For over 70 years the electric bass has been key in helping to set the tone for modern music. Usually underrated, often overlooked, but forever essential, we look at what’s expected from today’s bass players.
Posted: 19 February 2019
Since the first mass-produced bass guitars hit the market in the early 50’s the bass has been a staple of rock and pop groups. On top of this if you speak to any bassist they’ll tell you that it is a pretty simple instrument to pick up and learn. So why are bassists often difficult to find, and when you do find one what’s expected of them?
Bass may be easy to learn but it’s very difficult to master, which is what makes talented bassists something to treasure. Put simply the bass joins the beats and the melody. Think of it as the glue that ties the rhythm of the drums to the pitch and harmonies laid down by the guitars and vocals. You may not be able to instantly pick out the bass line however it is integral to creating a solid and full sound overall.
Todays bassists not only have to tie the band together, they are also required to set the tone for each song. When we hear several notes played at the same time, we hear them all relative to the lowest sounding pitch — the bass note. This means bassists need to spend much more time listening to the rest of the band and complimenting the wider song rather than having their virtuoso moment in the spotlight.
If you’ve read our piece on the role of a modern drummer you will already know that the relationship between drummer and bass player is critical. Today’s bass players need to have a connection with the drummer so they can establish a groove together. However, this doesn’t mean that as a bass player you need to religiously follow the beat. Less can be more. Think of Geddy Lee, Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones and they were more concerned with the space in between the notes, and not just filling out the song.
Playing bass doesn’t need to restrict you to just 4 strings. Nowadays there’s a whole host of bass guitar variations you can get your hands on, each with differences in tone and style. 5 string basses were originally introduced in the 60’s but fast forward to 2019 and you can play anything up to a 12 string bass. When you combine that with the option of a fretless bass and add in a wide range of playing styles, such as slap or picked, then you start to discover a whole world of tonal possibilities.
Look back to the 80s and the rise of drum machines and synths meant that bassists and drummers felt at risk of being evicted from bands altogether. This isn’t an entirely inaccurate prediction when you look at the rise of hip-hop and the general lack of live instruments throughout that. However, there will always be a place for a bassist who can turn their hand to multiple styles and genres. This is why, generally, modern bassists have brought much more variety and a wider range of influences into what they play.
First and foremost a bassist needs to pull a track (and a band) together. Todays bassist is the ultimate team player, able to perform the crucial tasks that make a band tick whilst expecting minimal time in the spotlight. They may not be loud, brash and in your face, but with probably the best overall understanding of the music they are the wheels that keep the band moving.