A band is rarely complete without a bass, and while the bass provides the sonic foundation for the rest of the band and is an essential part of the rhythm section, it’s often overlooked – unless the bassist misses a beat or fluffs a line, of course. Here we find out exactly why the bass is so important; present its illustrious history; and cover some handy techniques and tips.
- Rich & Full
- From the Double Bass to the Electric Bass
- Four or Five Strings?
- Jazz & Pop
- The Rhythm Section
- Lean on Your Bassist
- Good to Know
- Bass Giants
- Tips for Bassists
- Driving, On the Beat & Laid Back
- Where Do You Stand?
- Where Do You Set Up Your Amp?
- Bass Travels Further
- Bass Techniques
- Don’t Get in the Way
- Muting Technique
- The Five-String Bass
- Are Three Strings Enough?
- The Rise of the Five-String Bass
- Less Hopping
- Four Strings & No More
- The B-String
- A Stronger Neck
- See also…
Rich & Full
The humble bass guitar has performed an essential role in countless styles of music for what feels like eons. It’s the instrument that lays down a rich and full sound which is essentially the foundation, or fertiliser for the rest of the ensemble, whether it’s a double bass in an orchestra, the electric bass in a three-piece band, or the bass section of a choir. The bass serves the same function in Jazz and Pop as it does in classical music, but above and beyond the sound, the bass is also a rhythm instrument. Together with the drums, the bass forms the core of the rhythm section, which might be supported by a rhythm guitar and keyboards. Basically, the drums and bass are what builds the scaffolding on which everything else hangs. As long as the scaffolding is firmly locked in place, the other instruments will follow smoothly and your band will sound great. But if there’s any weakness in the construction, then everything could fall apart at any moment, leaving your band sounding like a shambolic mess.
From the Double Bass to the Electric Bass
First: the history of the bass, starting with the direct ancestor of the electric bass – the double bass (see image below). The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched of all string-instruments and was primarily played with a bow before bassists started to pluck the strings and form the backbone for the first Jazz ensembles during the 1920s. In the decades that followed, these ensembles grew in size and the volume level grew with them, so by the time the 1950s came around, double bassists had to pluck those strings harder and harder to compete with the volume of the drums and brass section. There were bassists who were masters of this craft, like Ray Brown, but the fact is that, while it’s easy to amplify a double bass these days, it just wasn’t really an option back in the fifties – at least not an easy one.
It was exactly this issue that inspired the American guitar builder, Leo Fender to design the electric bass guitar as we know it today. Taking cues from the Telecaster – the first mass-produced electric guitar which Leo also designed – the first electric bass was stripped down, removing the gigantic body and replacing it with a solid slice of wood mounted with a pickup able to capture the vibration of the strings and send it to an amplifier. This immediately put a far more manageable, smaller and lighter instrument in the hands of bassists.
Leo Fender took things a step further when designing his first electric bass. While double basses just have a fingerboard without any frets, meaning that double bassists had to hit exactly the right spot to hit exactly the right note (otherwise known as intonation), Leo fitted his bass with a fretboard complete with a set of frets to make it easier to play clean and accurate notes. This is also why Leo named the instrument the Precision Bass.
First released in 1951, the Fender Precision Bass was an immediate hit which, of course, meant that other guitar builders quickly followed, including Gibson. From there, the electric bass continued to develop, and while many names presented their own models, the essence of that original model persisted.
In the seventies, American bass guru Jaco Pastorius (sample his work later in this blog under ‘Bass Giants’) was one of the first bassists to remove the frets from his electric bass so he could play fretless, not just to get a more double-bass style sound but to open up different playing techniques. For more about fretless basses, see our other blog: The Fretless Bass: Pros & Cons.
1951 Fender Precision Bass – Photo: Fender Guitar Factory museum 14. 1951 Precision Bass model , by Mr. Littlehand, licence CC BY 2.0
Four or Five Strings?
Most bass guitars have, just like the double bass, a set of four strings tuned (from lowest to highest) in E, A, D, G, which is the same tuning as the lowest pitched four strings of the guitar, just an octave lower. But you can also get five-string basses with an extra low-B string so you get the added depth of extra low notes (see our blog about five-string bass here). In response to the emergence of virtuoso bass soloists, the six-string bass was designed, adding on an extra high-C string as well as an extra low-B string, but these basses are the reserve of master technicians. Most bassists are happy with a four or five string bass and leave it at that.
Despite the event of the bass guitar, the double bass never went away and is still a mainstay of music styles like Jazz and even Blues and Folk. In essence, the bass guitar and double bass play the same role in the music with the difference lying in the sound, character, and the style of music they do best in. This alone makes them two very different instruments, each requiring their own distinct playing techniques.
Jazz & Pop
Before Pop music, Jazz was the king of light music. Jazz bass is a different beast when compared to the bass techniques of genres like Pop, Rock, and Blues. A classic Jazz bass style is the ‘walking bass line’, where the bassist hits the note on every quarter (so on every count), seeming to ‘walk alongside’ the chords. On the first count of the next chord, the root note is played (so if the next chord is C, the root note is C and so on), but that’s by no means a rule. In Jazz, the bassist has all the freedom to play a different note from the chord. Maybe they’ll hit the third instead of the root – which, in the case of the C-major chord, is the E. Choosing the third or a different note from the chord gives that chord a different colour. In Pop music, things are different. In Pop, the bassist almost always plays the root note of the chord on the first count of the chord – of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this. An example of this is what’s referred to as a descending bass line, a classic example of which is heard on A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum. The first two bars follow the chord progression C, Em, Am, C (or, even nicer: C, Cmaj7, Am, Am7) and the descending bass line follows along with C, B, A, G; sometimes straying from the root notes and using different notes from the chords.
The Rhythm Section
As we already mentioned earlier, the bass is usually teamed up with the drums to form the core rhythm section of a band, which gives the bass a pretty responsible position, and at the same time, a pretty vulnerable position. As long as the bass keeps tight to the beat then nothing sounds out of place, but any errors are immediately noticeable – even to the untrained ear. While guitarists and keyboard players can recover from mistakes or just keep playing without anyone noticing, this just isn’t an option for the drummer and bassist. The other musicians in the band very often ‘lean’ on the rhythm section, since the bass and drums are what provide the musical signposts, leading the band from one beat to the next. A good rhythm section has tight timing, flawless and decisive playing, and doesn’t just know the song structure backwards, but is able to respond to the band dynamics and knows when to push the volume or pull it back. A good bassist remains focussed on the drums – especially the snare and kick, and especially if they want to lock into the kick drum pattern to create that tasty ‘thump’ to really back up the band sound.
The first count of the bar, or the chord, is the most important for the bassist. This is where a thick and decisive bass note needs to be laid down – ‘On the one’, as Bootsy Collins would say (the former bassist of the legendary James Brown Band). Between hitting that first count and hitting on the kick drum, the bassist has freedom to roam. In pop music, bassists tend not to fiddle too much in between and keep things firmly locked in, but in other styles, like Blues, there’s much more room for variation and improvisation.
Lean on Your Bassist
The better a bassist and drummer know and understand each other musically, the better the rhythm section. A bassist that’s filling in for a band only has a couple of songs at the most to get to know the drummer. If a professional session bassist is hired to play for an artist, they’re likely to try to get their own drummer to join them, so the artist basically hires a rhythm section in one. Bassists are also the keystone when it comes to song structure, so you can generally lean on them to show you the way. Say the progression includes a chord that’s held for eight bars, and the guitarist is not that great at keeping count or they suddenly lose their feel for when the next change comes. By keeping an eye on the bassist, they can simply watch and wait for the bassist’s hand to move, or listen out for the shift, because you know they’ll be right on it, every time. But make sure not to lean too heavily on your bassist, because when you’re faced with bad stage sound or even a bad stage layout where you can’t even see the bassist, then you’ll quickly come unstuck. It’s far better to gain a good feel for the count of four, eight, or more bars yourself and only turn to your bassist in times of real emergency.
Good to Know
So who are the best, most well-known bassists of all time? There are actually too many for us to list here, but we have included four of the most influential and essential.
James Jamerson (1936-1983) was the bassist from the Funk Brothers during the sixties and seventies and if you don’t know the funk brothers – they were the house band for Motown records and can be heard on countless soul classics. As such, Jamerson has played bass for the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and more. He’s known as the first bassist to depart from the walking bass line and start popularising melodic lines by weaving in stunning, varied phrases that never disturbed the music but seamlessly melted in.
Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987) was renowned for his melodic style and established the bass guitar as a credible solo instrument. He was also one of the first to play fretless bass guitar. A virtuoso bassist, he would tirelessly experiment with his sound, and would often throw harmonics into his playing: where overtones are produced by lightly muting a string at a specific point. Jaco Pastorius was a force to behold when playing with the Jazz-Rock outfit Weather Report.
Larry Graham (1946) is most famous for his work with the seventies Funk-Soul band Sly & The Family Stone. Graham is a pioneering bassist and is often seen as the originator of the slap-technique (see more info about this in the Bass Technique section below).
Marcus Miller (1959) is a virtuoso bassist able to combine all the techniques developed by the aforementioned bassists. For example, he takes the melodic style of Pastorius and mashes it up with the slap technique of Graham – and to masterful effect.
Tips for Bassists
- A good bassist is tight, functional (in service of the music), and decisive. To gain these qualities, a bassist needs to develop the endurance required to hold tight to a groove for a long time without falling out. This is the first thing you need to achieve as a bassist – it can also be the hardest.
- To develop that endurance, the best thing you can do is practise with a metronome. You can be certain that most, if not all, good bassists have already spent endless hours practising with a metronome, and still spend endless hours practising with a metronome. If you want something less ‘robotic’, then you could use a little drum machine, but the horrible truth is, using a metronome simply results in more focussed and concentrated playing.
- Develop your feel for rhythm by tapping your foot along to the beat. At the same time, you’ll be exercising your motor skills, since your foot won’t necessarily be tapping out the rhythm you’re playing, but it will stick to the count. By carrying out this exercise, you’ll develop a sort of natural internal pulse and an impulse to stay on the beat. Essentially, this is a great exercise for any musician.
- On the amateur circuit, there are many bassists who haven’t learnt about harmony by learning about scales and chords. So you often see bassists playing a line based on a major chord while the rest of the band is playing a minor chord, which just never sounds right. As the bassist, you need to know where those harmonies lie. There are more than enough books and online tutorials available to help you with this, so there really is no excuse. We even have our own dedicated blog on chords and chord theory here.
- If you’re working on a new song, don’t just focus on the bass line, get to know the chords and the melody. If you know the song with more depth, then you’ll write better lines. Even Sir Paul McCartney even preferred to wait for everything else to be recorded before writing the bass line so that he was sure the bass would only add colour where it was needed.
Driving, On the Beat & Laid Back
While the bassist needs to lock into what the drummer is doing, they’re free to choose the timing of the notes they play along with the beat. Notes can be placed just before a drum strike (driving), precisely at the same time as the strike (on the beat), or just after the strike (laid back). There’s always a lot of discussion on this matter, since it’s not something you can really describe in milliseconds or any unit of time. It’s more of a feeling. But a few factors do come into play depending on the approach you choose. Sometimes, it’s simply a personal choice or personal style. It also has a lot to do with the style of music. In Funk, for example, the bass needs to be driving, while in Folk it generally falls right on the beat, and in Blues, the laid back approach tends to make more sense. What you need to avoid is having a driving or laid back approach as a band. If every member of the band is ‘driving’ then the danger of speeding up the tempo is unavoidable. And if every member is ‘laid back’ then the tempo will start to slow. If you’re playing a lot with each other, this is something that you’ll learn and grow with.
Where Do You Stand?
So, where does the bassist need to stand on stage? The best advice is to stand next to the drummer (not in front of them) and on the hi-hat side. This is the best position to really hear the natural sound of the drums so you can keep tight to the beat. In the same breath, it just doesn’t make sense for the guitarist to set up in between the bassist and drummer, since it’ll just hinder the bassist from seeing or clearly hearing what the drummer is doing.
Where Do You Set Up Your Amp?
The best place to set up your bass amplifier is about four metres away from where you’re standing. This way, everyone should be able to hear the bass clearly. We recommend four metres because the volume of a bass amplifier varies over a distance. The sound waves are longer (more stretched out) because of the low pitch of the bass, so the amp can actually sound quieter when you’re standing right in front of it than it does when standing further away. Unfortunately, most stages are actually too small (especially in pubs and bars) to be able to set your bass amplifier up four metres away, so basically, do what you can with what you have.
Bass Travels Further
Bass is able to find its way through a crowd and travels much further than a sound with a lot of mids and trebles. This is because the lower pitched bass produces longer, more stretched out soundwaves (as briefly explained above). These soundwaves are more flexible and able to bend and go around obstructions with more ease than the shorter and tighter soundwaves of mid-and-treble heavy sounds. If the bass amp is turned up too high on a little stage with no PA system, for example, then all anyone will hear in the back row is the bass.
With a plectrum – Playing the bass with a plectrum was the standard when the bass guitar first came about. This was largely because many of the bassists at the time were originally guitarists and were just used to playing with a pick. There are plenty of bassists that play with a plectrum these days, especially if they play more hefty, fast music like Grunge and other alternative styles. When you play with a plectrum you get a characteristic little ‘click’ added to the sound of every note.
With your fingers – This is the most common technique, where the strings are plucked with the index and middle fingers. This is the most satisfying technique in terms of motor skills and feel.
Slap bass – Slap bass is played by striking, or ‘slapping’ the strings with your thumb and ‘popping’ strings with the other fingers. Slap bass has a really specific sound to it, and is a standard technique in Funk as well as other genres. Since this technique is so percussive, it’s almost like the bassist is mimicking the drums.
Tapping – The tapping technique involves fretting the strings with both hands. So you tap out the root note with your right hand (if you happen to be right-handed) at the base of the neck, while tapping out melodies with your left hand at the same time. It’s not that common, especially when it comes to playing in the rhythm section, but it’s definitely something of an art.
Don’t Get in the Way
In the illustration below, you can see the note range of the bass. When accompanying a band or ensemble, the bass doesn’t often stray far from ‘Range A’ (between E and G), but it could sit in the higher range – in ‘Range B’ (A to the A of the following octave). Whatever range they go for, the bassist should always avoid getting in the way of the other musicians by playing too high up the neck (high pitch) or by making their lines too busy. The reverse is also true: the other musicians should always be careful not to invade the territory of, or get in the way of the bass. This is why it’s wise for them to steer clear of ‘Range A’ and avoid the risk of playing the same note as the bass at the same time, which will sound messy and unpleasant. So – to all the keyboard players: please avoid going too far left with your left hand, because those lower notes are going to get in the way of the bass. Also, while the bassist probably doesn’t come close to the highest part of ‘Range A’ in every song, it should still be seen as the ‘danger zone’.
When playing the bass, the aim is to play one string at a time, with none of the other strings vibrating at the same time, leaving a clean, clear, and focussed sound. For this reason, every other string must always be muted. Different muting techniques circulate among both professional and amateur bassists, but in the blog linked below, we explain a really simple yet effective method:
The Five-String Bass
For decades the bass only came with four strings, just like the double bass. It wasn’t until the eighties that someone thought to add an extra string on the bottom end, giving the world the five-string bass. After that, the six-string, and even seven-string bass soon followed. Since five-string basses increase your note range, once you’re more experienced as a musician, it can be tough to choose between a four-string bass and five-string bass.
Are Three Strings Enough?
According to bassist Tony Levin, a three-string bass should be enough. However, the standard still remains the four-string, and many bassists actually prefer a five-string bass. Of course, they’ll all have very good reasons for it. It’s worth thinking about whether or not those reasons apply to you and what you want from your bass since picking out your preferred bass needs to be a conscious decision. Many bassists struggle to switch between a four and five string bass depending on what they’re used to, so picking out a bass really comes with consequences. It’s a bit like choosing an automatic or manual car. If you go for an automatic gear system, you won’t be able to just jump into a car with a manual system without having to really think about it.
The four string bass was derived from the double bass and has the same tuning, E, A, D, G. The five-string bass has an extra low-B string, with the standard tuning B, E, A, D, G. Any bassist making the step from a four-string to a five-string bass needs to be constantly aware that their lowest string is a B and not an E. This takes some getting used to, and you almost have to find your way around a bass again. Then there’s something else that could trip you up: because of that extra string, you’ll need to quickly adopt a different muting technique, which is not something you can learn overnight, especially if you’ve been playing a four-string bass for years already. In short, the step from four to five strings requires a lot of work, which is exactly why it needs to be a really conscious and well considered choice. Of course, there are some bassists who find the transition easy and can seamlessly switch between a four-string and five-string bass without blinking, but for most bassists, the process is more difficult.
The Rise of the Five-String Bass
Bass luthier Ellio Martina still remembers when the five-string bass first emigrated over from America. Friends quickly started asking if he could start building them. Ever since, Ellio has been building five, and even six-string and seven-string basses as well as four-strings. “The six and seven string basses had an extra high string. They were popular for a while. You don’t really use the higher string to play bass lines, but a melody. So it’s actually a melodic instrument and has an extra function. These days, only a few bassists still play them, but the five-string bass clearly has a place in the world.”
While the five-string bass comes with a few benefits when compared to the four-string, many, if not most bassists still swear by their four-string models. Apparently their four-string offers something that far outweighs the benefits that come with a five-string bass. “There’s no doubt that this has a lot to do with the fact that many musicians can be pretty traditional, and even conservative when it comes to picking their instrument”, remarks Ellio. “Also, every bassist will have their own personal take and preferences when it comes to what works and doesn’t. I mean, in principle, that extra low B-string isn’t actually always necessary. Not in every situation.”
So why did the five-string bass come into being? There are a few theories about that, the first being that the eighties was the age of the synthesizer, which played an increasingly important role in Pop. The bass of these synthesizers were able to reach untold depths, diving even further than a bass guitar ever could. By adding a low B-string, bassists were better able to match the range of a synth. Ellio thinks that this wasn’t the only reason though: “Specific genres and situations demanded something more ballsy from the bassist, like in Fusion and Jazz-Rock, which was really at its peak during the eighties. I still play bass on small stages with a blues band, and I love having that extra-low range to play with. With a low B string, you can reach below the E to hit a low-B, C, C♯, D, and D♯.” So there are definitely musical reasons for going for a five-string. More heavy rock also demands more mass in the low end, especially since many guitar-based bands tend to lean on the A, D, and E. You can play that low A and E on a low E-string, but you can’t reach the D, which is where the five-string comes in. So rock bassists are definitely offered more than enough reason to head for a five-string bass.
Of course, the other solution is just using drop-D tuning and sticking to four strings. Basically, this is where the low E-string is tuned down to D, so a whole note down. Plenty of rock bassists get more than enough out of a four-string just by using drop-D tuning. You can even get machine heads fitted with a lever that immediately drops the E down to D when triggered, but some might find this more problematic than others – it’s yet another personal question. Of course, when you drop the E to D, you need to pay attention to the fact that the notes are shifted back along the fretboard.
It’s also worth noting that many bassists actually avoid that lower range since it can get pretty muddy sound-wise down there. But, that’s not to say that the moment never arises where adding something lower than E could really do the job.
Another advantage offered by the five-string bass has to do with technique, and is an advantage that was probably unexpected when the five-string bass was first built. Because of that low B-string, you actually don’t have to hop around the length of the neck so much. With a four-string bass, if you want to grab the low F or G, then you need to be at the far end of the E-string, so if your fret hand is busy with something near the middle of the neck, then it has to make quite a leap to get back to the F or G. The perk of the five-string is that the low F and G also lie somewhere in the middle of the B-string. The notes are also easier to grab, since the tension is lower in the middle of the string than it is near the nut. The F played on a B-string also has a different timbre than the F on an E-string due to the comparative string length when it’s fretted. With a five-string, you can also repeat certain phrase patterns all the way up the neck, while with a four-string, you often have to throw in an open string somewhere, messing with the pattern.
Four Strings & No More
Now, if you add up all of the benefits of a five-string bass, you might be thinking ‘then every bassist should go for a five-string model.’ But that’s not strictly true… so many bassists swear by their four-string sidekick. Why? Well, Ellio’s point earlier about the musician’s tendency to stick to tradition was pretty much on the money. And, in most situations, a four-string bass really is enough, so why would you need that extra string? Five-string basses also have a noticeably wider neck, placing your fret-hand and wrist under more tension which can, in the worst cases, lead to conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. There are bassists who simply find the four-string bass much better looking and more elegant than the wider-necked five-string. The four-string bass is also the OG; the original! The one that started it all – and that bears some weight. Most, if not all bassists start learning with a four-string bass and just aren’t interested in making the step over to a five-string, and as the philosopher and writer Goethe once stated, “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister”: the master emerges through limitations. So if you can do it with four strings…
If you are considering making the step over to a five-string bass, then there are a few other things you’ll need to consider. “You need to check that your amplifier and cabinet is able to handle the lower notes,” advises Ellio. “If they can’t, then the step over to a five-string will also mean you need to invest in new gear.”
During the first few years of its existence, the width of the neck of the five-string bass varied. These days, this has pretty much been standardised, but there are still variants. Take a good look at the differences between various five-string basses and figure out what you prefer. If you want to play slap bass, then make sure to look at basses with a wider string spacing at the bridge and study the ‘string spacing’ and ‘neck width’ specs of any possible candidates.
The sound of the low-B string is also dependent on the string itself – it’s not simply a higher-gauged string than the E. A lot has gone into the development of the B-string, so there are plenty of B-strings that sound good. “I always choose a longer scale length for a five-string bass (the length between the bridge and nut),” says Ellio. “The scale length of a four-string bass is usually 34 inches, but for a five-string I go for a 35 or 36 inch scale length. This makes the B-string sound better. With a 34 inch scale length, the B-string feels loose and sloppy.” That’s not to say that there aren’t five-string basses with a 34 inch scale length and a B-string that sounds good. “It’s just something you really need to pay attention to while you shop around. You can get five-string models where the B-string sounds completely different to the other four strings, as if it’s from a different family. That’s something you certainly don’t want. Basically, the timbre of all the strings needs to sound balanced.”
A Stronger Neck
Five strings, especially with that thicker B-string, puts more strain on the neck, so stability is important. This is sometimes solved by making the neck thicker but… “my personal preference is a laminated neck,” admits Ellio. “It’s really strong but it’s still slim. The neck of a five-string bass needs to be stiff enough and the body needs to have more weight to it. But of course, it can’t be too stiff or too heavy, otherwise you’ll lose out on overtones, which you need for the quality of sound. Without the overtones, you basically have dead tone.”
Compared to the other strings, due to its mass, the higher-gauge B-string has more vibrational energy. If the neck and body are too ‘slack’ or too ‘tight’ then they’ll suck up all that vibrational energy too quickly, drowning the tone. “For the body, I recommend swamp ash. It’s perfect for five-string basses and can stand up to the strain. Essentially, if you’re thinking about getting a five-string bass, you need to be aware that those five-strings will place more strain on everything else, so it’s worth investing in a well-built model. Otherwise, you’ll just end up frustrated with your new instrument and won’t ever want to look at a five-string bass again.”
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» What Are the Best Bass Guitar Strings for Me?
» What’s the Best Bass Amplifier for Me?
» What’s the Best Left-Handed Guitar for Me?
» What’s the Best Acoustic Bass Guitar for Me?
» What’s the Best Bass Guitar Effect for Me?