Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and when it comes to bass guitar that line is drawn between playing to impress and playing to fit the song. Before I dive into what I mean by this, let me present you with a scenario.
Say you’re considering buying a bass or have just become the owner of one. Now, what’s the first thing you do beside strumming your soon-to-be-calloused index finger over the E string?
If you’re anything like high school me, after fumbling around with the tab to “Day Tripper” a few times, you go on Youtube and look up all the masters of the instrument:Victor Wooten, Flea, Jaco Pastorius, Geddy Lee, Marcus Miller and so on.
You watch in awe as you see a more expensive version of your new instrument grooving at the forefront of a song or showcased in an impressive solo. It’s an inspiring display for anyone who looks to learn all of the ins and outs of the low-end ax in order to replicate the excitement you felt watching it.
However, in a moment of musical inquiry, it’s soon realized that the reason those songs are so impressive is that they are based around the bass, just like how The Smiths are based around Morrissey’s voice, in a sense. Thus, the true mark of a solid bass player is playing lines and using techniques that fit the feel of each specific song, whether it be over-the-top slapping and popping or a more melodic, subdued approach.
Aside from a few select genres like funk and reggae, the bass is most widely used as part of the rhythm section, along with drums, and not as a lead instrument. In fact, I once heard the role of the bass described as “drums that have notes,” which illustrates the connection these two instruments have more clearly.
Many famous bass players in bands, rather than those billed as headliner for their name or playing, garnered fame simply by finding ways to achieve the best basslines with the least amount of excess. Paul McCartney played minimal, sparse lines with rapid note-leading during changes, but the sounds of his Höfner became integral to the sound of The Beatles. It’s difficult to imagine a different tone. Similarly, John Entwistle of The Who played mostly in the background of the mix, but his rhythmic contributions helped to glue each of their songs together, like any good bass playing should.
Countless other examples (John Paul Jones, Charles Mingus, Kim Deal) provide evidence that playing a simple line in place of an unnecessarily complex one can result in much more impressive, memorable playing. Less is definitely more if you’re not in the midst of a heart-pounding solo. Throw in an occasional fifth or third for an accent and you’re pretty much golden, ready to be inducted in the Bass Player Hall of Fame (which if it existed, I imagine would also be in Cleveland).
As the TV show Futurama once observed, “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Few quotations have indirectly summed up bass playing for me so well, and it’s my judgement that the quality of a bass player should be often held in their ability to make people forget that they exist at all.
Luke Furman is a sophomore studying journalism and a reporter for The Post. Do you play bass guitar? Tweet him @LukeFurmanOU or email him at email@example.com.