When you listen to music, each instrument involved (including voice) has a part in putting across the vision of the artist. In a great song all the parts contribute to this vision. It’s not really possible to say that any particular instrument is the most important. This is especially true because different styles of music use a diverse palette of available instruments to create a song. We recently did a video discussing the different ways to record electric bass. For this post, let’s talk about the importance of bass guitar in songs.
When I first started playing in rock bands, bass guitar did not get a lot of respect. When you’re young and putting a band together the players who were usually recognized by fans of the band were the vocalist and lead guitar player. If you started a band and two people were guitar players, the person who was less technical was often ‘assigned’ bass guitar duties. Or if there was a person you wanted in the band who didn’t play an instrument, you’d teach them the bass. This was because the bass player could just stay on the key note of the chord and play eighth notes. This would be enough to add a bottom to the song and improve the dynamics.
The more I listened to funk, jazz and dance music, the more intrigued I became with how the bass could control the song. The role of bass was a bridge between the rhythm and the melody. And the bass has a great effect on the song’s dynamics. Just doing a well placed ‘drop out’ on bass can kick a song to a new level. As the style of ‘post-punk’ grew, I found more and more bands that built ‘rock’ style guitars and vocals on top of funk style bass and drums. I spent a lot of time practicing and refashioned myself as a ‘bass player’. I must say it’s a great deal of fun to stand out of the light on stage and still feel in control of where the song is going.
Another interesting prospect is writing a song from the bass line up. Usually you would start with guitar parts (or keyboards, banjo, mandolin etc) or a vocal melody. We have written songs that started with bass lines. It allows all the other instruments to freely ‘wander’ where they will as the bass is holding down the chord changes. I would guess that some of the songs selected below may have been written this way.
Practicing bass became one of the most enjoyable things I do musically. Playing along with a great bass line, throwing in different changes, rhythms and scales is totally immersive for me. Everything else disappears. Following are some of my favorite ‘bass-centric’ songs (and bands) to practice with. Most of the bands here fall in to a ‘funk-rock’ category rather than straight funk style – out and out ‘funk’ bands would be another full post. I’ve picked specific songs, but in practice I’ll usually play through the entire album. Let’s groove.
The Bamboos – ‘Step It Up’
Funky from start to finish. After you get down the main riff, the sky’s the limit and you can go off on your own tangents. This album is a staple of my practice sessions.
Medium Medium – ‘Hungry, So Angry’
Although I had listened to funk growing up (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown, Funkadelic, The Meters, etc) this was the beginning of mixing my punk roots with a funk bottom. At early ‘punk’ shows you could still see bands in smaller venues and stand right in front of the stage. I learned a lot just watching what and how the bassist was playing. Medium Medium was one of the bands that pulled the ‘slap and pop’ style in to punk.
Gang Of Four – ‘To Hell With Poverty’
More post-punk funk fun. The bass and drums holding down the rhythm allows the guitar to pursue any noise it wants.
My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult – ‘Sex On Wheelz’
The bass sits way down on the bottom end for this song. Sitting on this riff for five minutes will make your fingers laugh and cry at the same time.
Talking Heads – ‘Crosseyed And Painless’
Talking Heads put out a wide variety of music over their careers. Their mid career run of albums of funk rock were amazing. I learned a lot of bass technique watching Tina Weymouth in the ‘Stop Making Sense’ concert movie (a must watch if you haven’t seen it).
The Clash – ‘The Magnificent Seven’
The Clash were another band all about musical variety. Here they combine funk rock music with rap style vocals.
Pylon – ‘Volume’
Pylon combined a solid drums/bass bottom end with a minimalist top end. If you were the rhythm section in a band like this, you really had to stay on point or the whole song could fall apart. Sounds simple, but playing live you had to keep your timing really tight.
Shriekback – ‘Malaria’
The album this came from, ‘Oil And Gold’, is another full play through practice album for me. We did a Messin’ With The Music cover of ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ from the album. Dave Allen from Gang Of Four was the bass player in this band too.
Bush Tetras – ‘Too Many Creeps’
Another solid rhythm with slashing noise on top. We first saw this band in Manhattan in 1980. If you were in New York around that time ‘Too Many Creeps’ would be your theme song. Times Square in 1980, woooooo…….