Playing the Bass

For Christmas last year, I got a bass guitar, a lovely sunburst finishVintage model. What with a busy college schedule, and needing to get cables and other equipment before I could really start playing, I only really got my teeth into this summer, and have practiced a lot over the last few weeks particularly. It’s been an interesting experience – I already to play two other instruments, both of which I’ve played for a long time. Though I’m by no means at professional level on either of them, I’ve been competent and proficient with them both for many years. Starting the whole process of learning my way around a new instrument has been at times frustrating, and at other times rewarding. It’s difficult to pick up the instrument, look at the sheet music for a piece you know well, and be completely unable to find the notes. On the other hand, I’ve long believed that learning an instrument gives you a unique way of thinking about music – and with each new instrument you learn, you add a new dimension to your capacity for musical thought. This has certainly been the case for learning the bass – I’ve developed a new method of thinking my way around the notes. Spending time with the lower register of songs has also been beneficial to me compositionally, as I find I’m writing more interesting parts in the bass registers my own music.

The primary reason I took up bass is that I really wanted to be able to play more pop and rock music. While I play keyboards already, some of the styles of music I wanted to pursue weren’t particularly suited to keyboards, and I knew plenty of guitarists but not very many bassists. Though I don’t agree with the common notion that the bass is an inferior guitar – it’s a distinct instrument with a very distinct style of playing – it’s probably true that a lot of bass repertoire is more accessible than guitar repertoire. This way, I’d be able to start playing music with people faster. I also have had a great love for the instrument for a long while – from the first time I really listened to Flea I’ve had an appreciation for the bass as a distinct and important part of rock music.

This video is by one of my favourite bassists, and probably one of my favourite musicians, Alex Webster from the American band Cannibal Corpse.

I have a great admiration for this man’s technical ability, though I’m not quite at the level yet where this video is relevant to my own techniques. I disagree with him however on his approach to composition – he emphasizes using the bass to double the guitar at major points, where I prefer having a more independent, contrapuntal bass line. (This leads into an interesting discussion about the roles of composer and performer in popular music, which I may use as the basis of a future blog post.)

I think it’s important for musicians to accept the limitations of their instruments, but there are several famous bassists who I think overstretch the possibilities of what the bass can do. Victor Wooten, for example, though he is undeniably a technical master of the instrument, often plays music that the physical makeup of the instrument does not support. There are too many notes, coming too fast and too high, to be heard clearly.

This is not to say that the bass should remain in a totally subservient role, and that technically advanced bass is not viable musically. Many advanced techniques are possible, and even extreme speed is a useful technique, but consideration should be given to the instrument’s physical limitations. It also does have a role as a solo instrument, but I personally feel that it sounds most comfortable in its middle and lower registers, and this should be reflected when being used as the lead instrument in an ensemble or in a solo composition.

As I continue to learn the bass, I’ll probably put more posts about the experience of learning a new instrument and the difficulties I’ve encountered. For now, I’ll just leave you with another video, from another one of my favourite bassists, jazz bandleader Avishai Cohen.

Feel free to comment, criticize, and most importantly, recommend some more bassists for me to listen to in the comment section!

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