Bass essentials

The three issues with this post are firstly those who not like any popular music at all [and I can say that I’m preparing this just before I do my Tuesday evening classical post], secondly those who are not into obtrusive bass, thirdly, those who don’t like my criteria for classic popular songs anyway.

However, I’m hoping there might be one or two of like mind.

To me, in an ensemble, be it Baroque or a modern day band [the exception being jazz] – in other words, in a band with only a few instruments – the bass needs to lift out of continuo, out of just accompanying the other instruments and has to play a major role – the song needs to be remembered just as much for an “authoritative” bass line, like a boss, as for the other elements.

Obviously the beat comes into this too but the rhythm and underlying riffs come from the bass. Peter Hook, of Joy Division and New Order, had this written about him:

Peter Hook: the man who turned playing the bass into an art form… or at least a full contact sport.

One of their songs is further down. Now, something he said was crucial to how bass should be played:

Peter Hook stated in an interview w/ Bass Guitar Magazine that “One of the strange things is that having such a distinctive style doesn’t lend itself to much experimentation.”

Absolutely. Bassists seem to have three ways – firstly, they are employed to provide a rhythmic backing and that’s that, e.g. when Mark Knopfler dominates but I still say now that this song would have been nothing without that strong bass:

The second way, especially with girls who play bass, is that they try so hard to impress and lose all rhythm, all sense of what the bass is for.

It is NOT a lead instrument, therefore to dominate, it needs to play a strong, simple melody line, a bass riff, and then sometimes, only sometimes, slide up and down and divert from that for variety.

It needs to show “authority” without “Eric Clapton slowhanding” all over the place. Bassists must not be show ponies, as this girl is:

No, no, no, she’s wrong. That is the import of what Peter Hook was saying. Bassists are phlegmatic, no nonsense people and if they deviate here and there with no expression on their faces, then that’s a quiet delight for listeners.

Regarded as one of the best bassists in the world, PH did not experiment in a song, he worked out a simple and classic riff, then varied it a bit but anyone hearing him knew that this was a master:

Bass sets the tone, it can even be melancholy, it gives drone, it does the job of bagpipes.

That is why this post opened with Tina Weymouth and the guy presenting knows his stuff.

Tina was that third type of bass … self-effacing, not all that adept, technically, and some have said she was even out of tune on Found a Job, nevertheless she was highly idiosyncratic, just like her band and this is what gave that band that edge –

They played to her, not she to them.  David Byrne was a rhythm guitarist, not a lead. The lead himself was a multi-instrumentalist, quite self-effacing but adept. Many loved that convolution of roles in them.

Amon Duul were a heavily experimental, and therefore uneven band, the starters of Krautrock and yet even here, the bass dominates once it eventually kicks in around 3 minutes:

In fact, you need go back no further than Paul Simon who took this bassist from South Africa back with him because PS understood just what the man had done for that song.  Even his fellow players up on the podium were watching the bassist once he started:

To me, the bassist is not unlike the backman on a football field, the stopper, the headkicker, [or the forward in rugby], laying down the law.

I confess to preferring the female bassists once they understand what it’s about and can be forward enough to take the lead, without playing it as a lead guitar and without trying to show pony.

8 comments for “Bass essentials

  1. Chuckles
    March 21, 2018 at 19:00
    • March 21, 2018 at 20:47

      Shan’t mention I sent those to a lady yesterday.

  2. March 21, 2018 at 20:30

    Bass-wise, I always took the approach to be complementary to the other parts.
    The results were often unexpected or unintended depending on the band, but ranged from sounding like Entwistle to James Jamerson to just left-field bizarreness.

    Gear-wise was pretty standard, but I did have an old EH bad stone phaser pedal that you could set to manual for a rubbery vibrato effect (*not* tremelo).

    Got a bunch on youtube, but would probably need headphones to pick up the bass.

    • March 21, 2018 at 20:48

      One thing I didn’t mention was tone – how that alters everything too.

  3. March 22, 2018 at 03:06

    Highly recommended:

    In Cold Sweat: Interviews with Really Scary Musicians by Thomas Wictor

    “From the chaotic world of music journalism comes this collection of unabridged, unexpurgated interviews with four of the brightest, most influential and complex pop and rock musicians alive: Gene Simmons of Kiss, Peter Hook of New Order, Jerry Casale of Devo, and Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. They are all bass players and they are all plainspoken, profane, stressed out, caustic, antagonistic and on occasion so belligerent they are prepared to engage in psychological warfare with their interviewer. Each interview is illustrated with striking, often candid photographs, and includes an introduction and a postscript. ‘…the ultimate reason I liked this book was because of the very interesting circumstances of the interviews themselves. These people are almost impossible to get a hold of, let alone interview.'”

    • March 22, 2018 at 03:53

      That’s brilliant – I’d add the word “taciturn”. I personally lack the talent but have those other traits in bad measure.

      One thing you have is that unpredictable creative flair, which in that football game would be seen as a forward, opposition not knowing what was coming next and I think I can claim that trait at this blog. When I briefly played football, I was a small forward, expected to be mobile and unpredictable, hard to nail. In rugby, I was an open side flanker, expected to nail the opponent.

      Those character traits seem opposed but you have the backman’s politics and the forward’s creativity.

      Interesting in the clip at the top of the post on Tina W, he describes her bass riffs as “bouncy and melodic”. That was at the beginning. Later, as she was shunted aside, she became those adjectives above and started making trouble.

      This was the time when her bass playing started being praised to the skies. We see this motif over and over, also on the football field. There’s one backman in the team I like, an Irishman Zac Tuoy, an interviewing nightmare, makes inappropriate jokes, is taciturn but a hell of a player, known for shutting down the opponent.

      There really is a correlation. You don’t need to like the person, just respect his skill – a perfect example being Jean-Jacques Burnell of the Stranglers.

      Which means, in the end, you begrudgingly [at first] respect the skill of, then end up liking him. Over here, there is a man, Tommy Robinson, in politics who is a bit like that – belligerent, unstoppable but not unlikable, a good man to have in your corner.

      I’d like to add this:

      Not my team and no point doing an interview, so the players of his era are interviewed instead, plus the coach/manager. In the last minute, they do an interview, the standing joke being he never spoke.

      Every one of those players was one of the greats of that game. The cheeky forwards are easy to spot.

  4. March 22, 2018 at 05:54

    In hindsight, in music (I guess the same could apply to art), there is some “happy outcome” in misinterpreting others’ technique that results in some unexpected creative output, i.e., not realizing Hendrix played left-handed with the guitar upside-down (as did Casale, and, if memory serves, Dick Dale).
    Brings back memories of struggling to learn Nokie Edwards’ Ventures guitar leads, not realizing until years later he was fingerpicking and not flatpicking the whole damn time.

  5. Penseivat
    March 22, 2018 at 11:12

    Didn’t Billy Joel record a song where the only instrument was a bass guitar?
    Have always been interested in that instrument after hearing Jet Harris and Tony Meehan playing Besame Mucho. So much so that I decided to learn to play one. After what seemed like eons, I was able to pluck the correct string and find the correct chord – only not at the same time! Oh well.

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