have a
real sense of contributing to the flow and liveliness of a performance. Were not up
there to be safe and anonymous; were there to bring all of our energy to bear to create
the most exciting, passionate, beautiful performance we can muster. When people ask a
bass player to dig in, this is the effect theyre looking for. For years, I mistakenly
thought it meant to play harder, wear myself out and get blisters. No we serve the
other musicians best by learning about the intrinsic power lurking in musical structure
and bringing that knowledge to bear in our performance with confidence, using this
knowledge to serve the music while bringing our own energy and flair to the

This book would not have happened without the inspiration and input of my students;
Henry DAllacca, Joe Triscari, Victor Niederhoffer and others, but particularly Aaron
Nebbia, who got me really inspired and interested in teaching after a hiatus of some
years that were devoted primarily to touring and other activities. Special thanks are due
to Eric Nebbia, his dad, for bringing him to me.
Others who have been influential and helpful in the work represented here are Bob
Mintzer, Harold White (whose admonitions and exhortations are part of the material),
Horace Silver, Houston Person, and supportive friends and commentators in the person
of Lynne Arriale, John Goldsby, Ted Rosenthal, John Loehrke, Morrie Louden, and
Jason Heath.
Please visit us on the web at; were also on Facebook and
Twitter (jonburr).
Jon Burr
Jon has come up with a great book for bassists, and anyone else for that matter,
which delves into the construction of compelling bass lines. He is very thorough in his
approach talking about what the bassist does and all the whys and hows. Jon is a great
musician, and his take on this subject matter is a welcome addition to the topic.
- Bob Mintzer, Grammy-winning saxophonist/composer/educator
Jon Burr shares valuable secrets of jazz bass playing, and he writes in a clear and
direct manner. This book will help students and pros alike in developing swinging,
melodic and groove bass lines.
- Ted Rosenthal, pianist, composer and instructor at Juilliard School of Music
After decades as a first-call bassist on the New York jazz scene, Jon Burr reveals
his concepts and musical wisdom in this concise and easy to understand tutorial. A
must-have for the aspiring jazz bassist.
- John Goldsby, author: The Jazz Bass Book
If you want to be a creative BASS player, this is the book for you.
- Houston Person, saxophonist/producer/jazz master
I finally had the time to actually play thru the book thorougly... its fantastic. Its
great to see someone addressing in print the stuff that makes melody sound so great. I
love that last paragraph...Its great to have stuff that veteran bassists learn to do
intuitively explained in clear, logical language. Its a wonderful, and as far as I know,
unique, book.
- John Loehrke, bassist and educator
Jon has made a science of of building bass lines with his extensive professional
experience. With this Gem-of-a-book, he turns it into an understandable language, then
into a practical application. Its broken down to the responsibilities of the Bass Player
and, where he has freedom within the bass line. Its a must-have publication for any

- Morrie Louden, bassist, composer and recording artist
The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass is an outstanding rethinking of how expert jazz
bassists actually conceptualize and navigate chord changes. Written from the
perspective of a seasoned jazz veteran but set forth in a straightforward and engaging
fashion, this book is an excellent addition to the library of any jazz bass student or
- Jason Heath, bassist, instructor, host/author of
Bassist Jon Burr is a composer, author, bandleader and educator. His performance
career spans over thirty years, working with Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Horace Silver,
Buddy Rich, Chet Baker, Mark OConnors Hot Swing Trio, Stephane Grappelli, Eartha
Kitt, Rita Moreno, Barbara Cook, and many others.
Jon was an instructor at the University of Illinois and the Mark OConnor String
Conference. In 2007 he produced a series of his own songs, forming the Jon Burr Band
in the process. His lifelong experience has given him a unique perspective on the role of
the bass in an ensemble, with a deep understanding of musical structure and the role of
the bass within it. His playing is melodic and unmistakable, yet propulsive and forceful;
his playing radiates effortless joy and ease according to the N.Y. Times.
His goal is to support a band and inspire his fellow musicians, with a distinctly
personal voice; this book gives valuable insights into how to go about doing that. He has
written other books available on his website, including Rhythmic and Melodic
Development in the Construction of Bass Lines, Another Look at Melodic
Construction in Improvisation, and is currently working on his fourth book Physical
and Mental Programming for the Improvising Bassist. Find him on the web at
Cover drawing by Jon Burr
based on a sketch by Bill Burr
The Untold Secret to Melodic Bass
by Jon Burr
2009 jbQ Media
ISBN 1-4392-4272-0