Inspired by two very good posts by Jacob and Sidse about the fascinating instruments they play I was inspired to write a post about the instrument that I play, the electric bass. Unfortunately there is very little to say about the instrument itself. It was invented in 1951 by Leo Fender and has evolved very little since then. This is probably not because Leo Fender was a genius and got it right in his first try, but mainly, I believe, because he got it “good enough”. Let’s be honest: the point of the bass is to go bum-bum-bum in the frequency range below the other instrument without getting in way of the kick drum. And that’s about it. And for that reason, the electric bass is confined to a life of almost anonymity. It is an instrument that has been used on the majority of recordings since the birth of rock’n’roll, but is also the instrument that most people would not know the sound of. As a casual music fan (these thoughts do not hold for people in bands of course) you do not notice the electric bass and in many cases you are not supposed to notice it – however you will notice it if it suddenly stops playing.
This idea that “people might not pay any attention to what I am playing, but they would sure find out if I suddenly stopped” is a way of thinking that many bass players have adapted as a way of finding some kind in pride in the fact that really, no one cares what you play. I have noticed that a lot of keyboard players have also adapted this way of looking at their own role in bands – good for them.
However, being the unobtrusive base that keeps the music together is not enough for all bass players. And while the instrument itself might be dull to read too much about, I would like to come with a bit of analysis on what I, as a bass player, have noticed other bass players do as a way of getting attention, eventhough there are other people in the band doing more fancy things…
There are four options:
No #1: Make a complete fool of your self
The most obvious way of getting people to notice you when you are a bass player is to make sure that people can not ignore you. The easiest way of achieving this is to make sure that you look like a complete idiot – any chance you get. On most band pictures you can pretty easyli identify the bass player. He’s the one who does all he can to stand out from the other guys in the band (this is not to mistaken with the guy who stands out but is not aware of it – that’s the drummer you’re looking at). Exhibit A: (the post continues below the images)
No #2: Sing
If you stand by the main microphone in front of the band and sing you are no longer a bassplayer. You are now “the lead singer”. This is much better. Everyone loves you, wants to get to know you, give you free stuff. Girls wanna marry you. Problem solved.
I give you: Sting, McCartney, Lemmy, Roger Waters, Flemming Bamse Jørgensen
No #3: Pretend you don’t play the bass
In most bands the guy who plays the bass is playing bass because he was the worst guitarplayer of the bunch and thus ended up with only four strings to manage. There are two ways of coping with this:
The first one is to decide to prove everyone wrong by playing the bass as if it’s not really a bass. The finest examples of this are people who actually play bass solos like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers (Aerolplane anyone?), New Order’s Peter Hook who plays melodies on his bass guitar or bass legend Jaco Pastorious who re-built his bass to not sound like a bass guitar, then played it like it was not a bass guitar.
The other way of coping with being the worst guitar player in the band is just to ignore playing all together (since no one cares anyway) and just be really good at something else and be famous for that. Take Pete Wentz or Sid Vicious (what band was he in? who cares?).
No #4: Surrender
Accept that no one pays attention to anything you do and make that “your special thing”. Keep your mouth shut, avoid eye contact and wear clothes that match the wall paper. That way it will hurt less when people ignore you, since you “want them to ignore you”.
Some months ago I talked to Alcoholic Faith Mission’s bass player Sune Sølund about this, and about how and why we became bass players. While I took up the bass because I desperate wanted to be join a band at my school that needed a bass player (I was the worst guitar-player since I had never touched a guitar in my life), Sune’s reasons for choosing the bass was much more clever though less connected to music. “I started noticing that when the girls found out they couldn’t all get the lead singer – the next guy they would be looking to was the bass player.” Why this was the case Sune could not tell me. And who cares anyway?