Do Bass Players Play Chords?

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Bass guitars are a relevant instrument for any band. 

Their versatility allows for a variety of techniques and sounds that enrich every song. 

It is known that the bass’ function is to provide a rhythmic flow along with the drums. 

However, more often than not, one listens to a bass that is not playing by the rules… and still sounds incredible! 

One of the things a bass is not supposed to do is to play chords. 

But is this really a fact, or just a mere opinion? 

Although it’s possible to play chords on a bass guitar, they are usually not used in a band context due to the overwhelming clash of low frequencies it might generate. Chords in the low register don’t sound as clean as in higher pitches. Bassists, however, are usually constantly outlining chords note by note.

If you are a bassist and want to learn more about a four-string chord, then keep on reading. 

Next thing you know, it becomes your new favorite technique. 

You can in fact play chords with a bass

Playing chords in a bass is possible. 

In fact, for many players, chords become a part of their unique style. 

Take a listen to any isolated bass track from Lemmy Kilmister or Steve Harris, for instance. 

You’ll notice how regularly they played with chords, and how well they fit the songs. 

The only thing you must bear in mind, though, is that some chords work better than others, but more of that later on. 

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Chords
Chords

All in all, there is nothing physically preventing you from doing it.  

Once you get the hang out of it, you won’t stop doing it on your own songs.  

Why it is not that common for bass players to play chords

There is a reason why bassists don’t play chords regularly: sound. 

Indeed, if sound is the most important aspect to consider when playing music, then one expects to do it well. 

In other words, to play music is to play it properly. Which means that there are certain rules to follow. 

One of them is, several low-pitched notes simultaneously are not pleasant to human ears. 

Therefore, when bassists play with chords, they generally do it in the right place and at the right time. 

Otherwise, they might come out as a muddy wave of distortion.  

Another aspect to consider is the fact that the strings of bass are tougher and thicker than 

the ones on a guitar. 

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This means that the instrument’s main focus is not on playing chords. 

After all, it is easier to play a chord in a guitar for a reason. 

Not only easier, but more pleasant too. 

While all those factors are important and should be considered, they mustn’t stop you from trying on new techniques. 

Bass chords sound is pleasant if done properly.   

Bass chords are more common in solos

Bass solos are not as common as guitar solos. 

Therefore, when it’s time for the bass to shine, it is not strange to find chords in their solos. 

After all, a powerful chord highlights bass sound.

It is a way of shouting “I’m here! Listen to me!” 

Also, it gives the listener a harmonic context. 

The same logic applies to intros that start with an isolated bass line. 

While such chords boost their presence, they have to be voiced by separating the lower notes from the upper ones. 

This is important because one wants to avoid a pitch class. 

All in all, bass chords make solos more memorable. 

There are many other ways to imply a chord without strumming it

The bass approach regarding chords is sequential. 

Guitars, on the other hand, make parallel chords. 

The above statements mean that bassists usually approach chords note by note in their lines, while guitarists usually strum all notes at the same time.

That is to say, that both bass and guitar don’t play chords the same way. 

Actually, what bass chords do is compliment and outline the rest of the band’s sound.  

Bass chords in the upper register are just fine

It is a fantastic idea to use bass chords in your songs.

Such a resource brightens the sound and makes it “heavier” simultaneously.

What’s good about chords is that they help the band to sound louder.

However, its advantage is also a downside.

To play chords means to leave the low end aside.

This is because bass chords are played in the upper register, where higher notes are found.

Why then playing higher notes in a bass would be a bad decision?

First of all, it would be foolish to do, but only if it’s done all the time (unless the style of the band requires it).

Second, higher notes are not what bassists are supposed to play.

A bass’ function is to become a bridge between the drums and the guitar.

Its main focus should be on the root notes in the lower register.

It’s there to help the guitar notes to sound stronger, and to maintain rhythm.

Once again, chords in the upper register are beautiful, but an excessive amount of them might ruin everything.  

Bass chords with distortion

If you are a player of the heavier genres and are fond of distortion pedals, you might have noticed that they usually cut off the low end of your bass guitar sound.

Distorted basses sound like angry guitars.

That lack of bottom end, although prejudicial for the core function of the instrument, is a great effect to play chords.

Without the presence of low harmonics clashing, chords will sound distorted, but not too muddy.

Again, listen to the tone of Lemmy’s playing and his use of chords.

Conclusion

Although I mentioned how important balance is regarding this topic, you must remember the following.

There are rules in music, and then there are rules that were made to be broken.

Plenty of bass chords within the same song might sound unpleasant, but there are exceptions too. Always.

What I’m trying to say is that playing chords could become a characteristic technique of yours, and even suit your music genre perfectly.

Never forget that the final decision is yours.