A bass pedal point refers to a situation where you keep the same note in the bass (or left hand of a keyboard instrument) regardless of the chords that are playing above it. Pedal point can make an otherwise boring progression sound much more interesting because when the bass stays the same it will clash (in musically interesting ways, we hope!) with some of the chords.
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Here’s a typical example from the key of C major: let’s say that you’re starting your songwriting process by using this progression:
C F Dm G7 C
That’s a well-worn standard progression. One way to make it sound more interesting is to try playing those chords keeping the note ‘C’ as your lowest sounding note. You’ll wind up with this (the letter in front of the slash is the chord, and the letter after the slash is the bass note):
C F/C Dm/C G7/C C
or you might see that notated like this:
C F Dm G7 C _______________ C
Click on the play icon below to hear what that sounds like.
Without pedal point (as normal chords):
With pedal point:
As I think you can hear, the chords that use the same bass note through the progression have an interesting sound that makes that often-used progression sound a bit more innovative, and that’s why songwriters often like to use them.
Which Notes Work Best As a Bass Pedal Point?
Theoretically, you can use any note you want as a bass pedal, but the two most common kinds of pedal point you see are:
- Tonic bass pedal point. (The tonic note — the one representing your song’s key — is kept.)
- Dominant bass pedal point. (The dominant note — the fifth note of your song’s key — is kept.)
In the example I described above, since the note that is played throughout the bass is the tonic note (C), that’s a tonic bass pedal point. It has a very stable sound. You can also try that progression while holding the note G (the dominant note) in the bass, creating a dominant bass pedal point. Click below to hear what that would sound like:
How to Use a Bass Pedal Point
If you’re accompanying your song at the piano or guitar, you’ll simply want to keep the bass pedal note as the lowest sounding note. If you’re a bass player in the band, you actually have a bit more freedom to move about to different notes, but you should always make sure that the strong beats (particularly beat 1 of every bar) should land on the pedal note that you’ve chosen.
That means that as a bass player, you will have some freedom to have a very melodic or active bass line, as long as you keep that pedal note on your strong beats.
A great classic example that old Chicago fans who love their music from the 70s will know is the song “Hollywood” (Robert Lamm), which features a dominant bass pedal. From the 2’06” mark of the song through to the end, the chord progression is:
Eb/F – F
Peter Cetera plays a masterfully melodic bass line that is supportive of the other instruments and strongly locked in to the rhythm and tempo of the music. It’s a great example of how a bass pedal point doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to sit on one note while the chords are changing. No matter what the chord of the moment is, he usually lands on ‘F’ for beat 1.
You should listen to the entire song, because you’ll hear another important aspect of chord creativity: slash chords (inversions). There’s a really interesting sense of musical instability — in the best sense of that term — that comes from a progression that’s made up almost entirely of slash chords. But that’s a subject for another blog post!
If you’ve not tried bass pedal point in your progressions before, I hope you give them a try. As with any interesting musical effect, use your discretion to decide if it belongs in your song. You might try pedal point in your verse but not in your chorus, or vice versa.
As a final tip, try using bass pedal point (particularly tonic pedals) for chord progressions that are a bit complex. The constant bass note has a way of gluing chords together and making them make more sense to an audience.
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