Guitarists and lead singers usually claim all the flashiest moments in any band performance, and drummers channel the song’s energy. But bassists are often overlooked or undervalued. So are bassists failed guitarists?
Bassists are not failed guitarists in any way. Many famous bass players did start off on guitars, such as Paul McCartney, John Deacon of Queen, and Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath. But they switched to bass due to the necessity in their bands and not due to being failed guitarists.
Instruments differ and require different skills. And bass players are musicians first, bassists second.
Most of the duties of a bassist in the band include staying in the background, anchoring down the sound with the drummer, giving an occasional kick to the beat, and tying the chords together.
Additionally, they root for the guitarists and the other players in the band.
None of this sounds glamorous, but as soon as you hear a band with a mediocre bass player vs. a great player, you know the difference.
Steve Harris Iron Maiden 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/OVdYAFfkp5
— Legionista 🇵🇱 Ⓛ (@Legionista83) October 9, 2022
Why do bass players get no respect?
Bass players occasionally have a hard time getting respect if their bass lines are too quiet on the recordings and can’t be clearly heard, or if the bass lines are too basic and just follow the basic chord progressions and aren’t creative enough.
Sometimes also, such as with Metallica’s later records, the bass takes a significant backseat to the guitars and can barely be noticed.
I am not sure if there is any truth in whether bass players get respect or not, and it’s important to mention some of the legends of bass playing who CLEARLY get respect.
Names such as:
- Geddy Lee of Rush
- Steve Harris of Iron Maiden
- John Entwistle of The Who
- Cliff Burton of Metallica (until his passing in 1986)
- Justin Chancellor of Tool
- Les Claypool of Primus
They are considered gods in bass playing. But the list is endless.
The reality is creative bass players get tons of respect, contrary to those who jump along aggressively with single notes. A few examples of good bassists, but a little pedestrian in their playing, are Ian Hill from Judas Priest or Cliff William from AC/DC.
And the truth is singers and lead guitarists get the majority of the attention.
Still, we never know the internal dynamics as a general audience, but bass players are equally given respect. The prime example that comes to mind is The Cure’s, Simon Gallup.
I recently watched the band’s rock and roll induction ceremony speech, and band frontman Robert Smith was all praises for the band’s bass player. Check out my recent article to read how Gallup’s contribution gave the band a unique sound.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
But many bands showcase members aggressively jumping around the stage for entertainment value with attitude, but not the bass players. So, the bass players do not get highlighted.
And for the most part, the general audience and the media do not seem to acknowledge the contribution of artists supporting the lead singers and the foremost guitarists, which may be why some bassists are considered failed artists.
From left, Paul McCartney (playing a Hofner 500/1 violin bass guitar), John Lennon (playing a Gibson J-160E guitar), George Harrison (playing a Gretsch 6119 Tennessean guitar with Bigsby vibrato) and Ringo Starr (playing Ludwig drum kit) Show ‘Shindig! on 3rd October 1964 pic.twitter.com/gkY8a8LLK6
— RIVAILLE 😎✌☁ (@Nowhere_Riva) June 3, 2021
Is bass harder than guitar?
The bass has a less steep learning curve than the guitar, as it has fewer strings, and only 1 string is typically played at a time. However, in technical terms, it demands more physical strength due to its heavier body and the added pressure required due to much thicker strings.
If you are beginning with bass, the first note that you will ever get is pretty much going to be around bashing at the strings with a pick and fret as ham-handedly as you like.
And you will get to these levels more quickly than in a guitar which also involves learning chords and precise techniques. But even for a beginner finding their way to play bass can be more challenging than it looks for obvious reasons.
First, the bass is a physically demanding instrument as it has a long neck and the strings are thicker, and the pressure needed to fret those strings is much greater.
Secondly, the bass is an instrument that tends to be heavier than guitars and a bit harder on your back. Simply put, playing bass requires physical stamina alongside musical intelligence.
Thirdly, there is the whole notion of grooving. Being able to synchronize with the drummer and manipulate the beats is one of the hardest things, which takes a lot of work.
— Ray, Agent of Chaos 🔥🕊 রশ্মি (@TheRealStanRay) May 10, 2018
Why do so many bands have bass guitar if you barely hear it in almost any song?
Early rock recordings often struggled to clearly denote the bass guitar parts due to the limited fidelity available of the recording equipment. But over time, certain subgenres of rock music grew to significantly favor the guitar over the bass.
And of course, thanks to bands like The White Stripes, a whole trend of bands not even having bass players got started in the late 90s.
But maybe the problem isn’t with the instrument.
Our parents and grandparents often had nice home stereos to listen to music. But these days, we’re much more likely to stream music from Spotify on our phones.
And in many cases, we’re then blue-toothing the sound to a single wireless speaker. Or (even worse), we’re listening to the music on Air-Pods or earbuds.
And there’s just no way to get true sonic fidelity that way compared to large, clunky, tube-based stereos of decades past.
But anyway, the idea that bass is barely present is wrong.
On the other hand, if due attention is paid, every song has some bass in it. And if you are not able to identify it, you are probably crediting the wrong instrument in the mix.
And the bass is essential.
Sometimes it’s less of a question of whether you can clearly hear and identify the bass. Instead, it’s more like, would you notice it sounds significantly different if the bass were removed from the song?
And the answer is undoubtedly yes. You would notice it if it wasn’t there.
— Rolling Stone (@RollingStone) July 14, 2017
Why did The White Stripes not have a bass player?
The White Stripes did not have a bass player by choice as they wanted to keep the band to just Jack White and his then-wife Meg White. And with tuning some strings lower and using lots of effect pedals, they were able to create a sonically full sound with just 2 people.
I’ve listened to Jack White for a couple of decades now, and honestly, you can instantly notice the lack of a bassist straight away. While it is common to have bassists for any decent band, the White Stripes simply chose not to have one.
According to the fans:
“It turned out that he had always heard hard rock and metal had a lot more bass, so he had just assumed the overdriven guitar riffs he heard in those songs were the bass. And because in the Beatles version, Paul is playing in the upper registers, not the low boomy notes, he assumed it was a guitar.”
Ironically, Steven McDonald, bassist for the band Redd Kross, took 2 songs from the White Stripes album White Blood Cells and added bass guitar to both songs. He released the results under the name Redd Blood Cells.
And honestly, McDonald’s version sounds way better and fuller. Listen to it on YouTube here.
The White Stripes did not want to have a bassist, so they did not. Moreover, having a bassist does make a difference, but not all the bands who have bassists are great.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin had two bassists, but that did not make them any better or worse.
I guess having a bass player has its flipside. Not having a bass player allows guitarists to expand to new levels and on the other note, having a bass player accentuates the music.
And of course, when music is all about innovation, there is no question of why White Stripes did or did not have a bass player.
Happy Birthday John Paul Jones!
Remarkable musician, arranger, composer.
My favorite bass player.
— suzthom (@suzthom79) January 4, 2021
Who are the best bass players?
The best bass players would certainly include Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool, John Paul Jones, Jaco Pastorius, and Chris Squire of Yes.
But it is hard to give you a rundown of all the greatest bass pioneers to celebrate the entire spectrum. And it’s even more difficult to name only a few.
But the inventory below includes names of bassists who have had the most visible impact in laying the very foundation of the music:
- John Entwistle (The Who)
- Paul McCartney (The Beatles)
- Geddy Lee (Rush)
- Les Claypool (Primus)
- John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
- James Jamerson (Motown)
- Chris Squire (Yes)
- Bruce Foxton (The Jam)
- Jack Bruce (Cream)
- Jaco Pastorius
- Cliff Burton (Metallica)
- Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (Stax Records session bassist)
The list above places obvious virtuosos here and musicians who elevated the sense of innovation in music with the minimal concept of the instrument’s role.
Many individuals take up bass first because it is simpler to learn, but those people cannot be called “failed guitarists.”
A lot of bassists in the bands play some guitar too, and many are good at it. You can observe that in many formative rock bands.
Some bands had multiple guitarists but no bassists; thus, many took to bass playing out of necessity. Sometimes the weakest guitarist may be nominated for bass duty, and sometimes not.
However, a person cannot be called a failed guitarist if they do an excellent job with bass playing. Bass players are artists.
I feel compelled to mention here the legendary quote by bassist Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew, who recorded countless hits in the 60s and 70s:
“Bass is the foundation, and it plays a framework around the rest of the music.”
Image by freestocks-photos from Pixabay