In this bass guitar lesson I’m going to show you how to play Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock.
If you’re in the early stages of learning to play jazz on the bass guitar or want to perform at a Jazz session, Watermelon Man is a tune you are highly likely to see.
It was first recorded in the early 1960s where the world of ‘Jazz’ and early ‘Rock’ music started to collide… hence it’s a great tune to learn if you’ve already got experience playing Rock, Pop or Country music.
If you’re asked to play Watermelon Man there’s a good chance you’ll also be asked to play another Herbie Hancock song called ‘Cantaloupe Island’ which has many similarities - we’ll be covering this on the blog next week!
If you want to get the backing track used in this lesson, you can get it as part of The Jazz Jam Backing Track Album Volume 1 - this is a collection of the 12 most popular Jazz songs beginner to intermediate bass guitar players will find on jam sessions. This album is made especially for bass guitar players and uses 100% real musicians - nothing computer generated!
Learn The Watermelon Man Chord Sequence
Watermelon Man is based on a Blues Sequence. If you already know the 12 bar blues sequence you are in a great position to learn this tune!
Watermelon Man uses either a 16 bar or 18 Blues sequence. In this lesson we’re going to look at the 18 bar version.
Just like the regular 12 bar sequence we are using 3 chords - Chord I (F7), Chord IV (Bb7) & Chord V (C7). Bars 1 - 8 are identical to the 12 bar blues sequence.
The big change is bars 9 - 10 or where chords V - IV or C7 - Bb7 are found. The two C7 - Bb7 bars are repeated 3 times ,with a stop on the last chord IV or Bb7.
There are then 4 bars of F7 to finish the sequence.
For the 16 bar version of this song there are only two bars of F7 at the end of the sequence. Make sure you discuss with your band members which version you are playing.
Part 1: The Watermelon Man Riff / Groove
There are two basic riffs or bass grooves that can be found in the original recording of this track.
Bars 1 - 8 and 15 - 18 use a simple roots and 5th riff.
Bars 9 - 14 have a ‘pushed groove’ where the 2nd note of each bar is placed on beat 2+ of the bar.
This is simplified bass line is a great starting point.
Part 2: Adding The Approach Note To The Groove
If you listen to the original recording of Watermelon Man the bass player, Butch Warren, adds a super cool chromatic approach note to beat 4 each bass riff.
The easiest way to understand how this works is to think of the note on beat 4 being half a step away from the target note (which is beat 1 of the next bar). In the case of the F7 bar our approach note is an E. If we’re approaching a Bb chord our ‘approach note’ with be an A.
To link the C7 chord to the Bb7 chord (and back again) with are using the chromatic note B natural on beat 4. This will fall very naturally on the fingerboard.
Part 3: Developing The Bass Line
Students often ask me what’s the best way to start improvising a bass line. When playing a blues inspired sequence like this, the ‘4 Power Notes’ are a great place to start.
The ‘4 Power Notes’ are the Root, 5th, Flat 7th and the Octave. These notes also make up the Box Shape on the neck.
In this last example I’m going to add two 8th notes to each bar (placed on beat 4) using the flat 7th and Octave of each respective chord. It’s a ‘funky’ addition which you’ll be able to use in many musical contexts.
Lesson Wrap Up
Watermelon Man is a seminal Jazz tune and great piece to learn if you’re just starting out playing this style of music.
You’ll also find learning Walking Bass will massively help you come up with creative ideas which will work over this tune. Make sure you check out my book ‘The Essential Guide To Walking Bass for Bass Guitar Players’
My book and my full Walking Bass course ‘The Essential Guide To Walking Bass’ are available inside the Bass Lab PLUS Membership.
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All Bass Lab PLUS courses are easy to understand and simplify complex ideas so bass players in the early phases of learning can make rapid progress and achieve results that impress their friends and family fast.
Good luck and get stuck in!