B is for “Bass”

Bass: N. — the lowest-sounding member of an instrument family.

No mincing, no dancing around it, no pulling punches. The bass guitar is the most important, most influential instrument in pop music.

OK, I’m a little biased, but that doesn’t make it less true. Because of the success of an electrified bass guitar that was easy to hold and play, music’s focus changed from melody-driven to rhythm-driven. Hail hail, rock and roll, baby.

As bands got bigger, guitarists could add a pickup to their archtops and play through amplifiers, and drummers could bash (as they are wont to do). But the bassist was stuck behind “the doghouse,” playing toward the back of the stage. If he was lucky enough to be mic’d, then he was really stuck there, and couldn’t come up front to sing. I honestly have no idea how anybody heard the bass in the ’30s and ’40s amid the scorching horn sections, pounding pianos, bombastic drummers, and crowing crooners.

For rock and roll to succeed, the groove had to happen, and for that to occur, the bass had to step forward in the mix. Enter Leo Fender and the Fender Precision Bass in 1951. There were other amplified basses prior to the P-Bass, but Leo bottled the lightning in just the right way—a pleasing shape, punchy sound, lotsa chrome (this was the ’50s), removable neck, and sturdy construction (not to mention a working bass amp). It caught on almost immediately, and the world of pop changed forever.

Bass is a much a function as it is an instrument; Stevie Wonder and his terrific left hand come immediately to mind, especially on a tune like “Boogie on Reggae Woman”, while a few groups (and hits) get by without a bass at all (remember Prince’s “When Doves Cry?” Not a bass anywhere on that song). But those are rare.

The bass isn’t just some oversized guitar. A good bassist’s mindset is to drive the band, keeping the tempo, defining the chord changes, and providing a foundation—a big sonic pillow for the rest of the band to sit on.

Listen to how Jerry Jemmott pushes things along w/King Curtis.

Or the simple dotted-eighth pulsing synth bass in a lot of ’80s music.

Or the way the bass (nice P-Bass/SVT combo!) pushes the Fratellis through the 7/4 time sig changes in the chorus. Without it, there’d be a trainwreck for sure.

Check out Jim Roberts’ terrific “How the Fender Bass Changed the World” if you need more convincing.

2 Responses to “B is for “Bass””

  1. So, the other day I was listening to Bon Jovi’s “Living On a Prayer”, and dissecting it to figure out what the crucial hooks of the song are. Sure, the lyrics are great pop, and the guitar and drums give a fat, stadium type of sound.

    But, it’s that melodic bass line that’s happily carrying the weight of the entire song. It would be nowhere without the bass running by that major third.

  2. Hey, Dingo! Is that Alec John Such playing that line, or vet Hugh McDonald? It is a very good bassline.

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