Laying Down Roots

Nic Renshaw Bass Articles

To say that root notes are a bassist’s bread and butter would be inaccurate. In fact, they’re a bassist’s bread, butter, french fries, milkshake, and a decent chunk of their hamburger to boot. Huge swaths of bass lines across a multitude of genres are made up, if not entirely, than almost entirely out of root notes, and I think in some circles there can be a bit of a tendency to scoff at those basslines and/or the people who write & play them as being uncreative or unsophisticated. When I was starting out as a bassist, this was a bit intimidating for me: I didn’t want to be uncreative or unsophisticated! So today I’d like to take a brief look at what root notes actually are, how they work, and why they’re so important to bass in particular.

For anyone who doesn’t know any music theory, the root note is the most stable note in a chord, or the note that all other notes in a chord revolve around and resolve towards. If you’re playing, say, a G major chord, then the note G would be the root note, and if you’re playing a D-flat minor chord, then the root of that chord is D-flat. So, when your bassline consists entirely of root notes, you’re simply following the chord progression, playing the root of whatever chord you’re on and only changing notes when the chord changes. For example, if a song’s chord progression is E-A-B-E, then your bassline is just those notes played along with the chord changes.

Some people see this as being a low-effort or rudimentary method of bass-playing, and to be fair, that view isn’t entirely unfounded. After all, if you aren’t coming up with any chord progressions yourself, your guitarist (or whoever is coming up with the chords) is largely writing the bassline for you. Personally though, I find this perspective, if not inaccurate, then at least incomplete. I think that while there is massive value in using the bass to add melodic interest or complexity to a piece, to treat that as the be-all end-all of bass-playing ignores the instrument’s rhythmic potential, as well as the ways it can interact with other elements of a composition to create a striking overall impression, even if it’s not doing anything particularly dazzling in isolation.

One need look no further than the scores of punk rock bands where straightforward, driving root note bass lines play a crucial role in giving the songs their manic speed and energy, marrying the guitars and drums into a coherent and propulsive whole. In many genres of metal, root notes often act as a sort of reminder of the chord progression to the listener, allowing the guitar to go off into more complex riffs and solos without losing the plot of the song in the process. And even if a bassline is as simple as it can be as far as note choice goes, it’s still up to the bassist to decide how to approach the song rhythmically, whether to ground the song with a steady quarter-note pulse or add in triplets, rests, or other elements for a more dynamic feel.

At the end of the day, while it’s often both fun and advisable to come up with melodically creative basslines, root notes are an indispensable part of any musician’s toolkit, and they’re absolutely crucial for giving a song a solid foundation. Virtuosity is all well and good, but there’s no shame in nailing the basics.