I was recently invited to start contributing to a bass news/info/reportage blog called ‘Big Bottom’, which is at 24stgeorge.com – there a whole host of bass writers and bloggers involved.
Here’s the first bit that I’ve written for it, headed ‘You Can’t Do That On A Bass’ –
The strangest – and perhaps most surprising – factor in being a solo bassist is that your main critics are other bassists. General music listeners are more than happy to assess how your music sits with them as music, making the same stylistic and emotional responses they would to a record by Coldplay, Cradle of Filth or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Some bassists, on the other hand, tend to do two things – firstly, there are the shredders who listen with their eyes, measuring the validity of what you do by how clever it looks and whether or not they could play the piece in question. If it’s too hard for them, it must be cool. If it looks too hard to work out, that’s great. The music becomes some kind of athletic challenge, or like some kind of break-dance move, where musicians are supposed to out-do each other in the complexity and freakery of their playing.
the other response is to say ‘you can’t do that on a bass’ – those players who take it upon themselves to be the arbiters of acceptability for this beloved instrument of ours, as though the decision to play melodies and chords on a bass, or to process the signal so it no longer resembles the tradition sound of a bass guitar, is somehow sacrilegious and insulting to ‘the greats’.
I’ve had hilarious emails and responses from people in both camps – fortunately the ones who bother to contact me are few and far between – telling me that I’m either ‘not fully exploring the potential of the bass guitar’ or that I’m ‘not a real bassist, it doesn’t sound like a bass, you might as well be playing guitar’ etc. etc.
The nonsense here is that the title ‘bass guitar’ is a projection, a label, not an absolute. It helps us to define the thinking behind the design of a particular lump of wood and metal and graphite, but ultimately it’s just a plank with some strings on it. The role of ‘bass player’ is one that is perhaps best fulfilled with a bass guitar, but the possible applications of the sound produced by an instrument made with that heritage go way, way beyond anything that could be constrained by the term ‘bass playing’.
I’ve often considered relabeling the instrument I play. Calling it Baritone Guitar or something, just to get away from the weight of expectation that’s there amongst bassists that you’re either going to be ‘laying it down’ or slapping and tapping like some kind of circus performer. But I have resisted such a shift for two reasons – firstly, I love the bass. I love the heritage, I love playing bass. I chose this instrument because I love the role it plays in a most contemporary music. I’m drawn to the visceral, emotive quality that it injects into music – one listen to the White Stripes shows what happens when you leave it out! And I’m interested in taking that forward. I’m drawn to the work of a lot of the people who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on instruments from the bass family – Michael Manring, Jonas Hellborg, Matthew Garrison, Trip Wamsley, Abraham Laboriel, Victor Wooten… I like being part of that process, part of the musical dialogue with players around the world looking to further the body of work produced from within the bass community.
I’m pleased to say that those two groups – the circus fans and the luddites – don’t occupy that big a place within the bass world, and I meet a lot of bassists who are just as interested as I in the music that’s playing, who remember that whatever else happens, ‘it’s all about what comes out of the speakers’.
I encourage you to experiment, to see how your bass can fill the gaps in your band, how you can exploit those other registers that the bass does so well – melodies on bass don’t sound like guitar, they sound like melodies on bass, a whole different colour and texture.
Just make it musical.by