One of the most underappreciated instruments in music is, perhaps, the bass. Sure, everyone loves a guitar solo; heck, even a bitching drum solo can get people off their seats. But bass? That’s sadly overlooked (despite the plethora of amazing bass players playing some of the funkiest bass lines).
Ask any young, eager musician, and they’ll most likely tell you they want to play guitar, the drums, or, if they’re ambitious and talented enough, lead singer. Hardly do you get anyone who wants to play bass. And it’s understandable: what the bass provides to a song isn’t the most overt. It’s subtle, steady, reliable, but it’s also what gives a song it’s oomph, it’s je ne sais quoi, or, for lack of a better term, the bass gives a song its soul.
But worry not; despite its lack of star appeal, bass players are one of the most sought-out musicians in music, mostly because not enough people play it, which is probably because not enough people appreciate it. In fact, various bass sounds have an impact on any kind of music, whether it’s classical, rock, rap, EDM, jazz, ska, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.
The bass is a critical instrument in a band. You can take away vocalists, you can take away a lead guitarist; hell, you can even take away your rhythm guitar and be left with just the bass and the drums (much like my personal favorite, Death From Above 1979, who has one of the best bass lines in Rock, IMHO). But take away the bass, and you’ll soon find your songs lacking flavor. But why is that?
The Bass Player And Why They’re More Important Than You Think
In classical music, the bass section provided two things: the rhythmic foundation and the harmonic foundation. Not much has changed since then, although now the job of an orchestra section falls squarely on the shoulders of a single bass player. With just 4 strings, a bass player is required to provide solid ground for a song’s rhythm, and to facilitate smooth harmony. Let’s explore both.
The Rhythmic Foundation
In music theory, the rhythmic foundation is a term that refers to the steady, constant pulse in any piece of music. This pulse is provided by the bass line, who anchors the rest of the musicians and locks them in to a consistent rhythm. Setting aside some avant-garde genres (looking at you, mathcore!), most well-received songs have that constant beat that a good bass player provides.
That beat, while not as punchy as the one provided by the drums, is what the other instruments rely on throughout the song. Without it, the entire band would devolve into a mess of kerrangs and wahwahs. The bass provides order, a pattern from which guitar and drum solos, jazz scats, and other pleasant deviations can emanate from.
The Harmonic Foundation
While eagle-eared music aficionados will know that the bass player creates the rhythm, not many will know that bass players have another very critical function: maintaining a foundation from which the harmony can rely on.
This is the harmonic foundation. In music theory, the harmonic foundation refers to the way different instruments play different notes that complement one another at the same exact time. This is what bands, orchestras, vocal groups, and other musicians do: they create harmony together.
This is where the supreme importance of bass comes in: our brains are built in such a way that we hear all these complementary notes relative to the note with the lowest pitch. Guess which instrument provides that.
Depending on what key, chord, or rhythm the bass provides, it can take a melody and turn it into something bright and cheery, or dark, sad, or even harsh. By providing the group with the appropriate foundational notes, the other musicians can follow suite and create, well, music.
Playing The Soul of a Song
Of the three main elements of music (that is, rhythm, harmony, and melody), the bass anchors two out of these three, making it one of the most crucial factors of any song. The impact of bass on music cannot be understated: without it, you’re song will have no soul.
A good bass player can take a group of nobody’s into the upper echelons of music greats, while a terrible bass player can keep an otherwise great group from playing outside of dive bars and garages. My advice to budding bands: don’t scrimp on the bass, you have no idea just how important it will be to your music.