R&B Bass

Author: Danny Morris   •   Course Code: OBASS-333

Good music always rests on a solid foundation. With R&B music in particular, the bass is THE key component to building that foundation. Bass has been crucial in the development of R&B, with session players from Motown, Stax, and Atlantic Records blazing the path for the genre with their sophisticated yet understated bass lines which focus heavily on groove, melody, and improvisation.

R&B Bass explores the evolution of bass playing techniques from the early "jump blues" period through the Motown era, and focuses on how you can incorporate these techniques into your own playing. The course begins by examining the rhythmic and harmonic characteristics of early R&B through the use of practice exercises involving steady syncopation, arpeggio patterns, and modulation. You'll study the key ingredients of an effective R&B timbre, from the proper equipment to the right techniques, such as muting the strings to deliver a punchier sound. The course delves into individual artists and their "trademark" concepts—from Duck Dunn's use of repetition and root and fifth lines, to Willie Weeks' melodic lines and rhythmic variation, to Chuck Rainey's motif development, to James Jamerson's infectious syncopation and use of harmonic devices like chromatic approach notes to create forward motion. You'll learn classic R&B bass lines from songs like Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Donny Hathaway's "Everything is Everything," and many others, and how to internalize the concepts used in these songs and make them your own. The goal of the course is to give you the tools made famous through R&B music to expand your bass playing in the context of a professional, live music performance or recording session.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Understand the evolution and key elements of R&B music
  • Play quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes with rhythmic syncopation
  • Use modulation, adapting songs to different keys on your instrument
  • Play root and fifth bass lines, in addition to arpeggio and chromatic patterns
  • Achieve an R&B timbre on your bass
  • Embellish a motif or theme with rhythmic and tonality variation
  • Play bass lines from R&B greats James Jamerson, Jerry Jemmott, Chuck Rainey, Willie Weeks, Duck Dunn, and others
  • Apply concepts of repetition and contrast to our own playing, in order to create improvisational bass lines more effectively

Lesson 1: Defining R&B Music and Working with Time

  • Defining R&B Music
  • Feeling the Groove: Steadying Your Quarters
  • Louis Jordan's "Caldonia"
  • Modulation
  • Expanding the Groove: Eighth- and Sixteenth-Note Rhythms

Lesson 2: Creating Your Own Bass Lines with Timbre, Shapes, and Personality

  • Timbre—Muting Technique and the Ampeg B-15N Amp
  • Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll"
  • Defining a Bass Line's Tonalities…Shapes
  • Techniques to Inspire Your Creative Bass Palette
  • Contrasting Sections—Jean Knight's "Big Stuff"

Lesson 3: Learning from the Masters, One Concept at a Time: Duck Dunn

  • The Duck Dunn Concept: Roots and 5ths
  • Golden Gate Quartet's "Job"
  • More on Roots and Fifths
  • Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman"
  • Duck Dunn's "Dock of the Bay"

Lesson 4: Willie Weeks and Chuck Rainey: Rhythmic Variation, Theme Variation, and Repetition

  • The Willie Weeks Concept: Donny Hathaway's "You've Got a Friend"
  • The Chuck Rainey Concept: Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady"
  • More on Repetition: Willie Weeks on Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto"
  • More on Rhythmic Variation and Repetition: Chuck Rainey on Aretha Franklin's "Until You Come Back to Me"

Lesson 5: James Jamerson, Ray Brown, Ron Carter

  • The James Jamerson Concept: Rhythm and Tonality
  • Ray Brown's "Everyday I Have the Blues"
  • Ron Carter with Aretha Franklin: "Bring It On Home To Me"
  • James Jamerson on Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On"

Lesson 6: Midterm Project: Aretha Franklin's "Respect" 

  • Stop Time Chorus and the Verse to "Respect"
  • The Bridge to "Respect"
  • Modulating the Chorus
  • Song Form

Lesson 7: Rhythmic Syncopation: Getting Comfortable Playing on the Upbeats

  • The Verse to King Floyd's "Groove Me"
  • The Chorus to "Groove Me"
  • Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's "Express Yourself"

Lesson 8: Famous R&B Bass Solos

  • Motif and Development
  • Willie Weeks's Solo on Donny Hathaway's "Everything Is Everything"
  • David Hood's Solo on the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There"
  • Bob Babbitt's Solo on Dennis Coffey's "Scorpio"

Lesson 9: When to Play, When to Embellish

  • Bob Babbitt on Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours"
  • James Jamerson on Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her"
  • Ray Charles' "The Night Time Is The Right Time"
  • The Gospel Turnaround

Lesson 10: Melodic Bass Lines

  • Nate Watts on Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke"
  • Tommy Cogbill on Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man"
  • George Porter Jr. on the Meters' "Ain't No Use"
  • Carol Kaye on "Bass Blues"

Lesson 11: Integrating Classic Bass Lines into Your Own Playing

  • Jerry Jemmott BB King's "The Thrill Is Gone"
  • Bootsy Collins on James Brown's "Sex Machine"
  • Developing Your Own Motif Embellishments

Lesson 12: Review and Final Project

  • Humility, Taste, and Feeling "the 1"
  • Your Concept, Your Voice, Your Taste
  • Final Performance

Danny Morris

Author & Instructor

Danny "Mo" Morris is a professor in the bass department at Berklee College of Music, working with students since 1988. He is known for his muted tone, warm personality, and ability to work with all level of students. "My mission is really to teach students how to develop their individuality in terms of their rhythmic concept and their tonal concept, what notes to play and when," says Morris. "There's a consequence to every note you play. And even when you don't play, such as when there's a rest, there's a consequence, because when the bass comes in, it's going to be huge."

Danny gigs regularly with the band Calypso Hurricane and was the bass player for the James Montgomery Blues Band and Jon Pousette-Dart band. He has also performed with Bo Diddley, Robin Ford, James Cotton, and Paula Abdul. Danny is the author of Instant Bass and Essential Rock Grooves for Bass. He is an alumnus of Ithaca College and a graduate of Berklee College of Music.


Completion of Bass Performance 101 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.

Required Textbooks

None required

Software Requirements

  • A basic audio recording tool that will allow you to record yourself playing along with a background track and save the recording in MP3 format. You will have a tool to use for this purpose inside the learning environment. Alternatively, you can use software like Audacity or GarageBand.

Mac Users

  • OS X 10.9 Mavericks or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Windows Users

  • Windows 7 or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Hardware Requirements

  • Electric bass, amp, and a basic amp chord with a 1/4 to 1/8 adapter for recording directly into the computer
  • Audio interface such as the IK Multimedia Stealthplug, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, Mbox, etc. See the Student Deals page for discounts (recommended)
  • A printer is recommended, so that you can print out music examples used in the course
  • A built-in microphone or an external microphone plugged directly into your computer
  • 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
  • 500 MB hard drive space
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam
  • Internet connection with at least 4 Mbps download speed (http://www.speedtest.net to verify or download the Speedtest by Ookla app from your mobile app store)


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