Recently, I was given access to a trove of books that contain the bass parts to a number of popular Broadway musicals. I’ve spent many years since being an early teenager playing in pits for shows at many different levels. To be a pit musician your reading has to be top notch, your ability to adapt and follow the person on stage has to be lightning quick, and you have to pay incredible attention to key changes, time signature changes, dynamics, accents, and just about every kitchen sink in a small town to pull it all off…and that’s not even counting page turns! In this series of articles, I’ve chosen some riffs, sections, pages, and pieces of these various parts to look at so we can help develop our playing just a little further.
In 2002, I was 15 years old and got my first call to play a community theatre production. Centenary College in Hackettstown, NJ called my best friend Jason (a drummer) and I to do their production of Little Shop of Horrors. I have to say that as a mediocre reader at the time (I had played my school’s Fiddler on the Roof, but had written in EVERY note in the book). This show, especially using a lot of common late 50’s and early 60’s bass lines, really helped me step my game up as a teenage bass player. When I got my hands on the bass book to this show, I hadn’t seen it in nearly a decade, but I could specifically remember where there sections were going to show up that were going to be BIG trouble for me! Wow, what a good long-term memory I have!
At the end of #5 in the book, Ya Never Know, there’s a nice little bass riff at the very end that plays underneath the big group vocal note. It’s relatively simple, but it’s very effective. I specifically remember that this was a line that I took and used pretty frequently in my early gig toolbox. (I can tell that I’ll be using it again here soon!) Let’s have a look and listen at what’s going on in the last bars of Ya Never Know…
Sight-reading this line for the first time, you would probably think that the low F is going to appear again, so you’ll try to pull this line off using a “proper” one-finger-per-fret spread. In theory, you could use that with your first finger on the first fret. In that case, however, you end up having to play the A and D notes as open strings. (It’s just as awkward to try and use your 4th finger to get the 6th fret F on a 5-string.) That doesn’t quite get the best sound in this situation.
I found that the best way to play this line is to hit the low F however you’d like, and then use 4 fingers across 3 frets to play the rest of the line. I do this with my first finger on the 3rd fret, both my second and third fingers on the 4th fret, and my fourth finger on the 5th fret. Even though it’s not written this way, I like to hammer-on from the G# to the A, rolling from my third finger to my fourth. It creates a nice sense of pulling motion to the line. In using this fingering position, it makes the whole line a nice, familiar pentatonic shape. I also generally shorten the G# to be more of a 16th note.
Another thing that this line helps illustrate is the power of the 6th. We’re in the key of F, so the 6th here is the D. In lots of R&B/Soul music, the 6th is a great pivot note. It can really help add some nice variation to lines that focus a lot on the root and the 5th, as well as help move between those two notes, especially when the 7th is only a 1/2 step from the root. This line is a nice example of using the 6th to help keep the line moving rhythmically without having to stay on the (predictable) 5th.
The last thing I want to mention is a note on variation for the average pit player. The audio clip provided is taken from the 2003 revival version of the show. You will notice that the bass player changes the line up a bit as it goes along, mostly the last bar. This is probably acceptable because he’s playing behind some of the most accomplished actors/actresses out there. For most of us, though, this is not the case. Underneath this vocal hold, the bass is pretty much the most prominent piece. This very likely means that in practice, the cast on stage is going to count the number of times this bass riff goes by before they cut off. If you’re playing in a situation where there will be 80 performances over 3 months, it will become second nature for them and you can usually start to “salt” it a little bit after the halfway point of a run. But even then, this line in particular might be cool to just dig in and play.