...a guided tour.
The great Duff McKagan once said something like “a bass player is doing his job when two different pieces of music sound different, and the audience knows it but really can’t explain it.” That largely sums up the fantastic anonymity of the bass, to all but bass players and prog fans. In fact the vast majority of music lovers have probably only noticed a song’s bass line just a few times, and have likely never thought about bass tone, which bassists of course spend many hours and many dollars crafting so they can — quietly and anonymously — influence the whole vibe of a song.
The main goal of this post is to give folks a a sense for the variety of bass sounds that permeate popular music, by presenting and discussing snippets of songs you probably already know. I’ve tried to choose clips where the bass is clearly audible, but in some cases you’ll have to work a little to really catch on to what the bass sounds like. Tip of the day: you don’t need fancy speakers to listen carefully to electric bass, but if you’re listening on a phone or tablet without headphones, save yourself a few minutes and stop reading now... electric bass is typically entirely inaudible on tablets and phones.
And I’m organizing the sounds I’ll discuss by putting them into a few categories (seven, to be exact). Of course, I understand it’s ridiculous to try to put all bass sounds in the universe into categorical buckets. Within the huge space of “electric bass for popular music”, I’ve tried to pick examples that highlight some of the canonical tones. In reality 99% of recorded bass is going to be somewhere in between the categories I lay out here. In engineering terms, I’m trying to lay out a basis for bass sound hear every day. A basis is a set of examples that describe some larger space, where everything in the larger space can be represented as a combination of the examples. So I’m not claiming that every bass sound I hear on the radio falls into one of these categories, but hopefully most can be described as somewhere in betwen these categories. Let’s call it a bassis (hahaha that was f’ing clever, no?). Also I’m only commenting on music I encounter in my rock/pop life; I have nothing at all to say about jazz or show tune bass. And even within my world, I’m focusing mostly on electric bass, and largely excluding synthesized bass, though I’ll include a few sampled/synthesized examples because sampled bass makes up such an important chunk of popular music (nearly everything in modern hip-hop and R&B).
And as best I can stick to this promise, this is not going to be “Dan’s top ten most awesome favoritest bass sounds”, though I’ll make no effort to hide my opinions. In fact, it turned out that there was a logical ordering of common bass tones moving roughly from my least favorites to my favorites, so that’s about what you’ll get. So with that said, crank it up, and let’s get started with a list of the basic tones that I’m going to discuss.Continue reading if you're ready to rumble (literally)... →