There are lots of examples where the bassline is the prominent part of the song. This driving blues track from Gov’t Mule rages atop a super-dense bassline that propels the song.
Though I’m not a bass player myself, I’ve played plenty of bass parts on keyboards and piano and have had the privilege of learning from many inspiring bassists during my career. I’ve picked up some nuggets of low-end wisdom along the way.
Some lessons I always keep in mind is to make every note count, leave plenty of space for the rest of the band, and avoid playing more than needed to make my point. After all, many iconic bass parts consist of just one or two notes per measure, and some regularly include multiple measures of silence.
Given how deeply I’ve internalized those lessons, I was surprised when I listened to Gov’t Mule’s 1995 song “Mule” for the first time in years. I’d heard “Mule” hundreds of times before, but never really focused in on Allen Woody’s bass part. It’s propulsive and thick — a fluid series of 16th-note patterns that rumble uninterrupted for most of the song.
While Woody’s part defies some of the minimalist wisdom I’ve picked up over the years, I love what he plays, and think it serves the song perfectly. Here’s a look into why this dense bassline works so well.
The power of a trio
In its original inception, Gov’t Mule was a power trio — Warren Haynes on guitar/vocals, Woody on bass, and Matt Abst on drums. By its nature, a tight three-person configuration can leave more room for dense basslines than a more populated band with synths, percussion, backing singers, and multiple guitars might allow.
All three original band members also knew how to make their sounds huge when they wanted to, and to leave space when that’s what the song called for. Haynes’ growling vocals, for example, are riveting; he sings like someone with nothing to hold back. He also performs like someone thoroughly at home within his body and music — and someone with nothing to prove. That makes even his simplest vocal phrases carry a serious punch.
As for the bassline? When all band members know how to say a lot with a little, a thick and note-heavy low end could be exactly what a song calls for.
There’s also the fact that all three bandmates are fantastic musicians, not just individually, but as a group. If a band doesn’t know how to lock in, a dense bassline could easily make a performance sound unbalanced, cluttered, and sloppy. But even with its constant low-end sixteenth notes, “Mule” sounds like an explosive machine doing exactly what it was designed to do.
The arrangement plays a big part
A big reason why Woody’s bassline works is that it’s the only consistently dense element in the song. Guitar, drums, vocals — all have moments when their parts get thick, but it never feels like the band’s different voices are competing to be heard.
Similarly, while Woody’s bassline is built largely on sixteenth notes, Abst’s drum parts are mostly built on straight and syncopated eighth-note patterns. That contrast helps keep the rhythm section parts reinforcing each other rather than clashing, and plays a big role in giving the track its intrigue and drive.
Even though Woody’s parts are more rapid-fire than his bandmates’, there are multiple times when the group comes together to nail rhythmic hits. These help punctuate key moments of the song, signal big transitions, and make the bassline all the more striking and propulsive when Woody again returns to it.
And then there’s Haynes’ solo — in the live video, it’s a messy, gritty, beautiful bit of slide-guitar that relies far more on phrasing than quantity of notes for its impact. If Haynes instead chose to shred, Woody’s bass part might suddenly feel like it was too much, and the song’s spell could be easily broken. But again, given Haynes’ ability to make a big impression with a minimal number of notes, his solo melds perfectly with the song’s dense low-end.
One more big reason why the “Mule” bassline works: the note range in which Woody chooses to play. “He sticks to the low end while being busy,” says veteran New York City bassist Dmitry Ishenko (and longtime member of the Michael Gallant Trio). “That provides a good pulse, but doesn’t interfere with the range of the voice and guitar.”
Basslines in your music
There’s a lot to learn from listening to Gov’t Mule — including the lesson that going thick where you’d normally go thin can sometimes bring great results.
If a bassline speaks to you but feels like it may be too dense or note-heavy, don’t throw it away. Instead, see what you can do with your songwriting, arrangement, and instrumentation choices to make space, have your parts build off each other, and let that rich low end become a powerful and organic part of your music.
Feature image: Carl Lender, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.