How to Play Bossa Nova Bass Lines at the Piano

The bossa nova style is a combination of soft samba (with less percussion) and American jazz, with a focus on melody, romance, and beach culture. Perhaps one of the most famous bossa nova composers (sometimes referred to as the "father of bossa nova") is the Brazilian pianist and guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim. Jobim composed some of the most popular bossa novas, including "Girl from Ipanema," "Wave," and "Desafinado." In this article we'll be taking a look at the bossa nova style at the piano using our Standards by the Dozen lesson featuring "Desafinado."

The Bossa Nova Bass Line Rhythms

Bossa novas are usually mid-tempo pieces in 4/4 meter and feature elements of Brazilian music (such as the instrumentation and Portuguese lyrics) and American cool jazz (such as sparse, light comping and percussion). Probably the most important element of playing bossa novas at the piano centers around the bass line, which is played in the left hand. The bossa nova bass line generally features a repetitive rhythmic figure (also referred to as an ostinato) based on the dotted quarter note rhythm. Look at the bossa bass line below. Each measure is the same in terms of its rhythmic placement: beat 1, the "and" of beat 2, beat 3, the "and" of beat 4.

The Bossa Nova Bass Line Notes

The next most important thing to notice are the incredibly simple harmonic tones which construct the bass line - the entire 4-measure phrase above consists entirely of the root and the 5th of each chord. Notice that on beat 1 of each measure we play the root of the chord. On the "and" of beat 2 in each measure we play the 5th of the chord. On beat 3 of each measure we re-play the 5th of the chord (also notice that it does not matter whether you go from the root up to the 5th or from the root down to the 5th - this is a matter of preference).


An interesting thing happens on the "and" of beat 4 in each measure. Here we play what is referred to as an anticipation. An anticipation does exactly what it sounds like - it treats the "and" of beat 4 as if we're getting to the next chord (and therefore the next measure) a half-beat early. This gives the sense of syncopation and surprise (i.e., anticipation) to the sound of the arrival of the next chord. Notice that for each of the chords below the note played on beat 4 has nothing to do with the chord indicated in that measure, but rather is the root of the chord in the next measure.

So let's break this down into a nice easy formula for building our own bossa nova bass lines:

First, use the rhythm indicated in the example above which uses dotted quarter notes and 8th notes;

Second, find the root and 5th of each chord. Start with the root on beat 1, the 5th on the "and" of beat 2, the 5th again on beat 3, and;

Third, be ready to anticipate chord changes on the "and" of beat 4.

Putting It All Together

This bass line will work whether you're using your right hand for comping or - as demonstrated in our Standards by the Dozen lesson featuring Jobim's "Desafinado" - playing the melody in the right hand as featured below. It takes a lot of practice to be able to maintain the bass line while playing the melody over it, so be sure to break down your rhythmic understanding and practice slowly!

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