Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Thing About Bass Players

ABSTRACT: Bass players are insecure and need to come to terms with their lesser role in the band. (originally published 3/28/11)

Before you get all riled up, you should know that I'm a bassist. I play several instruments at various skill levels, but rock bass guitar is what I started on, and it's the instrument I'm the most comfortable playing. Somehow, your knowing this excuses everything I'm about to say.

I suppose this I should clear this up too:

ROCK BASS [rok beys]: The guitar with which a musician plays the lowest part in harmonic music in any type of rock music setting, from the Beatles to Fucking Slayer.

ROCK BASS [rok bæs]: Any of numerous edible, spiny-finned, freshwater or marine fishes of the families Serranidae and Centrarchidae

Rock bass is not a very difficult instrument to play. Relative to the other instruments in a rock band (guitar, drums, keyboard), it has the least possible ways to fuck up. There are only two ways to make a mistake on the bass: hit the wrong note, and hit it at the wrong time. Both are very easily fixed by quickly jumping into a scale and claiming you were just being "jazzy". If the rock band were a restaurant kitchen, the bass player would be the dishwasher (drummer = deep fry cook; lead guitarist = head chef; rhythm guitarist = food prep; keyboard = saucier; lead singer = when the owner drops by to "help" and just fucks everything up because he's not really that familiar with the actual inner workings of a kitchen).

For that reason, the bass player in a rock band is the most easily replaced. His parts are the easiest to learn in a short amount of time, and because he's the least recognized member of the band, no one really notices when a new bass player rolls into town. Need a new drummer? Fuck, we're out of commission for a month. Need a new bass player? No problem, we'll just grab someone off the street before soundcheck.

Bass players have it easy - they have the least pressure about fucking up, because no one ever really notices when they do. They have the least pressure when it comes to skill level, because at the bare minimum all they have to do is wait for the guitarists to come up with the music, then just play a simpler version of it on bass. Compare the bass and guitar parts on Guitar Hero, you'll see what I mean.

Bass players know at some level that no one really cares about them. They're important to the overall sound of the band, but unfortunately it's one of those instances where they just don't get the credit they deserve, much like the guy that removes gum and cigarette butts from urinals. As a result, they're burdened with one hell of an inferiority complex, which causes them to do things that a bassist shouldn't be doing, so they can shine like a crazy diamond, even if just for a second.

Next time you're at a show, watch the bass player intently for a few songs. He'll most likely perform what's known as a "slide" at some point, hitting a note high on the neck and sliding down to a heavy-handed root note. It'll be in a quiet part of the song, like when the drums and guitar cut out for a second - that's his time to shine, one big hurrah.
The especially insecure ones will take it a step further and slide UP the neck first, so it's like "buwAAwugh!" instead of "BEeoooo!" Watch his face when he performs this move - he's glowing from the sheer intensity of his moment of glory. Or, even worse, he's looking out at the crowd with a "Yeah that's right, you all want to fuck me now" look. It's kind of sad.

Another thing an insecure bass player will do is too much noodling high up on the neck. The bass guitar is supposed to provide a middle ground between guitar and drums. Rhythmically it locks into both instruments, and sonically it provides a low end such that in some circumstances you don't so much hear the notes as you do feel them. This low end is achieved by playing in the bass guitar's strong area: anywhere below the 7th fret. All that other space? That's just filler, necessary for the length of the neck, and to give the guy somewhere to slide down from. It's ok to wander up there once in awhile for a kick ass solo, or during an entire section of the song that's dynamically different from the rest, or for a quick flourish, so long as the majority of the song is tastefully played below the 7th fret, preferably on the E, A and D strings. When an insecure bass player moves too far up the neck too often, it just takes away from the low-end rumble of the bass that's supposed to be reaching down into people's throats and poking around their guts.

Some bass players like to compensate by adding extra strings to their instrument. A 5th string, provided it's tuned to low B, adds 4 extra notes to the bass, but the're at the low end where it matters so I'll allow it. My main bass through high school was a 5-string, and I used the shit out of that extra string, so it wouldn't go to waste. But there are bass guitars with 6 or more strings, with the high string(s) tuned to lord knows what. All it does is add more room for wanky high-up noodling which sounds ridiculous (see above). They also allow for complex chords, which just end up sounding like shit on bass. It's ok to hit a couple of notes at the same time for a neat little oomph, but an entire chord? No, that's what guitar players are for, and you're not a guitar player.

The bass player should stand out visually, not sonically. He should have the longest hair in the band, he should sling his bass as low as humanly possible, he should giv'er the hardest on stage. Their parts are the easiest to play, so they can use all that extra mental capacity to run around, headbang, execute perfectly timed rock jumps, scream bitchin' backup vocals, that sort of thing. Bass players get laid for their antics, not their talents. Take this quiz by guessing which one gets laid most:

Here's a joke I heard, from @trevorbattle (find him on twitter)

So this kid goes to his dad and says "I think I want to be a musician, I think I want to take bass lessons". So the dad says sure, and signs him up.

After one lesson he comes home and the dad asks "How was your lesson?" and the son says "Great, I learned how to hold the bass, and I learned the names of the strings!".

After lesson two, the dad asks "How was the lesson?" and the son goes "Oh it was awesome, I learned how to tune the bass and how to pluck a string!"

After the third lesson the dad asks "How was the lesson?" and the kid says "Ah, I blew it off today, I had a gig.

[edit 2]

Courtesy of one of the funnest afternoons I've ever spent, at

No comments:

Post a Comment