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Play bass according to lead sheets

Spontaneous bass accompaniment based on lead sheets - this is how it works!

Basics of making music from lead sheets

We recently received a request from a reader to hold a workshop on the subject of "Playing by leadsheets". This is without question an interesting aspect, because there is hardly anyone among us who has not already been in the situation of having to accompany songs spontaneously "from the sheet" at a party, a jam session in the rehearsal room or on stage. In the pop / rock area, these lead sheets often just contain the lyrics with a few chord symbols above them. Many songbooks and various websites only provide this very simple form, while lead sheets can be found in other situations, sometimes with considerably more information. For all scenarios, however, the following applies: We bassists have to spontaneously conjure up our own bass lines for what is written there on the page! Only: how is that supposed to work?

Indeed, free play based on a lead sheet is a real challenge, especially for inexperienced musicians. It actually "only" revolves around two different topics, which intertwine here: On the one hand, the decoding of the musical information that the lead sheet holds and the transfer of this information to the instrument, on the other hand, developing your own bass lines - and then of course the whole thing still in real time, for example during a spontaneous jam session!

The latter is certainly a chapter in itself that you can deal with your entire life as a bass player. That is why we will limit ourselves in this workshop to essential, tangible information with a high degree of practicality - so welcome to this crash course on the subject of "Playing According to Lead Sheets"!

The reader's request mentioned at the beginning aimed primarily at strategies so that when playing according to lead sheets one does not always fall into the same trap of only playing the letters of the chords and falling into typical singer / songwriter grooves, but rather spontaneously to one or to shake another cool bassline out of your sleeve. There are also a few tips on this topic in this workshop - but first we will deal with the Basiscs!

What is a lead sheet?

The translation says it all: "Sheet" stands for a "sheet" and "Lead" means "to lead". The lead sheet guides or navigates us through the entire song.

Typical information that a (high-quality) lead sheet contains are:

  • the chords used - that is, the harmonic happening
  • the melody
  • the text / lyrics
  • the form sequence (e.g. "AABA" or similar)
  • Information on the desired style (e.g. ballad, eighth rock, funk, Latin, etc.)
  • the tempo - either in the form of a bpm indication ("beats per minute") or just an indication such as "Medium Swing", "Uptempo Pop", etc.
  • If necessary, important rhythmic events (kicks, breaks, etc.)

This information clearly distinguishes lead sheets from musical literature, in which the voices of all instruments are precisely notated, e.g. in the score of a classical work.

Lead sheets are very common, e.g. in jazz, as the so-called "standards" often only serve as a rough basis for your own interpretations and therefore no further specific information is required.

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Typical forms of lead sheets

Here's a classic jazz lead sheet:

This lead sheet is a representative from the field of rock / pop:

Finally, here you will find the worst, but unfortunately also very widespread case, as you know it from many songbooks or folders of top 40 or gala bands: All musically relevant information is missing in this lead sheet; the musician only finds lyrics and chords. Style, tempo, time signature, duration of the chords etc. do not seem to play a major role for the author of the lead sheet:

Also interesting:

What knowledge do lead sheets require?

Style indications

If music is made with the help of lead sheets, a lot of knowledge and skills are required. For example, if you see the indication "Medium eighth rock" as a stylistic indication, the lead sheet writer assumes that the musician knows what this indication means - and that e.g. a bass player immediately has typical authentic bass lines of this style "in front of his ears". This does not mean that you have to have studied eighth rock as a "major subject", just that ideally you should have played songs in this style more often and should therefore know what the bass typically plays in this style.

Form / song sequence

Repetition signs, bracket 1, bracket 2, etc. - none of these should be foreign words, because they appear relatively frequently. Information such as "Dal Segno", "Coda" etc. are rather rare on lead sheets (especially in the area of ​​Pop / Rock / Funk / R & B ...), but can occur occasionally.

Harmonious information

The most important requirement is also the most difficult: We have to decipher the harmonic information in the lead sheet, transfer it to our instrument and - possibly even spontaneously - develop our own bass line. Basic harmonic knowledge of chords and scales on the electric bass is certainly a great help with this topic; but they are also not a must, as we will see below.

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Playing by leadsheets: shapes / song sequences

A typical lead sheet in rock / pop could look like this:

I deliberately applied a bit thick to the information on the shape so that a lot is covered. In practice (at least in rock / pop) a little less will occur. And this is the correct navigation through the lead sheet: First we play from the beginning to the repeat sign (bar 8). Now we jump back to the first repeat character at the beginning (measure 1). At this stage, instead of bracket 1, bracket 2 is used. It is very important that bracket 1 is replaced by bracket 2 and not added on.

At the end of bracket 2 there is now the abbreviation "Dal Segno al Coda". So we jump back to the Dal Segno sign (resembles the dollar sign) and play al Coda, i.e. up to the coda sign (resembles a crosshair, see bar 4), jump from there directly to the second coda character (bar 11), to come to the end afterwards.

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At the end of bracket 2 and at the end there is an explicitly noted rhythm. This information indicates that this is very important for the song and should probably be played by all musicians as a common kick.

That was a typical "timetable" through the song. It continues with the chords.

Complex lead sheets can be pretty confusing - but with a few tricks you can put yourself in the limelight even without too much theoretical knowledge!

Playing by leadsheets: small harmonic analysis

On the lead sheet there is sometimes one chord per measure, i.e. this is valid for the entire duration of this measure. Sometimes there are also two chords per measure, i.e. the chord changes in the middle of the measure. As long as there is no further information, the first chord comes in 4/4 time to beat 1 and the second to beat 3.

Unfortunately, the following analysis requires some basic knowledge of keys. Today it's more about developing basslines into lead sheets and less about a workshop on the subject of harmony. However, this will follow shortly.

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The tones of the chords F # minor, A major, D major and E major reveal that we are in the key of F # minor (the minor parallel to A major). If you look at the individual chord tones (see PDF), there is a clear number of accidentals (three sharps: F #, C #, G #), which exclude all other keys.

One more shar would already be in E major / C # minor, one shar less in D major / B minor. So we are undoubtedly in F # minor. A look at the circle of fifths ((LINK)) quickly provides information.

But why not A major when the accidentals and notes of the scale are identical? Well, the F # minor chord is undoubtedly the main focus of the song in terms of sound, and after a four-bar phrase it returns to this chord again and again. Our ear therefore interprets it as the actual tonal center.

All occurring chords are so-called "level chords", i.e. they are formed on the same level of the scale with the tones of this scale. D major (D, F #, A) is the sixth degree, A major (A, C #, E) is the third degree, and E major (E, G #, B) is the seventh degree of F # minor (see Picture). When the chords change, the key does NOT change at the same time - this is a common misunderstanding.

This topic is similar to Lego building blocks: each key has seven Lego building blocks, which in different arrangements result in different chords. But they always remain building blocks of a single common key.

Of course there are also countless songs that are not only based on step chords. However, I am only referring to our example here, otherwise we are going beyond the scope here.

Also interesting:

Playing according to leadsheets: develop your own basslines without harmonic knowledge

I've reduced the lead sheet example here a little so that we don't have to deal with a thousand things at once. Developing your own basslines for the lead sheet should now be in the foreground. This is what our song or task looks like:

And this is what the implementation of the lead sheet could sound like in music, this serves as a play-along:

Of course it's still missing - our bassline! Let's say we have no idea whatsoever about what is on this leadsheet other than finding the letters of the chords (the root notes) on the fretboard. Nevertheless, we would of course like to play an exciting bassline. This is much easier than you might think, all you need is a fingering and simple math.

Once we have found the fundamental notes on our bass, we can immediately add the octave (which is nothing other than the octave fundamental note) and the fifth to our arsenal of possibilities. At this point in time, we are not interested in what the fifth is exactly. It also doesn't matter whether we are dealing with major or minor chords. It is important that the fifth always works as long as there are no crude indications such as "b5" or "diminished" in the chords. If this is the case, we simply leave out the fifth for the duration of this chord!

The octave is two strings and two frets higher than our fundamental, the fifth two frets and one string higher (or one string lower in the same fret). Here are the fingerings in notes and tablature:

This is how you pick an octave on the fretboard of a bass, and so ...

With these additional notes we now try our own bassline, which already contains one or the other interesting note:

Not that boring, is it? Chromatic (movement in semitone steps) serves as an additional possibility to provide variety and / or to lead from one chord to the next. We don't need to know anything, just count frets. We just start two frets above or below the tone we want to lead to. In our accompaniment, which is based on eighth notes, it makes sense to start rhythmically two eighth notes before beat 1 of the following measure. So our starting point is counting time 4. This becomes even clearer in the notation:

The bassline is already very varied, without us having to have any special knowledge: a fingering (root note, fifth, octave) plus chromatics - that's it!

Once you have understood this great principle, the spontaneous accompaniment works in no time at all, can be transferred to any song and - especially great for beginners - does not require any harmonic knowledge other than finding the keynote on the instrument. The chromatic alone does not suit every point in terms of taste, the motto here is to try it out. Depending on the context, one or three chromatic leading tones can also be used.

Also interesting:

Playing according to lead sheets: develop your own bass lines with knowledge of harmony

In our harmonic analysis we found that the F # minor scale is the tonal material for our basslines. We should have these safely under our hands, here are two possible fingerings over two octaves.

I'm going to show you two ways in which we can use this scale musically for our purposes. First we use it to lead from one to the next chord. To do this, I don't necessarily have to play the scale in its order, but can (and should) use it creatively. Here's an example:

An important job that we have as bass players is to provide structures. Ideally, we should use our game to indicate when a molding is over (e.g. end of bracket 1, end of bracket 2). This can happen, for example, through a fill-in. Again, this can be based on the F # minor scale:

Another interesting way is to use the scale to find melodic motifs, which I can also transfer to the different chords. For example:

Here I combine both approaches: melodic motif plus transition or fill.

Also interesting:

Two "special tips" for playing according to lead sheets

Of course, our examples are all a bit schematic, they also serve to demonstrate a concept. "It's all in the mix," as the saying goes. But that's your job now! As an outlook, there are two more tips from me: Some time ago I wrote a workshop about slash chords, pedal and ostinato as tools for interesting basslines.

This can also be applied to our song today. In the following example I have played the recurring chord progression once with slash chords and once with "normal". This creates significantly more tension and "life":

Due to the massive scope of the topic, I have consciously focused on the subject of "sound material" today - that is what the reader's question was aimed at. But of course there are also rhythmic variants. As a suggestion and to conclude, I have limited myself to the root note and included an example with offbeat eighth notes. You can clearly hear that this creates a completely different feeling and is often a far more powerful weapon than clever sound material.

Of course, the same thing as always: try as much as possible for yourself! The creative use of e.g. a scale must be practiced as well as technical aspects (fingerings, etc.).

I hope this workshop was able to answer a few questions and give a few suggestions. Until next time!

Thomas Meinlschmidt