Roots – Jumps or steps?

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Someone emailed me a very good question tonight and I thought I would share it along with my answer.

I notice you seem to move quite a bit in the bass, or, to put it another way, moving around doesn’t bother you. For example, if you are using a 6-2-5-1 progression, you might use as the root, the 6/2/5 and 1. Other arrangers I will see using inversions to keep the bass movement more step-wise.

Do you agree with my characterization of your style, that you’ll jump around without qualms? What are your thoughts about using inversions to smooth the bass line?

The short answer to his question is yes. I do not have any qualms about jumping around in the bass.  I certainly know what he is talking about in regards to trying to smooth bass lines. In fact, in the past, I probably cared more about that. But I don’t intentionally try to smooth bass lines much any more and there are two major reasons why.

1) Jumps sound good when done well. The most common jumps you will see me use are movements of a fifth (down) around the circle of fifths. That kind of movement is functional and it sounds very smooth. (Please note: Even though I like that sound, I am not trying to say that those jumps are optimal or sound best.)

And that is not to say that I will not use step motion as well. For example, when I see a I – vi – ii progression or a I – VI7 – ii progression, I know that substitution a #1dim7 for the vi or VI7 chord will smooth out the progression. I will go to that progression from time to time not because it is better but because it is different.

2) Extended chords cannot really be inverted. Inverting triads is pretty straightforward and when you do invert triads, you can pretty much smooth out any bass line. But once you start extending chords with 7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, the whole concept of inverting chords starts falling apart.

Let’s look at it this way. Consider an Am7 chord in first inversion. You could call it an inverted Am7 chord, but what you should really call it is a C6 chord. And it gets more complicated.  Consider an Am11 chord in 1st inversion. Is it really an inverted Am11 or a CM7(9,13)?

If that last paragraph confused you, don’t worry. To explain it very simply, when you use extended chords, simple inversions don’t work any more because they do more than just change the bass note. Rather, they change the way chords function.

While I am telling you some reasons why you see my bass lines jump around, I am not saying that my way is right or for that matter that I don’t use step progressions a lot myself. For example, my current favorite progression is #iv7(b5) – iv6 – iii7 – biiidim7) – ii7 which is progression of half steps.

But what I am telling you is that you should not worry about your bass line jumping around.  Just make sure that it is functional. Don’t jump from one chord to another haphazardly. Chords have to work together. And above all, your jumps have to sound good.