John Paul Jones, Roger Waters, John Deacon. What do these three have in common? That would be that they’re all bass players. While they are not exactly household names, we have all heard of the bands they played with: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen.
Now what do Robert Plant, Syd Barrett and Freddie Mercury have in common? The answer to this question is that they’re the lead singers of the bands I mentioned above. While you may not be able to place them directly, you’ll almost certainly know of these three names better than the three above. The point here is not that lead singers are the only ones people remember. It is that Bassists are often the forgotten members of bands for various different reasons.
Let’s take John Deacon for example. The man in charge of bass lines like ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘ (which he incidentally wrote), ‘Under Pressure‘ and all other Queen classics. He epitomizes how Queen were a band that have had two different lives. The first, the group who produced some of the great records of the 1970s and 80s, led by dynamic figure, Freddie Mercury. The second features the reunion of Brian May and Roger Taylor and them playing alongside singers such as Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. Shortly after Mercury’s death, Deacon retired from public life and is rarely seen anymore. But even people who were alive in the 70s and 80s struggle to know who Deacon is as he dovetailed into the background. While there was the dynamic Freddie supported by Brian May’s iconic guitar sound, Deacon merely went about his business, underpinning harmonies and completing an excellent rhythm section along with Roger Taylor. He was, in this respect, arguably the perfect bassist.
This example of Deacon is slightly extreme because, like I said, he has taken himself away from the public eye since the 90s. However, the idea of Deacon being the perfect bassist is why I think Bassists are often forgotten. Bass players are very rarely the ones standing out, and no one plays the bass to run around on stage like the hyperactive lead guitarist. This means that Bass players are often quiet, not searching for the limelight. Bass parts by their very nature are low in pitch and so can often just mould seamlessly into a texture rather than stand out. As well as this, because bass parts are often crucial to the harmonies of a song, they can feel that they merely serve a purpose rather than adding any embellishments or ‘swagger’ to
a record. There are some great bass riffs out there, which can sometimes be the most memorable parts of songs. I’ve already mentioned ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ but some other great examples of famous bass lines are: Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl‘, Gorillaz’ ‘Feel Good Inc.’, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Give It Away‘ and ‘Dark Necessities‘ and The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army‘ which is often sung at sports stadiums around the country. Despite these great bass lines, however, how many bass solos can you name? Probably not many!
Having said this, I’m now immediately going to contradict myself with a response of John Entwistle of The Who and ‘My Generation‘ (1965), which was rock music’s first ever bass solo. ‘My Generation‘ is definitely in the minority in its featuring of a
bass solo. Guitarworld.com argues that Entwistle was “rock’s first bass virtuoso and a cornerstone pioneer on the instrument.” In The Who, Entwistle with a background in French Horn, understood melodies and worked them into his bass riffs making his style very soloistic and virtuosic. As well as this, Entwistle’s riffs also had great rhythmic grounding due to his rhythm section partner, Keith Moon’s eccentric and fill-based drumming style. There are many people who point to Entwistle as the real timekeeper in The Who. It is said that Entwistle struggled to create the exact bass sound and timbre that he wanted until the band were over ten years old and technicians could catch up with his vision. He is considered a true pioneer of the instrument.
One exception to the ‘background bassist’ rule of thumb, however, is Sid Vicious (we can’t have an article on bass guitarists without mentioning him). Vicious was the ‘bassist’ for the punk band, The Sex Pistols. I use inverted commas here because poor old Sid was famed more for his lack of skills with the bass than anything else. On the Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols it was guitarist Steve Jones who filled in most of the bass lines because “Sid was in a hospital with hepatitis, so he couldn’t really play, not that he could play anyway.” Manager Malcolm McLaren was quoted as saying “if Johnny Rotten is the voice of punk, then Vicious is the attitude” showing that Vicious was from a different school of thought to Deacon. Vicious died only 21, from a drug overdose, as his rock star lifestyle caught up with him.
Some bassists to take note of:
As well as the bassists mentioned above, there are a couple of Bass players who I think should have a little light shone upon them because I think in the great world of bass players, they’re worth noticing. The first I want to discuss is Mike Kerr of Royal Blood. Kerr is paradoxical in this instance as he is also the frontman of Royal Blood, but it is not this part of their sound that I’m interested in. Listening to Royal Blood with no knowledge of the band’s line-up, it is not immediately obvious that the group’s sound is made simply from a bassist and a drummer, so when you do indeed learn this fact, you might ask how this rich sound is achieved through one man and a bass guitar.
In an interview found on YouTube with Gamechanger Audio, Kerr talks about how he first heard about using two amps for his bass in an article about Jeff Buckley. Kerr read that Buckley liked to use one amp for drive (the distorted and ‘grungy’ sound often associated with electric guitars) and another for clean (the ‘classic’ bass sound, which emulates picking or slapping). He then found a switcher box which allowed him to change the output and “smother you in sound and amps.”
Another Bassist who I’ve learned about is Victor Wooten, a man who has won ‘Bass Player of the Year’ from Bass Player Magazine three times. I was first introduced to Wooten when a friend of mine arranged his song ‘More Love‘, for Bass, Guitar
and Saxophone. ‘More Love‘ is a fascinating song, as some of the tones and effects he makes using his bass are extraordinary. It is a great example of Wooten’s use of harmonics and overtones. There are two videos that for me, sum up Wooten’s talent with the Bass in hand. The first one shows him jamming with a young guitarist who just plays a simple, repeating groove. Wooten states how his job as a rhythm section player is to not only support the player and the groove, but to make it sound better. He of course then immediately proves his proficiency at doing as much.
Another great video of Wooten is a video of ‘U Can’t Hold No Groove‘ where Reddit user ‘bskadan’ points out, “He’ll make you swear he’s playing with 4 hands”. The song is amazing when you consider that there is just him on bass (plus a
drummer) and it sounds as if there is a rhythm guitar part somewhere in there. This just shows the class of Wooten.
So to conclude my thoughts on bass players, I’d like to say that it isn’t that bass players are underappreciated, it’s more that they are just rarely household names. In fact, bass players are often the architects of the memorable riffs in songs as I’ve previously mentioned, and this is often the case in many different genres of music (Funk, Rock, Pop etc.). So I guess my parting wisdom to readers today is that if you love the bright spotlight, maybe becoming the frontman of your own band is the path for you, but perhaps if you prefer a quieter lifestyle then emulating the career of John Deacon might be the one for you. Here at WeJam we let you see what that’s like. If you want to give bass playing (or other instruments for that matter) a try, then come on down to WeJam.