5 Easy Shapes for Kickass Bass Lines - Bassist Shortcuts

Struggling to create bass lines without overwhelm? Get yourself some bass shapes.

How Bass Shapes Use “Chunking”

#1: Root Fifth Shape (with Steely Dan)
#2: The Octave Shape (with James Brown)
#3: Major Triad Shape (with Bob Marley)
#4: Minor Triad Shape (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
#5: Supershapes (with The Specials)

How to Learn Shapes

A shape is just a visual pattern of notes on the neck. There are all kinds of shapes - for bass lines, intervals, scales, arpeggios, chords - but what they all have in common is they allow you to visually find your way around the neck so you’re not frantically thinking about note names and theory when you’re trying to just play.

Bass shapes are an example of what psychologist George Miller called “chunking”, where you take a bunch of bits of information that would be hard to remember and combine them into one chunk that’s easier to remember.

Shapes work because we hear the notes in music as a series of relationships. In the video I’ll play you Another One Bites the Dust by Queen, then move it up 2 frets. It sounds like “the same music,” even though all the notes changed, and that’s because I kept the same shape (so all the relationships/intervals stayed the same).

The first shape I’ll show you is something every bass player needs to know - the root fifth shape. As with all the shapes in this video, I’ll show you what it looks like and how to use it in musical context. We’ll use the root fifth on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan, one of the most prominent uses of this shape on bass.

Shape #2 is the octave shape, another bass staple. You can use this for creating bass lines, but it’s also a great tool for finding notes on the neck. We’ll play with this along with James Brown’s “Hot Pants.”

Next is the major triad, which you can use on any major chord. And you can’t learn major triads without playing a little Bob Marley, so we’ll groove along with his classic “Three Little Birds” with Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass.

Then we’ll counter the happy-sounding major triad with the sadder-sounding minor triad, which is used extensively in our play-along, “Pipeline,” as recorded by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale.

These shapes all get mixed together in a lot of bass lines, so I’ll show you how that works on “Gangsters” by The Specials. I’ll also show you how I would use all these shapes in a jam context to create my own bass lines.

The 3 steps for learning any bass shape or pattern are:

Step 1: Nail the Fingering (wrap your fingers around the shape)
Step 2: Memorize (imprint the visual pattern in your memory)
Step 3: Learn Context (the rules of when you can use it)

Learn as many shapes as you can! Check out the shapes in my other videos, or wherever you find them, and soon you’ll be seeing shapes everywhere...

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-Josh Fossgreen

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