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The Importance of the Bass Guitar in Modern Music

Updated on May 3, 2017

4-String Bass

The bass guitar

The most underrated, yet most important part of a band. When you hear a song that wants to make you groove to the rhythm, it is mostly the percussion(beat) and the bass that are responsible. Take the bass away and the beat starts to feel disjointed with the melody playing over it.

The bass guitar( popularly called 'the bass') is a stringed instrument which looks very much like the guitar, only slightly bigger. But the purpose it serves and the musical range is completely different than that of a guitar. A bass may have 4 strings, 5 strings or even 6 strings. 4 and 5 are the most common.

The elements in bass

The rhythm of a piece of music is the basic pulse, or beat on which it is built. Most music that is well received has a steady rhythm, or beat, to it. This is the responsibility and priority of the bassist. The bassist provides the groove and pulse to the music. Often, when we hear a piece of music that is catchy or groovy, it is the bass line that helps in creating this effect.

Harmony is the correlation of the notes played in the piece, and how they go well together. Often, there are many instruments playing together in creating the harmony. The bass guitar is the lowest sounding pitch in the harmony, so it has the ability to influence it in subtle, yet powerful ways. The same tune can be altered in texture and feel by playing a different set of bass notes over it. In fact, research suggests that our brain processes music based on the low frequency notes they are laid upon, so bass is very vital to how we perceive certain music.

While the drums or the percussion is the primary instrument that defines the beat, the bass is what gives it the groove and ties it into the melody that the musical piece is trying to produce. A lot of bass players say and believe that "the bass is the least important thing..Till it stops playing". It is, in a sense the overall glue that keeps the pulse (beat) and the melody together.

In most bands, the bass is the instrument that is capable of producing the lowest frequency sound, other than the keyboard. Even so, in most cases, the keyboard refrains playing at those frequencies to avoid clashing with the bass, and sticks to higher harmony frequencies.

The bass guitar

Different styles in bass playing

Just like all other areas in music, there has been a lot of evolution and innovation in bass playing techniques and styles. While most bass players follow the basic style of plucking with 2 fingers, there are other adapted styles like slap and pop, using a pick etc.

A lot of these styles and techniques are influenced by the overall sound of the band and what the bassist wants to add to the overall sound. Players like John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin used a more foundational and structural approach, while using a lot of fills to indicate 'movement'. Others like Flea of RHCP have a very percussive and distinctive funk style playing, incorporating a lot of slapping and popping and laying out the groove of the song entirely by himself.

Whatever the style may be, one of the bass player's main duties is to ensure that the underlying groove is laid down thoroughly and firmly for the harmony to build on top of it. It is like a foundation that is there for the most part, and also has the ability to steer the feel in a different direction at some places in the song when the need arises.

Victor Wooten - God of bass

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Great bassists

When it comes to the greatest bands that have influenced our music for all these years, most of them have one thing in common. They have a solid bass player who has a major influence on their sound. Be it John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney of The Beatles, Flea of RHCP, Les Claypool of Primus, they all bring ttheir unique styles aand bass playing to influence the overall sound of the band.

John Paul Jones killing it on the bass

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