Swing Bass on the Piano

The piano style is called “swing bass” because your left hand swings back and forth between a low note (or group of notes, such as a 10th, alternating with a chord in the area right below middle C.

You definitely know the sound of swing bass when you hear it, even though you may not know its characteristic name. The swing style of playing is great for the piano because of the left-hand, right-hand ability the piano affords. You can play swing bass on the piano with the left hand while the right hand improvises a melody over it.

Swing bass starts with an underlying lower register note feel given to a song. Its roots are in jazz from the 1920 to 1940 era. During the 1920s, dance music was very popular in North America. This dance music was of the jazz form. During this 20-year period, some of jazz music’s most creative musicians and composers stretched the limits of this music.

Dance music tradition dictated sticking to melodies as written. The pioneers of swing music and swing bass arrangements felt that melodies needed each individual musician’s interpretation. Improvisation became the norm, and jazz had a new form that gave musicians a lot of freedom for personal music expression.

Of course, these freer melodies required a supporting bass line that fit the swing style. The swing bass style developed based on rhythm, harmony, and melody elements. Other names for swing bass are “stride” or “striding bass”. The harmonic unit for swing bass is sometimes tenths in the left hand. The piano player plays notes that are 10 scale notes apart from each other, often with the 5th of the chord included between the root and the 10th (10th is the same as a 3rd, except an octave higher)taking big strides from the low group of notes up to the chord somewhere around or below middle C. Often on the 3rd beat of a measure the 5th of the chord is used as the low note, followed by another chord on the 4th beat.

The rhythmic unit for swing bass is a combination of half-note swing bass and quarter note walking bass. The walking bass involves playing the bass line in a single line, like a bass player would. The leaps are not as extreme in the walking bass. Therefore, a pianist can mix the great striding sounds of swing with the walking bass. This lends variety to a swing piece and gives it that unique jazz feel.

The melodic unit of swing music to improvise over the swing bass are quarter, eighth, sixteenth and triplet notes. Again, playing around with these note values to shorten or lengthen note sounds is at the heart of swing playing and jazz improvisation. A piano player can jazz up even the most basic popular song by adding swing elements to a piece.

The swing bass sound and feel is great for the piano because of the lower notes. A piano player can give a bass feel to a song without a string bass player present. The style a bass player would use can be part of the song, although the tone will be different. This is because string bass creates a warmer sound, while the piano makes a more percussive sound. While a string bass player can swing by bending strings and doing glissandos, a pianist cannot. The pianist can give the swing bass sound a more articulated, harder edge with the percussive abilities the keys afford.

When should piano players use the swing bass style? It is ideal when a song needs a strong bass sound in a solo performance. Without accompanying musicians to provide support, pianists can lay down their own swing bass line. In addition, a band missing the services of their bass player can have their pianists perform emergency swing bass services. They can vamp away with their left hand and still have the freedom to create right-hand melodies.

Swing bass is great for changing the mood of a song for jarring contrast. Staid semi-classical or traditional popular songs are great for this. Your listeners expect the next logical sounds to emanate from the piano, as is normal for the piece you are playing. They are familiar with the tune and have pre-conceived expectations of how it will sound. You can surprise them by tossing in a section with swing bass and improvised melody. It will delight and surprise them and keep them alert for any other surprises in the rest of your playing.

Consider the swing bass style for some of your piano playing. It is a great tool for lending spark and variety to songs. You will add a lot to your style as you practice this technique more and keep your audience swinging with your music.

Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at “Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!”

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