One of the trickiest things about trying to play Samba as a bassist is the distressing lack of examples to follow. Samba has no traditional role for a bassist. This was tough to wrap my head around when I first started playing it, and I’m still getting used to it. I’ve been told my some Brazilians that this is mostly a matter of people not being able to afford basses, but I don’t believe it. I think that Samba just works best with wide gaps between high, middle, and low pitched instruments.
(Casuarina – Vaso Ruim)
In a big deal production like this, you can get a feel for the samba aesthetic. The percussion and chordal accompaniment is all pretty high pitched, and the only thing in the low end is the 7 string guitar, which is pretty thin sounding (on purpose, I’m sure). The vocal occupies the middle register, and everything else floats above it.
There is a lot of Brazilian music, even samba influenced music, that does use the bass, but it usually seems to import along with it a lot of other North American conventions such as drumsets, keyboards, and American Rock, Funk, or Pop elements. This is really great stuff, but it’s not exactly a classic samba.
(Jorge Ben – Mas Que Nada)
There are two instruments in a traditional samba which somewhat comparable in timbre and range to a bass and serve as a kind of a model, though each have their problems: The Surdo and the 7 string guitar. The surdo is the lowest pitched percussion instrument in a samba ensemble, and acts as a bass drum. The surdo plays a heavy, open sound on beat 2 of every bar, marking the first beat with a muted stroke or leaving it silent. This kind of thing translates pretty well to the bass, playing something soft and short on the first beat and long and heavy on the second. The only problem with this is that it can feel pretty disorienting to somebody used to hearing something strong on the first beat, and if you push it too hard, you run the risk of flipping the beat around, causing some to perceive the second beat as the first. In a percussion ensemble, the rest of the instruments balance it out a bit, but electric bass has a way of taking over the groove, especially when you’re playing long, heavy notes
The other instrument which lives in the low end is the 7 string guitar. This is used a lot in choro music, a kind of chamber music samba.
(this example might be a bit silly, but it has the thing I’m talking about)
These 7 string players play a lot of stuff, and they play it pretty low, but it’s tricky to play the same kinds of lines on a bass. Again, it’s a question of timbre. 7 string guitars are pretty thin in the low register, and electric basses are just the opposite. When playing quick runs, it’s really easy to overpower the other instruments and ruin everything.
What I play takes things from both of these instruments, along with other things. Lately I’ve been experimenting with changing the sound of my bass to try to fit better into this kind of ensemble. I play with a much thinner tone than I normally would, with neither a heavy bass sound, or the kind of growl which usually works in rock music. I’m still working on it, but it seems to let me sit back in the ensemble, playing more without overpowering the ensemble and messing with the groove