Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Decoding the Upright Bass: Voice Leading

A few years ago I became very interested in how a computer works, so studied various programming languages, i.e. machine language, Basic and C.  I wrote programs and debugged them, and figured out how to do things.  It was very instructional and also very intuitive.

Now I want to figure out how an upright bass works, and the program that I need to learn and apply is music theory.  Right now I am studying "voice leading," which is moving from one chord to the next, but since bassists play one note at a time, you must play the appropriate note in the "next" chord.  Specifically, you must play the closest note in the following chord to keep the intervals as small as possible.  This results in a smooth, fluid bass line.

For example, if you play F7 chord and then Bb7 chord, you could just play the straight arpeggios in order:

F7   = F, A, C, Eb
Bb7 = Bb, D, F, Ab

It would sound right but not very cool or fluid.  Instead, you might play Bb7 this way:
D, F, Ab, Bb (on the second and first stings)

Or also like this:
D, Bb, Ab, F (open D and then on the third and fourth strings)

With "voice leading" you play the nearest note in the next chord, which in this case is third of Bb, or D, as above.  Voice leading is the key to constructing professional, smooth sounding bass lines, by stringing the chords together in a fluid line.

The only way to learn to play "voice leading" chords in a bass line is to figure them out.  Take all the chord changes in the key of F (a blues key), figure out the voice leading note (or transition note), then play all the chords as a bass line.  Memorize the changes, play them like scales to instill them into your subconscious.

Shane Allessio, an accomplished upright bassist, discusses voice leading at the following link.

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