It’s pretty simple: usually chords on bass sound pretty gnarly, and not in a cool ironic late 80s throwback use of the term ‘gnarly.’ More like ‘Whoa that’s a lot of low frequencies competing for space in my earholes and I need to be somewhere else right now.’ But that’s only if you try to play notes that are super close together. If you put some space between your root note and the notes you put on top of it, you can conjure up some pretty interest- ing harmonic neighbourhoods for the rest of the band to populate. So the idea is simply to balance a low note against a higher one that defines some kind of harmonic certainty.
The most obvious (and often most useful) are the simple major and minor chords. Now typically you’ll construct these chords out of the root, the third and the fifth of the major or minor scale. But in this case we’re going to omit the fifth, jump the third up an octave so it’s not clashing with the root note, and see what happens. Ready?
In Figure 1 we have a simple chord progression using E Major and A Major chords. It sounds overly clouded and muddled. But if we strip out the fifth and the octave, and just run with the major third (actually it’s a 10th because it’s an octave above the third), you get Figure 2. It has much more of a Placebo kind of vibe, don’t you think?
Of course that might be a bit too ‘boppy’ thanks to the major chords, so if we were to substitute minor instead, you get Figure 3 and Figure 4. In this particular case we can also experiment with playing the same notes on different strings for a different texture. Figures 5 and 6 are different ways to approach the Major and Minor versions. The notes are exactly the same but you’ll notice that the texture is totally different: if you’re playing these higher notes lower on the neck they’ll have more punch, but if you move them higher then they fill out the bottom end a little more without overwhelming the arrangement.
You can also try this idea with other chord types of course, and even if you’re not into music theory you can take the basic idea and shift it around until you find something that sounds cool. It’s es- pecially fun to create little mini melodies with the higher note while keeping the root note constant.