Updated: Apr 21
Chords for bass guitar is a topic that divides opinion.
Pretty strongly in fact.
There are some people who do it really well and write some very beautiful music like Michael Manring.
But there's also the purists who say the bass isn't a chordal instrument and there's also the people who shove chords into music any way they can and that just sound awful.
So should chords be used on the bass? And if they can be, how can you use them tastefully?
Let's start with the first question. Should they be used?
Should Bass Players Play Chords At All?
When we talk about chords on the bass, many musicians don't think about chords in what I like to call a global sense.
By "global" I mean they don't think about the collective chord they are creating with other members of the band they play in.
They are only thinking of the chord in a "local" sense by which I mean only in the context of their own instrument.
Here's how this can cause a few issues.
If you were to sit at a piano and play a C bass note (C1 for example) with your left hand and a C triad with your right you'd be creating a chord that's similar to the one a rhythm section would do in an average band.
The bass player would play the left-hand bass note and then the chordal instruments like guitar and piano would likely play the triad.
The combination of these two parts creates a nice, strong and clear sounding chord.
However, if you were to also play a C triad in the same spot in your left hand and keep the C triad in your right you'd get a chord voicing that sounded very thick, muddy and perhaps very dense.
When bass players play chords this is effectively what's happening.
As a rule of thumb, the lower notes go in register, the further they need to be spaced apart. And this creates a unique problem for the bass because it's exclusively a low register instrument.
This bit of knowledge though brings up an interesting question. Rather than asking as we did previously "should they be used", perhaps the better question is how does using chords on bass affect the music on a global scale?
This is where things get interesting.
To understand whether using chords has a positive effect on the music we play we must understand the arrangements and orchestrations on the music we play.
If you were doing a gig with a 16 piece band that had two guitar players, two keys players, four backing singers and a horn section then there would be a hell of a lot of chordal information going on in the music.
Each of the guitars and keys players would be playing different chord voicings from one another so the harmony would already sound dense.
The singers and horn players would also be forming chords at times so with all this chordal information would the music really need anything else?
Also, if we were to start playing chords would we be doing so at the expense of giving the music a clearly defined root note?
Simply put, in this context, there's enough harmonic information and we don't need any more.
However, if you're playing in a trio with a guitarist and a drummer and the guitar player wants to take a solo then you might well miss the chordal information that the guitarist was providing.
And during the solo, the only other pitched instrument backing up the guitarist would be you so there'd be space for some chords. You wouldn't be getting in anyone else's way and you'd be adding a little extra harmonic context to the solo so maybe it would work there.
All of this points towards the last question we need to ask ourselves about using chords.
How can we use them tastefully?
As is so often the way, there's no cut and dry right answer here. Being tasteful is about being sensitive to the context you're playing in. It's about learning to read the musical room so to speak.
This means you'll have to be aware of the rest of the music around you.
Take a moment to listen to the arrangement and orchestration of the music you're playing. Are there any other chordal instruments already doing the job that your bass chords would do?
But also try to understand how your bass part actually fits into the arrangements you're playing.
Has the bass part been written specifically to just be a bass part that fills out the root notes and only the root notes? Sometimes these parts are magical on their own and don't need to be complicated by chords.
A great example would be the bass line from "With Or Without You" by U2.
It's simple, steady and doesn't need to add chordal information. In that setting, it would spoil the music.
However, something like "Feel Like Making Love" by D'Angelo has some small chordal elements that Pino Palladino sneaked into the song and they really work.
There's space for the double stop tenths to come through, they don't get in the way of anything else and they also add some great harmonic context to the song.
It's hard to say with any certainty because I wasn't at the recording session but it almost seems to me like a great deal of the arrangement of that song has been built around the bass part.
If you're in that setting then perhaps the bass can dictate the context a little more.
Ultimately sue your ears and try to understand the music that's in front of you rather than just the music you would like to play.
There's a difference. And understanding that difference is what separates the great chordal players of all styles from the people who don't get called back for the next gig.