Who Typically Plays Bass?

To say that we’re all about the bass here at Bass Bros. is an understatement.  As well as selling a stonking selection of bass guitars (take a look if you don’t believe us), at heart, we are also fans.  In essence, we live and breathe bass guitars and everything connected to them.  Baselines pump through our veins, our string-hardened fingertips long to replicate famous bass solos, and our heroes wear basses not capes.  However, it got us thinking: our obsession with bass aside, is there a ‘type’ of person who typically plays bass?

On the face of it, a lot of bass players give off a quiet, introverted vibe.  This somewhat unassuming persona often contrasts to the bigger personalities found in a band.  The lead singer or guitarist (often an extrovert) is front and centre of the stage, and the drummer – although often further back – is frequently on a platform and sometimes even back lit to showcase their rhythmic talent.  By contrast, the bass player often looks a lonelier figure on the stage, despite usually having the freedom to move around.  This commonly gives rise to the view that a bassist works separately to the rest of the band, but of course, we know that nothing could be further from the truth.  Take the legend that is John Entwistle. We mention him a lot, and that’s not just because we need no excuse to talk about this brilliant man, but because he is a prime example of a bassist who was instrumental to his band’s success.  He possessed an intense, slightly distant persona on stage, initially shirking the limelight, although of course when audiences saw how talented he was, the limelight found him anyway.  Although seemingly in the background (outstanding bass solos aside) his consistent, rhythmic style of playing was an integral part of The Who’s success – which came into focus even more so during live performances.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule (if indeed, there was a rule in the first place) and the likes of Motorhead’s Lemmy, and Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius were much more outrageous in their playing style and performances.  Both of them bass icons in their own right, each radiated their own raw energy, and let’s be honest – whether they were introverts or extroverts, we can confidently say that neither of these bassists were ever going to be happy playing at the back.  Lemmy’s distinctive gravelly vocals, robust playing style and rock n roll attitude always grabbed attention, whilst Pastorius’ experimental style – including his famous “singing bass line” – made sure that he was never left in the shadows (and rightly so).

As we know, it’s a common misconception (from non-bassists, at least) that playing bass guitar is easy.  Granted, it’s not the most difficult instrument to learn on a basic level.  However, to play successfully within a band requires more than being able to master notes or chords; a strong bassist must be consistent, precise and work in tandem with the rest of the band (the drummer in particular) to keep the energy high and the rhythm going.  What’s more, many successful bass players are multi-talented musicians, who usually play more than one instrument and possess incredible versatility.  Nathan East – one of the most recorded bassists in the world – played the cello as a young man before moving onto bass, and his musicality and adaptability were undoubtedly key factors that led him to work across all genres of music and collaborate with some of the biggest musicians in the world, including Quincy Jones, Eric Clapton, Beyoncé and Daft Punk.  Versatility is a common theme when we look at other bassist icons, too.  Skilled session musician (and bassist for David Bowie for 20 years), Gail Ann Dorsey, started off as a clarinet and guitar player (whilst also studying film), but shifted her focus to bass when she realised that she was more likely to get work as a bass player – and we can all be thankful that she did.  Equally, as hard as it is to believe now, Tina Weymouth started off as Talking Heads’ driver in the early 1970s, but stepped up and learnt how to play bass when the band were missing a bassist.  Her natural talent and dedication not only helped her to become an accomplished bass player in a very short period of time, but also led to her being able to help shape a whole new rock age in the 1980s, whilst smashing through gender stereotypes at the same time.

Alongside talent, dedication and versatility, another common personality trait in top bass players is creativity and the drive to innovate.  We’re talking about those who take things to a whole new level and push their creative boundaries to explore new realms of what it means to play bass.  Jack Bruce is a fantastic example of this; his method of playing bass in a more melodic style was truly pioneering in the late 1960s, and contributed to him being one of the most influential bass players of all time – as part of Cream and as a solo artist – influencing the likes of Geddy Lee as well as many others.  In the early 1970s, Motorhead’s Lemmy also created his own playing technique which saw him move away from the single note style of playing and throw in plenty of double stops and chords instead.  Not only that, but his method of playing a bass unlike how a bass was usually played was revolutionary and led to a complete shift in how Motorhead performed together as a band.  In the same decade, Metallica’s Cliff Burton displayed immense passion and creativity to make his mark, which he did despite his short life.  After learning to play bass (initially practising for 6 hours every day) Burton gained a thirst for pushing boundaries and going against the grain.  His experimental approach – showcased to its best via the chromatic intro on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” – is a stellar example of Burton’s unique style, as is his contribution to the landmark heavy metal album, “Master of Puppets”.  Last but not least, we can’t talk about pushing boundaries without mentioning prog rock legend, Geddy Lee.  As well as displaying an awe-inspiring amount of energy during performances, which often see him singing, playing bass and the keyboards simultaneously, Lee is an award-winning musician, bassist, vocalist, guitarist, keyboard player, producer, composer and author.  His drive to consistently innovate via the use of synthesizers and modern digital techniques puts him head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to creative innovation.

As we’ve seen, there are some personality traits that are commonly found in bass players, but to say there is a specific type of person who plays bass is not strictly true.  Although there are certainly people who may be better bass players, there isn’t a one size fits all, and when we look back at music history, it’s often a case of someone offering something new and different at the right time.  This diversity and constant progression are what keep things interesting, and from a broader view, ensures that music continually moves forward and evolves.  If there is one thing that all of the bass players mentioned here (and throughout this blog) have in common, it’s that they have a significant passion for music and playing bass.  And in our book, that’s really all you need.