Column: The Critical Curmudgeon
Beginning To Broach The Basics of Bassists
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 20:01
Did you hear about the God-awful bass player? He was so bad, even the lead singer noticed!
Ah, the wonderful world of bassist jokes. As far as instruments in popular Rock ‘n’ Roll go, few are as disparaged as the bass guitar. Even the guy with the unplugged acoustic might at least look sexy if you stand far enough away, but bass is never a sexy instrument. Rock bassists often get flak for their unglamorous role, the percussive string instrument that, for the larger part, hangs in the background of great tunes. Holding up a bass line looks tedious and unrewarding, since you’re usually being drowned out by the forefront sounds reserved for the front-men, the lead guitarists, and Clarence Clemens (R.I.P.). Audiences rarely concern themselves with that low rumbling noise propping up the guitar solo, especially when the loudest percussion onstage is coming from the guy in the back banging on them bongos like a chimpanzee.
Smash hits in the bass guitar world often go underappreciated by the general music populous. Jaco Pastorius, for one, was widely regarded as the guy who revolutionized bass forever, yet he’s hardly a household name. Guys like McCartney, Sting, and Flea are iconic, of course, but that’s not so much for their phenomenal bass work as it is for either fronting the greatest band ever or for having a silly name. By the “greatest band ever,” I of course mean The Police. Who names their kid Paul?
So was Stephen Colbert right when he said that bass players made a poorly worded deal with the devil? Was McCartney right with his original intuition, that the bassist is invariably the “fat guy who played at the back?” Of course not! Especially not since the latest trending music is positively sopping with opportunities for creative slap-bass, ambiance tones, and pulsating R&B phrases. Whether it’s Dubstep, Techno, House Music, or Drum & Bass, recent minimalism in the dance and pop scene has launched bass into the coveted limelight for a great deal of inexplicably popular music. It’s even popularized the battle cry of “Drop the bass!” followed by the desperate wub-wubs of a scared machine having a conniption. All that buzzing and whirring is bass guitar, right? It’s just distorted, digitalized, and played in a wind tunnel by the musician’s (or musicians’) genitalia flapping gloriously against the strings. Right?
Oh, cruel deceit! The awful truth of the matter is that many of those genres that have used bass as more than a simple rhythm instrument are computerized and simplified to a point where the actual bassist is unnecessary for the hydraulic-bumping sound desired. When T-Swift features those resonating open notes in the refrain in “I Knew You Were Trouble,” there isn’t much along the lines of string work going on in the studio. Nor is there much at a Skrillex concert, for that matter. Is inventing good, catchy bass really so simple a Mac can do it?
The reality of the matter is that constructing bass lines is simultaneously a science and an art, and the music you listen to, rock or otherwise, sounds tinny and strange without it. The problem is that, in its most basic (ha) form, the bassist hardly has to play more than seven or eight notes per chord progression to get the job done, if he wanted to be lazy. But there are a number of bassists, some celebrated and others less so, that take being the backbone of a melody to an entirely different level. For instance, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin shows off his creative chops on just about every rockabilly fill the group did, such as the brilliantly designed back-and-forth between him and Jimmy Page on “The Lemon Song.” John Deacon of Queen and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote those fantastically imaginative riffs that you always find yourself caught up in, like “Under Pressure” and “Money”. And of course, dominating the game is John Entwistle of The Who. If you haven’t heard the isolated bass of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” you have no idea what you’re missing. It’s as if he’s soloing for the entire 10 minute song, and he hardly even turns his neck once. The instrument is fascinating in its economy and potential, so don’t confuse bass being played with bass being dropped.
Sorry about the bassist jokes, folks. Here, I’ll make it up to you: what do you call a guy who hangs around three musicians?