Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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I was a child of the 70s, and loved (and still do) the music of Chicago, Genesis, Yes, Alan Parsons Project, and other groups of the day. Each group had its signature sound, and its own particular approach to songwriting and song arranging. For Chicago it was the brass, for Yes it was complex lyrics, time signatures and musical phrasing. And for Genesis, I always loved their frequent use of pedal bass.
A pedal bass simply means that while chords are changing, the bass note stays the same. For lack of a better word, a pedal bass is like glue. It can make chord progressions that are a bit complicated sound better by being predictable.
Consider the following progression. Try playing it with 2 beats per chord:
C Eb Bb Gb Ab Bb C
It’s tricky to make this progression work well. The challenge is that many of the chords have roots that move by step (Gb Ab Bb C), and one can lose track of where the tonic chord (C) is.
Now try playing it while keeping the tonic note C as the lowest sounding note through the entire progression (C Eb/C Bb/C, etc.) This pedal bass gives a reference point for the ear to grab on to. And it makes progressions that are even more bizarre sound better because of that constant referral back to the tonic note.
The thing is, the progression still works well if you choose a different pedal bass note. Try the same progression while holding G in the bass, and you’ll get a totally different mood (and an interesting clash between the G bass and the Gb chord!)
Pedal tones work nicely with very standard progressions as well, and can make an otherwise mundane set of changes sound fresher. For an example, listen to the chorus of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me” (from “…And Then There Were Three…”). The pedal bass really works nicely for the first four bars of the chorus, before it starts to move.
Try taking a standard progression and experimenting with different pedal bass notes, and you’ll find a whole array of moods at your fingertips.
Here’s one to try:
C F Dm G Am G C