How to Make a Dirty Bassline

by Jae Allen

As a bassist, what you choose to play sets the mood, style and harmonic foundation of a song. Basslines can be simple or complex, major or minor or modal, repetitive or varying throughout a song. Differences in the tone of your bass affect the perceived style of the song and the overall flavor of the sound. "Clean" and "dirty" sounds arise from your musical choices together with the timbre and feel of your playing. A dirty bassline lays the foundation of a song or track, and places the bass front and center in the sound.

Items you will need

  • Bass
  • Picks
  • Pedals
Step 1

Choose a rhythm for your bassline. This selection may be the same rhythm as another musician in the group--the drummer or guitarist, for example--is playing. Alternatively, you can play a counterpoint rhythm that fits in around other rhythms and grooves within the group. Syncopation--playing off the main beat--is a common technique in dirty-sounding basslines. A good example of a dirty, syncopated bass riff is found in "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry.

Step 2

Determine the key of the song you are playing and find appropriate notes to play in your chosen rhythm. It is common for bassists to play the root note of the chords in the song--for example, the notes C, F and G in a C-F-G chord progression. However, you can dirty the bassline up by adding "blue" notes--for example, the notes Bb, Eb and F# in the key of C.

Step 3

Try out your bassline with a pick, or play with your fingers. You will find that using a pick gives your sound more of a hard edge and clear attack. Finger-picking gives a rounder, smoother sound. Either mode of playing can sound dirty in a musical context. Although it's a synthesized bass sound, the bassline to "Firestarter" by The Prodigy is representative of a harsh, driving picked bass sound.

Step 4

Modify the sound of your bass with pedals, in a live setting, or tone processing in a recorded or programmed track. Pedals ranging from distortion to flange to wah-wah can dirty up your sound. The range of different timbres you can achieve with processed sound is limitless.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you are looking for a particular bass sound, you can find it in an existing recording. Give this example to your sound or recording engineer as a reference.
  • Protect your hearing by wearing earplugs when playing amplified bass.
  • Warm up and stretch before playing to reduce the risk of physical injury and strains.

Photo Credits

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