How are bass players different from other band members?

The bass player; is often a quiet, mysterious figure who shuns the spotlight, preferring to blend into the background rather than take centre stage.  With all the audience’s focus on the lead singer/guitarist, it’s sometimes easy to forget they’re even there… until they step out of the darkness and deliver the most amazing guitar solo you’ve ever heard (John Entwistle’s iconic ‘My Generation’ solo, anyone?) and you realise that there’s SO much more to being a riff-master than you could possibly imagine.  So, what is it that makes bass guitar players different from other band members that enables them to capture an audience in such a way?

Well, for starters, bass players have a very different skill set to other band members, with many – such as Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth, Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler and Cream’s Jack Bruce – often being the main songwriters of the band as well as bassists.  Also, contrary to an out-of-date (but still common) misconception that playing the bass guitar is ‘easy’ due to the low number of strings, a strong bass player provides a solid foundation for the rest of the band, driving forward the rhythm and keeping the energy high.  As well as keeping everything and everyone on track, it takes a great deal of talent to deliver a top-class bass performance – we challenge anyone who dares to say playing bass is easy to replicate the speed at which John Entwistle could move his fingers across a four-string fretboard and make the extraordinary sounds that he did.

As well as being gifted songwriters, many bass guitarists start their musical careers playing other instruments and therefore possess a broad range of musical skills.  Nathan East and Jack Bruce were both accomplished celloists before picking up bass guitars, Metallica’s Cliff Burton played the piano and Led Zeppelin’s John-Paul Jones was a brilliant session musician and composer.  Becoming these multi-talented individuals takes heaps of dedication, a huge amount of discipline as well as immense musicality.  When Burton taught himself to play the bass guitar in homage to his late brother, he practised for a least six hours a day.  Weymouth taught herself to play bass in a matter of months, becoming one of the most talented bass players of her generation.  What’s more, a young John Entwistle (years before joining The Who) taught himself to play bass on a homemade bass guitar – if that’s not dedication, we don’t know what is.

Guitar riff solos aside, bass players are usually quieter individuals.  Whether that’s because they’re busy concentrating on playing the music and driving the songs forward, or whether the egos of the sometimes larger-than-life lead vocalists/guitarists automatically shape this outcome, it’s hard to be completely certain.  However, this quiet presence often contrasts with the larger personalities of other band members, which, when they complement each other’s style, can have amazing results.  Just look at Eric Clapton – he was the Cream band member that went on to become a household name, but many would argue that it was Jack Bruce’s versatility and talent for improvisation that drove Clapton to constantly push himself to play at his absolute best.   However, unfortunately, different personality combinations don’t always work quite so successfully, and a bass player’s tendency to remain out of the limelight can sometimes lead to their talents being overlooked by other band members.  It’s well documented that Tina Weymouth had to withstand fellow Talking Heads band member David Byrne regularly dismissing her talent when really she was paving the way for female bassists across the globe.  Occasionally though, the ‘quiet’ label can just be about perception; John-Paul Jones was widely regarded as being the most reserved member of Led Zeppelin (famous for their offstage excesses), but according to him, he did exactly the same as his band members, he just did it quietly so no one noticed.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.  Cliff Burton and Geezer Butler’s solos could never be described as ‘quiet’, Paul McCartney’s long career shows that he was pretty comfortable being in the spotlight (and rightly so) and John Entwistle’s indifferent demeanour on stage gained him legions of fans.  But that’s the joy of bass guitar and bass players, right?  Sometimes unpredictable, often legendary and always awesome.  Long may they continue, in whatever manner they choose.