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Jim Stinnett: Bossa Nova Bass

This lesson, Bossa Nova Bass, is an excerpt from the online course, Jazz Bass 2 at Stinnett Music Online School.

Jim Stinnett is one of the world’s foremost instructors of both the electric bass as well as the upright. In addition to his teaching duties for over 20 years at Berklee College of Music in Boston (where he is a full Professor), Jim’s expertise in great playing and great pedagogy draw large numbers of students from all over the world to the Stinnett Music programs. In New Hampshire, Jim runs multiple sessions of Bass Workouts, as well as the all-out New Hampshire Bass Fest, annually. What truly makes Jim’s teaching leaps and bounds better than any other bass education program is his ability to make an idea like this so complete in one stream of thought, yet keep it from being complex enough for the average player to lose interest in the topic. As you will see in this lesson, the art of the Bossa Nova bassline is broken down and explained bit by bit to build a firm, well-informed, and most importantly, musical foundation on the subject.

Please note that all notation files can be enlarged upon clicking on them.


Music from many cultures are a vital part of the American music scene today. Bossa Nova is the most popular of all these imported styles. Bossa Nova is a unique Brazilian style of music that became an integral part of Jazz performance in the 1960s. If you are going to be prepared to work jazz gigs, you must play Bossa Nova well.

I recently spent two weeks in Brazil, playing and teaching bass. I want to tell you, these guys are serious about the bass down there. I have never seen as much importance placed on the bass in music. Everyone was grooving, soloing, and leading with the bass. While they loved our straight-ahead jazz, they went crazy over our Bossa Nova tunes. We played simple bossa bass lines and killed them with taste. I have listened to and played Bossa Nova tunes for many years. I was always struck by the beauty and power of Bossa Nova bass.

The most prolific composer of Bossa Nova style was Antonio Carlos Jobim. Most of Tom Jobim’s songs have become standards in our jazz repertoire. This lesson will use Jobim’s music to explore the beauty of Bossa Nova bass.

Rhythms & Pitches

The bossa bass line is simple. It’s beauty lies in its simplicity. That said, KEEP IT SIMPLE. Just like the quarter-note rhythm in a walking bass line, the dotted-quarter eighth-note pattern in the bossa nova bass line is mighty powerful when played well. The characteristics of the bossa bass line are; pitches = roots and 5ths, rhythms = dotted-quarter followed by eighth-note.

Here is a beautiful Jobim tune, Dindi. This bass line is simple and effective. (Sequenced track for illustration)


Dindi bassline transcription


There are numerous variations to the basic Bossa Nova bass pattern. We will look at a few popular ones. A good rule of thumb is to use these variations sparingly, sandwiched in between the basic groove. In the example below, the variations move away from the basic pattern.

[audio:3.3_bossa variations.mp3]

In a Bossa Nova bass line, your choice of which register to use when playing the 5th of each chord is very important. There is a distinct difference in sound between the 5th above the root and the 5th below the root. This difference is felt more strongly with certain chord movement. Here is a typical illustration found in many books of how to play a Bossa bass line. Notice that all of the 5ths are located above the preceding roots.

While the use of the 5th above is common place, in not the necessarily the preferred motion. Let’s look at how playing the lower 5th affects the overall shape of our line. Playing the lower A in the first measure creates a smooth step-wise motion to the root of G7. The D (5th) in the second measure is the same octave (common tone) note as the root of D-7. In measure three and four, the lower 5th is now the common tone to the preceding G7.


An important aspect of good Bossa bass playing is phrasing. Phrasing, when playing a bass line, is sometimes difficult to hear on the surface. There are a variety of elements that are used to create phrases – long notes vs. short notes, rhythms, pitches, dynamics, repetition, question and answer, and register. This example shows the four-measure phrases broken into two distinct 2-bar shapes. The repetition and mixing and matching of the 2-bar phrases, creates longer, interesting, eight and sixteen-bar phrases. Notice the characteristics of each 2-measure phrase.

In the notation for this video, each two-bar pattern is labeled so you can see the progression of development. Notice the various combinations that make up the four-bar phrases. Can you see how there are three different sections that make up the overall tune?

Section 1 – measures 1-24: The first three four-bar phrases end with the A pattern. The next three phrases end with the B pattern.

Section 2 – measures 25-40: four phrases that begin with pattern 4 followed by variations on pattern C.

Section 3 – measures 41-56: quite a bit of variation using elements of the previous patterns combined with new shapes. There is a slight resolution of the song with the last phrase returning to a familiar pattern #4 and a C pattern combination.

It has been my observation that many students actually use far too many shapes and patterns in their playing. This results in too little repetition and weakens the bass line. The goal is NOT to figure out numerous cool patterns, but rather to create a flow and shape to the entire song. Your bass line should be repetitive enough so the other musicians are comfortable knowing where you are going. They can then build on your foundation. You, in turn, can use variation to move the song along and shape it.

Creating Phrasing

Here are eight different two-bar phrases played over the same chord changes. Follow the process outlined below to learn and hear the subtle beauty of creating phrasing.

1) Begin using the play-along that has each phrase performed 4 times in a row. This is just to get the sound in your ear. With repetition, you will become comfortable with the hand position and shapes of each phrase. Listen to how the movement from one phrase to the next creates a form-type phrasing. This phrasing leads your ear.

[audio:3.11_2 bar phrases x4.mp3]

2) Now move to the track that repeats each phrase twice. The overall phrasing takes on an entirely new feel. Work with this audio track and this movement until it feels natural. Because the phrase groups are now 4 bars long instead of 8 bars long, you will play through entire group of 2-bar phrases twice.

[audio:3.12_2 bar phrases x2.mp3]

3) The example has each 2-bar phrase played only once through before moving on to the next. You will play through the entire song 4 times. This track is actually a very good example of BAD phrasing. I normally do not like to use examples of what NOT to play, but in this case it is good to hear how quickly the movement from phrase to phrase happens. This quick progression totally disrupts the flow of the song. Ultimately, your ear will tell you when to move from one groove to the next.

[audio:3.13_2 bar phrases x1.mp3]

As you learn the sounds of the 2-bar phrases and can recall each one from memory, you will find certain ones that your ear likes to use to end a long phrase. You will choose combinations that takes your line to a different place, creating tension and resolution in your longer lines. Do not underestimate the power of repetition here. With directed repetition, these simple shapes can become a part of your vocabulary to use at will.

4) The last play-along track has NO bass. It is your job to mix, match, and combine the two-measure phrases to create longer phrases. Watch the previous video (3.8) again to get an idea of how to combine the phrases.

[audio:3.14_2 bar phrases no bass.mp3]

Try these combinations:

A) phrase 1 played two times = 4 measures
B) phrase 1 played three times, followed by phrase 2 played once = 8 measures
C) phrase 1 played once, followed by phrase 2, then repeat = 8 measures
D) phrase 3 played one time, followed by phrase 2 one time = 4 measures
E) phrase 6, then phrase 4, followed by phrase 6, ending with phrase 7 = 8 measures

Get creative with your combinations, and listen to the resulting phrases. If you find this difficult, go back and practice each pattern individually.

Phrasing Techniques

Here is a list of techniques I commonly use to create phrasing while playing a bossa bass line.

I think of my line with specific characteristics, one of the four listed below. I typically start with the simpliest sound. You can look back to the song Dindi and see this. Then at a chosen point I move to incorporate a new set of characteristics. This gives the song an impetus, or directions. I can then go back to my original concept, to bring the feel back home.

Now that my song has two distinct areas of feel, I can now choose to spice up one the of sections by moving to using a new set of characteristics, or not. Most great bassists do this sort of shaping naturally without even thinking about it. They just let their ears guide them. As a student we need to practice this phrase shaping to get the concept and sound in our ears.

Here are four different sets of characteristics I commonly use when playing a Bossa Nova bass line:

1. low and simple,?roots only,?repetitive rhythm pattern
2. roots & 5ths, ?2-bar rhythmic pattern, ?alternating lower & higher 5th
3. add half-step approaches, ?rhythmic variety, ?4-bar phrasing
4. register shifts, ?8-bar phrasing, ?song form phrasing

While virtually none of these choices are consciously thought of while performing live music, they can, and should be, practiced. By drawing your attention to these various aspects and isolating them in your practice, your ear will draw on them when you are playing for real. When the pressure is on, we always revert to default. During live playing conditions, we play those things we are comfortable playing. To allow new techniques and concepts into our default menu, we must work to make these things comfortable in our fingers and ears. We do this by focused repetition in practice. Students often ask me, “When will I get this into my playing?” It’s not a matter of time; it’s a question of comfort level. There is no seniority in music. Many things you would like to play don’t just soak in over time. You have to make them part of your vocabulary by practicing them until they are comfortable.

Listen for these form / phrase characteristics in the music you hear. Transcribe the phrases you like, and turn them into practice exercises. Exercise patience playing your Bossa bass lines. Take your time to add just the small bit of variation. Remember, simple is always best. Play with taste.

Excerpt from the book, Reading Bass Parts Vol. 1

[audio:audio 3.15.mp3]


Jobim’s music is easy to play and easy on the ears. They are a bass player’s dream because the more simply you play, the better the song sounds. I once heard someone say, “If Jobim’s tunes weren’t so beautiful they would be boring as hell.” Who said good had to be complicated?

There are many recordings of Jobim’s music. The quality of the melody and the harmonic movement is a testament to why his songs have been arranged for countless groups. You can hear Jobim’s music performed as an instrumental jazz version, big-band jazz, pop style with strings, solo voice with guitar, etc.

What is it that makes Jobim’s music so popular, and able to traverse cultures? I cannot pretend to answer this question definitively, but to me, it is the simplicity of melody, harmony, and rhythm, and of course, the hypnotic bass groove.

Check out these excerpts of some of my favorite versions of Jobim classics.

Quiet Nights – Performed by Oscar Peterson
[audio:3.23_quiet nights-oscar.mp3]

How Insensitive – Performed by Diana Krall
[audio:3.24_how insensitive-diana k.mp3]

No More Blues – Performed by Bia Mestrin

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  1. Great content! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Talk about making beautiful music…. Very nice!

  3. great lesson thanks!!!

  4. This is amazing. It’s explained in a very simple and straightforward way even I can understand it 😉

    This lesson comes at the right time for me – since I’m being taught how to create my own bass lines. We’ve begun with the 5th (up and down) and 8, and also to use ‘in between notes in half steps’ to juice it up so to speak. So this lesson really compliments what I’m working on right now – so thank you for this wonderful gift.

  5. This was a great lesson – very thorough and easy to follow. So good in fact, that I took what I learned into my band’s rehearsal last night and as we were working on a new song, I just dropped in a bossa nova line and the band loved it!!


  6. Perfect Jim ! this is what it needs to be a great musician, simple and effective ! thanks, Albin

  7. Andrew – So glad that you enjoyed this and were able to use the skills so soon! Keep practicing with the play-a-long tracks in this lesson, and your ability to play good Bossa Nova will grow exponentially!

    Albin – Thanks for coming over and reading!

    Fran – Keep practicing!

  8. One of my favorite lessons in Jazz Bass II.

  9. How cool, to see folks enjoying this little glimpse into the beauty of Bossa Bass. Thanks Matt. And all of you who are appreciating this lesson


  11. This is an incredibly helpful lesson. Thank you! However, all of the audio links now link to the first Dindi sound file. Can the others please be restored?

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