Over the past few weeks I have encountered at least 5 people who asked me the question “What is a bass guitar for? They just play one note during the whole song”. After staring at them for a full 5 minutes without saying anything like a weirdo and then going on a 20 minute rant about why the bass guitar is one of the most important aspects of any band, I decided it was time. It was time to educate the unwashed masses about the importance of the bass guitar. So here it is, a blog post about what a bass guitar does in a rock band. Or any band at all. Strap in because this is going to be highly informative, full of sarcasm and a little on the angry side. Bear with me.
Let’s get one thing straight. This blog post is going to be a long one. I am going to talk about the techniques involved with playing bass, the importance of bass in terms of music and rhythm and I am also going to mention a few bass players who make your favorite bands, well, your favorite. So I need you to curb your skepticism and prepare your brain. Otherwise, you’re going to keep thinking bass isn’t that important and I cannot have that, now, can I?
Alright, so let’s get started.
Bass in musical theory
Alright so, let me get theoretical on your day. This does not mean I am trying to ruin your day, though the realization of how much you messed up after I’m done explaining might ruin it. It means I am trying my best to educate you about things. Anyway.
Any music is built upon three main elements: Rhythm, Harmony and Melody. These are considered to be the three foundations of any song that make it so pleasant to listen to. This is basic knowledge among musicians who have more than a week-long relationship with music. Each one of these aspects is incredibly important and I am going to give you a quick summary of the concepts, for your own benefit. Think of it as a crash course in music theory basics.
The first thing I want to talk about is the rhythm of music. The simplest way for me to explain rhythm is through an example. Think of any song where clapping is involved. Whether it is a nursery song or something more sophisticated it doesn’t matter. In this case, since its popular and I do love it, we are going to pick Mark Ronson song Uptown Funk, featuring Bruno Mars.
Once you turn the song on you will hear a clap. If you start counting the time between the claps, you will realize that they repeat after a set amount of time. This sets the rhythm for the song. So basically, the rhythm is the speed of the song, how fast it feels. The clap in Uptown Funk is measuring the beat. The rhythm is the combination of speeds overall, or how you basically populate the beat. Some aspects of the song are fast, some are slow, yet all of them inhabit the same beat and contribute to the rhythm.
The melody of the song is probably the easiest thing to explain and also to notice. The melody is an arrangement of notes of different pitches, whether repeated or not, that are organized in a specific way. The melody is usually the theme of the song, the part that is the easiest to whistle, sing or hum to yourself. It is what the song is built around and is usually incredibly easy to recognize.
Getting back to Uptown Funk for easy identification. When the song begins you will notice the deep voice going “Dum Dum Dum” in a much more musical way than written words can express. This can be identified as the melody of the song.
Finally, the part that makes a song what it is. The harmony in a song is the combination of all the instruments performing the melody and the instruments accompanying them. If you have a lead vocals performing the melody of the song, you might have a piano or a guitar accompanying the voice, complimenting it and harmonizing with it. This creates the overall harmony of the song and adds depth and complexity to music, which is why it becomes so much more enjoyable. I mean just a rhythm and just a melody without some harmony are possible, but often can be kind of boring.
So how does the bass guitar fit in all of this?
Well, if you have been doing some reasoning up to this point you will realize that the bass has a big role to play in the establishment of a rhythm within a song. If you are smarter than the average Joe you might have also realized that the bass plays a big role in the Harmony of a song.
Let’s get Specific
Rhythmically speaking, the guitar provides a strong and one of the most important foundations for any song. Any bassist will know that a good bass line is pleasant, lively and very rhythmic. You must be able to not your head, tap your foot or dance to the rhythm of the bass for it to be good. Correct rhythmic placing of the notes will allow the bass player to support the entire rhythmic feeling of the song and the band, and allows the song to come together overall. The drummer serves a similar purpose, yet the bass player should be able to independently support the rhythm of the song, just like the drummer. It’s not a competition, but a collaboration.
Alright, not so average Joe, let’s talk about the Harmonic importance of the bass. If you understand harmony than you must understand that when several notes are played together, they result in a certain sound and feeling. The way you feel about the sound is the result of the type of the combination of sounds and the way they compare to each other. Oftentimes, when you try to compare things to each other, especially in music, you need a base line, somewhere basic to start comparing from. This is usually the lowest sound, and you guessed it, the bass sound. Often times whatever bass note is played will result in a very specific combination with the rest of the harmony and a feeling is produced, highly dependent on the bass. So, there you go, that’s the role of the bass. To make the music feel a certain way. Basically the most important part.
If you are still unconvinced of the importance of the bass player in your band, let me tell you about what amazing things bass players have done over the years, you stubborn not-so-average Joe.
While you might be thinking that some of the greatest bands ever are the result of the vocalist and the guitar player being amazing, I am sitting here giggling to myself. I know that so many bands are insanely successful and popular because of the bass player is simply amazing. Doing innovative things, making music to blow minds and introducing harmonies and rhythms that bring a tear to your eye.
If you are in any way a rock and roll lover then you know who I am talking about.
The man, the legend, and the single soul I will never get tired of talking about. He is my hero, he has a story to fascinate and inspire and his bass playing has been so innovative, beautiful and funky over the years. His bass lines have caused my head to bob more times than I care to admit and he has had me going running, dancing and singing for hours at a time.
I mean the guy brought a whole bunch of new things to the world of rock. His Pull and Slap technique with the bass has proven to be some of the most fun, funky and energetic bass sound rock has ever seen. His speed and the fact that he is not afraid to introduce fast, powerful bass lines into songs, have resulted in some of the most high-energy, beautiful songs out there.
I mean just listen to some of his songs. If you don’t want to go on a googling spree right now, here is just one song you might find curious.
Give it Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers contains some of the funkiest bass I have ever heard. The song is entirely dominated by Flea, giving the music a flavor that you have not tasted before. This is what makes Red Hots so good. Flea has so much to offer, together with the rest of the band. Amazing stuff really.
In the End
So here you have it, all of the basics of why you need to get a bass player for your band. Or why you should be the bass player in a band. Or why bass players deserve way more respect than your average Joe gives them. But as we have established throughout the article, you are no average Joe. You are an intelligent human being who understand the very basics of music and knows the importance the bass guitar is. If this encourages you to play the bass in the future all the better. Means I’ve done my job and made it clear to everyone in the world that bass is indeed way cooler than they think.
So, if you do decide to start learning the bass guitar, he is something you want to see. From no other than the Flea himself: I give you a low-quality video of some high quality advice about what it takes to be a bass player and what you should be doing as a beginner.