An ode to the bass guitar
Maile Gardner is a biochemistry senior and reporter for KCPR. The views expressed in this piece don’t necessarily reflect those of Mustang Media Group.
Krist Novoselic, Colin Greenwood, John Deacon, Roger Waters — These names likely don’t ring a bell. But how about their more recognizable counterparts: Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, Freddie Mercury and Syd Barrett? Why is it that the lead singer gets all the fame and recognition when it is the bass player who provides the foundation for the music? Here are a few reasons to worship bassists as the rock gods they are.
As opposed to a standard guitar, which has six strings, the bass guitar has four strings. Equipped with a longer neck and thicker strings, the bass plays notes an octave lower than the standard guitar. Bassists pluck or finger-pick the root notes (the deepest and most audible part of a chord), while standard guitarists usually just play chords. Even the most complex, fast basslines have to be played one note at a time. The frets on a bass guitar are also harder to press down than a standard guitar, making the plight of the bass player all the more impressive.
A classic four-piece band consists of the lead and rhythm guitars, the drums and the mighty bass guitar. All these instruments are essential for creating a cohesive piece of music, but it is the bass that serves as the backbone of the song. The lead guitarist and singer are usually better heard because they form the melody and belt the lyrics. However, the bass guitar affects listeners more than they may realize.
While a listener might not consciously register the notes, a study by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the human brain is more perceptive to the timing of low-pitched notes in comparison to high-pitched ones. This means that the bass guitar is an integral component for keeping the time and rhythm of a song.
The versatile four-string is more than just a structural component. For some genres, like funk, the bassline is not merely a foundation but a deliberate stylistic choice to add flair. Some acts serve to highlight the bass player, like Red Hot Chili Peppers. During songs like “Around the World,” bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary takes center stage at live performances, and the bassline is audible throughout the entire song. Another group that highlights its bassist is the ’90s glam-rock band Spacehog. In their hit song “In the Meantime,” the chorus consists of a bass riff instead of a guitar.
The modern rise of unconventional band structures has turned the role of the bass upside-down. In bands featuring only a drum and a bass guitar — like The Garden, Death From Above 1979 and Lightning Bolt — the bass churns out the quintessential melody.