How to Notate Bass Parts

Bass parts are generally easier to deal with than drum parts, but like a good drum part, less is usually more.

Bass players, like drummers, are interested in the style, the changes, and any specific notes that are required to fit in with the arrangement you have written.

Keep in mind that unless you are a bass player, you probably cannot build a walking bass line as good as a bass player will improvise naturally by looking at chord changes.

Be wary of notating too much information for a bass player – especially a good one. (If you doubt me on this, just imagine what Chick Corea writes out in the parts he passes out to John Pattituci. As little as possible I’ll bet!)

This video deals with how to write a bass part in a typical jazz big band or small group arrangement.


5 Replies to “How to Notate Bass Parts”

  1. Jelle Kikkert

    Hi Jim,
    Why do you do this and not even asking money for your knowledge. Quite unusual in this world. But nevertheless, thanks!

  2. curt

    Thanks Jim,

    Maybe because I like rock music and our band is fairly small I sometimes think of the bass as a melodic voice, sort of a solo below the ensemble. One of the other questions I have however is when to write out a bass part as opposed to just giving him the changes, ie when is it important to have a certain not at the bottom of a passage.

    I’d echo the above comment. These free lessons are greatly appreciated.



  3. Jim Martin

    Jelle: From my experience, when you put out value, it always comes back to you in some shape or form, and at some time in the future. What comes back to you is not always money, but nonetheless still valuable.

    For example: Let’s say that one day I visited your town, or country, and I emailed you to get information about the best restaurant, or jazz club, or whatever right around where you live. You would probably bend over backwards to make sure I went to the best places, and got the best deals that a “tourist” would never know about. That would be compensation right?

    Maybe down the road there will be a “paid” portion of the site, but for now the lessons are all free. I figure, you’re going to die anyway, you might as well do something that will benefit others and be around after you are gone.

  4. Jim Martin

    Curt: Generally, the style and tune will determine when you give the bass player notes as opposed to changes. You might have a funk tune that needs a specific part played, so writing all the notes is needed, but a swing thing would be best just having changes since the guy will be walking a bass line throughout the tune.

    I would say that in a typical swing chart 80% would be just changes and the other 20% is specific notes. There are times the band plays figures that you need the root of the chord in each of the notes of the figure.

    When I write the notes out, I just put “as written” so the player knows to play the notes. If you are writing an easy reader, a level 1 or 2 chart, then certainly put all the notes in because the player will not have learned to walk a bass line correctly yet.

    So always go with the situation and make decisions based on what is needed. But don’t be afraid to write in “words” to help the player know what to do.

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