Carrying On the Tradition of Great Rock Bass

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to the realization of what I do as a musician. Yes, I’m a songwriter. Yes, I play guitar. Yes, I arrange songs, produce records, dabble in engineering, program drums and a variety of other things relating to the artform. But, at heart, I’m a bass player and not just any bass player, but a rock bass player.

This may sound a little stupid on the surface, but bear with me for a minute.

As a bassist, the average role model for my instrument isn’t normally a rock musician. The best bassists in the world play jazz music. Great bass players flock to jazz because it allows them the most freedom to express themselves on their instruments.

In rock, guitar is still king. It is the primary force behind 90 percent of all great rock music and the way it is performed often leaves little sonic or rhythmic room for bass players who must set aside soloing for holding down the groove and keeping the drummer locked into the band.

It’s no surprise that so many great bassists like Nathan East or Marcus Miller become the musical directors for touring pop artists. As a bassist, you are in the unique position to influence the energy, rhythm and melody of a song. How you approach your parts can drive the song harder, make it swing or even bring it to a complete stop.

Unfortunately, there are too few of us who embrace the responsibility of being a great at playing bass in rock music. Too often, the average bass player is a converted guitarist whose skills are limited by his lack of technique and whose interest is limited by the fact that he drew the short straw and had to play the instrument no one else wanted.

Some bands even prefer to follow the old music joke rule:

How many bass players does it take to change a lightbulb?

None. The keyboard player can do it with his left hand.

The Doors never toured with a bass player though they used one routinely in the studio. Recently, I saw two bands that followed the above rules in odd fashion. One had no bass player at all and preferred to simply go with the paino player’s left hand. The other had two guys alternating between bass and keyboards. Both looked like they were having a lot more fun on the synth.

I feel proud to count myself among those few bass players who considers himself a genuine rock bass player and one who did not convert from the six string. I started on bass in high school as someone who wanted to play a “rock band instrument.” I started with the bass and never looked back.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve put down my need to be a technical guru, though I’ve certainly spent my share of hours honing technique and improving my skillset. I’ve veered away from the expressiveness and occassional self-indulgence of jazz, though I love the artform and would still like to have some small outlet for musical masturbation.

Most importantly, I’ve figured out that it isn’t just ok to be a rock bassist, it is something to be honored because it comes in the great tradition of other bassists who held down the groove and set the stage for those of us who are playing today.

Players like Jack Bruce (Cream) and Paul Samwell-Smith (Yardbirds) started it by pioneering rock music in the 60’s. Bill Wyman (the Rolling Stones) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) created the great grooves for legendary powerhouses. Paul McCartney (the Beatles) taught us how to make the bass melodic in pop music. John Entwistle (the Who), Geddy Lee (Rush), Chris Squire (Yes) and Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, Talas) showed us that rock bass players could solo and get away with it. Even Flea (the Red Hot Chili Peppers) let us know that rock could be terribly funky.

These guys (and gals – let’s not forget the legendary Carol Kaye!) taught us that you didn’t have to be a flashy guitarist or a crazy drummer to be a legend, that you didn’t have to show off to be brilliant and that you didn’t have to stand out to throw down.

I’m proud to be a part of that long and storied tradition and I hope that other bass players do the same and realize that being a rock bassist makes you a rare breed and puts you in a category with some of the most important musicians in the history of recorded music.

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