Building Melodious Bridges With Bass Guitar
I first became enchanted by the bass guitar in my teenage years. I went to see my favourite band, Shihad – a band bordering rock and metal - play in my home town at the Wellington Town Hall in New Zealand, and I’ll never forget the feeling. The band started playing and I remember the vibrations literally rattling my rib cage and shaking my sternum. I turned to my brother and proclaimed how cool that was, then set about figuring out what was giving me that sensation. The rattles matched the pluck of the bass strings, and I was hooked.
Yet, for a reason completely unknown to me, the bass guitar has often been the overlooked and underappreciated instrument in the modern band set up. The bassist is classed as the silent type, at the back not looking like he or she is doing very much, playing an instrument that looks easy, much easier than the guitar looks anyway (‘there’s two less strings!’). Bass players are often ridiculed, but I don’t believe they’re fully understood. I went to a show in Berlin recently where they introduced the band and the band leader introduced the bass player as “the guy who keeps everything together”. That’s pretty good for someone who doesn’t look like he or she is doing very much!
The fact is that we wouldn’t have the iconic melody on Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell if it weren’t for the mastery of Motown bass legend James Jamerson; we wouldn’t have the imperious riff on Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog if bassist John Paul Jones hadn’t written it; and we wouldn’t have Paul McCartney’s slinky flavour on Come Together by the Beatles, which is but one of his many contributions to the field. These are just a few songs from some of the most famous and successful bands or periods in music history and a lot of people don’t recognise that the ‘dude just plucking four strings’ is the essence of the whole song!
This is an area that only the die hard musicians really take a notice of; the general public isn’t as aware. I feel the bridge to understanding between the two would probably stretch across the Atlantic. But in doing my part, I decided to start building that bridge in Berlin and meet a few active bassists here for their perspective on the instrument.
Before I get into that, a brief explanation: you may have guessed it, I am a bassist as well; I wouldn’t have it any other way. From my perspective, the role of the bassist in a band is to act as the gel between the rhythm (in most bands, the drummer), and the melody (often, the guitars and the singer). The bass is able to do this because when you mostly only play one note at a time, that gives freedom to be able to play percussively – for example, to play one note longer or shorter, harder or softer, louder or quieter, etc. Sometimes, as in Ain’t No Mountain High, the bass plays a strong melody with other instruments supporting it, but we’ll keep it simple for now. The bassist’s other main role is to provide groove alongside the drummer. This is the feel that makes you want to tap your foot or even dance. It really is a magical thing that I’m not sure words can explain. When the bassist plays closely together with the drummer and they both feel the groove, a band is unstoppable, even if everyone is focusing on the singer and the guitarist.
Steve Morris – Milwalkie and I aime LocalTalking to Steve, he mentions a musician Tycho who afterwards I go back and listen to, and immediately I understand what he was talking about.
“[The bass playing] pins the song down because he’s got all kinds of weird synths that drift off into nowhere, but the bass always grounds it. You can listen to all these guitar parts but you know that if you lose yourself in that, you can just tune back into the bass and drums and you know where you are. I like that a lot.”
He references Tycho as an influence for this very reason, and it’s a style that he tries to emulate. The style where the bass (and drums) stick tightly to the rhythm and groove and in so doing, act as the foundation from which the song can springboard to new heights. This is the fundamental role that bassists need to perform, and from there the song can build.
The idea of constructing music is one Steve uses in writing his own bass lines. While by his own admission he’s not the most adept at the formal disciplines of musicianship such as scales, his approach is relatively formal. He starts with a melody, something that could almost be sung as a second melody line, and then makes the melody rhythmic, which often involves stripping it back and making the notes chunky – meaning adding a deeper tone and using more sound space than a simple pluck. This approach encapsulates pretty well the bass’ bridging role mentioned above. It’s from here that, if so inclined and it suited the song, either the band uses it as a platform to build upon or the bassist can explore other harmonies himself.
The beauty of it is that however simple this role is, it can truly make or break a band’s performance. Steve believes that while a band may have great songs, if the bass player (and drums – these often go hand-in-hand) isn’t tight to the rhythm and time, then the listener would likely walk away underwhelmed with the show, because it didn’t feel great. And likewise, he believes the opposite applies, if the songs aren’t great but the rhythm section is then you’ve got one hell of a show! He’s touching on something that is more subconscious than conscious, and recent scientific studies back him up. In 2014, Laurel Trainor from McMaster University in Canada and colleagues found that a listener’s perception of timing in music is more acute for lower-pitched notes, making the bass more suited to playing rhythms than other instruments. Furthermore, the studies show that when played consecutively, the brain notices alterations in the timing of these lower notes before the listener is consciously aware of them. So in the concept of the whole show where the songs are good but the rhythm section is off, it could be more of a feeling than an opinion, but the impact is there.
Duarte Azevedo – Faunshead“I feel I can express my musicality much more through bass than through guitar”.
Duarte took his journey to the bass through the guitar, learning and playing guitar for the best part of 8 years before playing the bass with Faunshead in Berlin. For him, the guitar posed two main challenges: first, it didn’t match as well with his musical influences and interests; second, as the guitarist he was often relied upon to carry the sound which, when you can’t truly be yourself without your influences shining through, is a difficult task. Duarte takes his influences mainly from rock and hip hop, in bands such as Muse and D’Angelo. What he didn’t realise until playing the bass full-time was that he could use the grooves from hip hop in his bass playing to great effect, keeping the power from rock at the same time, all the while being free of the responsibility of carrying the band’s sound. It was a natural fit.
With Faunshead, who play rock but want to make you dance at the same time, Duarte’s groove becomes very important. As a key exponent of groove, you could make a logical jump that more bass equals more groove, but that wouldn’t work. Duarte notes that if you play the bass loud on its own and try to drive the groove and the song, it sounds weird. Groove can’t be forced down your throat, it needs to be placed in front of the listener for him or her to accept. This means that a bassist needs to be present in the sound while not overly dominating it. He sees his role as being “present when you’re not expected in the moments when you need to be there”. In other words, the role is to play your hand with tact and nous rather than crash and bluster. Those moments he mentions are often the silences, the moments when the song lulls or breathes and in pops the bass to remind you it’s there, to keep the feel going. It pops in and you then realise that it’s been there grooving and you’ve been subconsciously dancing along to it the whole time.
The bass player needs to be precise. He or she needs to understand the feel of the song so that when those silences arise, he or she doesn’t overplay it. If the song is simple, the bass can’t then transform it into a complex masterpiece; it’s too simple an instrument in itself. The bass player is a team player and needs to fit in with everything else in order to be effective. This understates the bass player’s importance, but without bass a song feels significantly different.
Jerry Schmidt Jr. – The Bar BoBu Hausband, The Thiams, and Boo Boo and TricksAnd then there are bassists who take the role as band leader. Sting, for example, and as this article notes, the bass is actually an instrument well suited to the role. As an instrument that sonically sits underneath the melody of the guitars and singer, it provides the foundation for and gives context to the melody. But this is a privileged role, because the bass isn’t carrying the melody, and if he or she chooses not to play the root note of the chord (the main note of the chord) in providing this foundation then it gives a new flavour to the chord as a whole, which can send the song in a new direction and give it a new feel. Jerry takes this role, particularly in the Bar BoBu Hausband. As band leader he changes the harmonies to send the song in a new direction, song dynamics to affect the energy, or even song structure, based on improvisation. Because the bass is an instrument that plays this key bridging role, it allows him to push the song and his bandmates.
In part, the songs he plays and the musicians he is playing with allow him this freedom, but it’s also more interesting to him this way, it is his form of self-expression.
“I like [the bass] to go somewhere, but without distracting the song structure or the melody, without people realising that something is happening underneath. But it is, and if it wasn’t then it would sound totally different.”
It may not be the aspect that the listener is listening to specifically, but if the listener is enjoying the song then he or she must be enjoying the bass too.
The bass plays an important role in any band as a keeper of time, feel, groove, rhythm, and as a foundation for melody, harmonies, and further sonic exploration – basically all aspects of music are influenced by the bass in some way. Bass players don’t seek to force themselves into the spotlight; they understand that to play to their best often means sitting just beneath the initial layer than being the initial layer themselves.
I have a deep appreciation for the role that the bass does play, and I love listening to bassists who pull it all off to great effect. It’s not a matter of saying ‘Hey world, look at what this guy is doing!’, but more just a simple appreciation of the fact. Certainly, there are great bassists right here in Berlin doing great things. Go and check them out.
Steve Morris plays bass in Milwalkie and I aime Local
Duarte Azevedo plays bass in Faunshead
Jerry Schmidt Jr. is an owner of Bar BoBu, a music venue and bar at Müggelstraße 9, Friedrichshain 10247, Berlin, and he plays bass in the Bar BoBu Hausband, The Thiams, and Boo Boo and the Tricks.
By Callum Campbell