From the bottom up: play those roots!

One thing struck me during my musical education and “career”: the players that succeeded to “play the changes” in their solos earlier than anyone else were bass players. They were not only faster to do this regarding fresh (new) tunes, but they could do this sooner in their development as a musician. This doesn’t mean they play the most interesting solos, but just (at least) solos that sounded more “right”.

How come?

I think (and I am certain that you came up with the answer already) that is because they play ROOTS all the time. Their playing is naturally “root centric”. They are used to play roots and connect them hierarchically with:

  • Chord tones
  • Scale tones
  • Chromatics

This gives them a strong foundation to rely on.

Guitarists play roots too you will argue. Yes they do, but as part of the chord and belonging to the fingering of that chord. It is difficult to isolate the note from the fingering. I am always baffled when I ask my students to play the roots of Autumn Leaves for example and they fail miserably.

So as an exercise play the roots of a standard (Autumn Leaves is a good one). If you are a guitarist (or bass player), play the roots in every area/ position on the neck. You may want to do this different ways:

  • As part of a fingering of the key (G minor / Bb major in the case of Autumn Leaves), all octaves in that fingering
  • Disregarding fingering
  • Concentrating on positions you don’t know that well
  • On 2 strings (this will make you shift positions)

If you play an instrument that does not involve your mouth (horn players are out of luck), it is a good idea to say or sing the notes while you play them. Should be easy, it’s only roots…

Learn the whole thing BY HEART. Knowing at all times “where you are” in a song will help tremendously freeing yourself up so you can come up with more interesting melodic ideas. You will drive the car, the car will not drive you (any more).

At first force yourself to play the roots right on the first beat of the chord. This will give you no slack.

Afterwards you can “play around” rhythmically with these notes to make the exercise more interesting. Try to play simple rhythms at first. Choose to play every note on the second half of the first beat, then on the second beat and so forth. Hey, you can make a “on beat-off beat” rhythmic exercise out of this :-).

Any standard will do, but here is a backing track of Autumn Leaves you can start with.

If you need a longer backing track and the chord sheet, just sign up here and you will get backing tracks for four tunes for free (along with the chord sheets).

In a next lesson I will show you how to proceed further, but get those roots down first!


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