While the electric bass may not be culturally celebrated on the level of its cousin the electric guitar, the instrument plays an essential role in the creation of fluid, measured music that is pleasing to the ear. Read on for an overview of everything one needs to know about the electric bass.
The role of the bass in music
The Fender company first developed the electric bass guitar for mass consumption in the 1950s. Known as the Precision Bass, this electric, easily-transportable alternative to the stand-up bass had a fundamental influence on the evolution of popular music. The Precision Bass could not only be amplified to better blend in with other loud, electric instruments, but its physical design was also familiar enough that guitar players could learn to play it more easily than the quieter, acoustic stand-up bass.
Today, bass guitar is a core component of most modern music styles, including rock, pop, swing, funk, world beat, jazz, metal, and blues. While all instruments play significant roles in the creation of a band’s sound, the bass is arguably the most important. This is because the bass guitarist is responsible for creating a connection between the harmony of a song and its rhythm. Alongside a drummer, a bassist must keep time within a song, playing in a rhythmic pattern that establishes the pulse, or beat, of the music for the rest of the band to follow.
At the same time, the bassist must play notes that establish a harmonic foundation for the rest of the musicians. In this respect, the bass is also extremely important, because the human ear tends to hear harmonies created by multiple notes in relation to the lowest possible pitch. If a bassist plays the wrong foundational notes, it throws the harmony off and disrupts the music. This makes it much easier to notice when a bass player makes a mistake than when someone playing a lead instrument, such as guitar or saxophone, missteps.
Ways to play the bass
The bass guitar’s traditional four strings are tuned to the notes E, A, D, and G—one octave below the electric guitar’s four lowest-toned strings. The similarity between the notes and body styles of the two instruments sometimes leads guitar players to assume that learning to play the bass will be an easy task, but the transition is not usually so smooth. This is due, in part, to the fact that playing the bass requires a markedly different technique and technical skillset than people use to play the electric guitar.
Accomplished bass players may use a variety of styles to create the right sound for the genre of music they are playing. Popular playing techniques on the bass include palm muting, picking, fretting, and slap and pop. While many bassists choose to use only their fingers on the strings of the instrument, some prefer to use a pick. Famous bassists like Geddy Lee, Flea, and Duck Dunn are all notable for their abilities as finger-style bassists, while Paul McCartney, Chris Squire, and Mike Dirnt made notable accomplishments playing with a pick. Either choice is appropriate and depends solely on the preference of the bassist.
Useful bass equipment
Musicians who are interested in becoming bass guitarists need several pieces of gear to get started. Second in importance to the instrument itself is an amplifier. A bass guitar that is not plugged into an amp will not emit any notable sound. Beginner musicians can learn to play using a small, 100-watt amp, but more experienced bassists who are looking to perform shows should only purchase amps with a wattage of 200 or more. To connect a bass to an amp, all new musicians must also purchase an instrument cable with quarter-inch jacks on both ends.
Additional gear that is helpful for new bass players to have includes a guitar strap, which will allow a musician to learn how to stand while playing. Learning to play a bass while standing is more comfortable than sitting down with the bass propped on one knee, and will also be a useful technique for those who want to eventually join a band. New musicians should also consider purchasing a case for the instrument to protect it from damage, as well as an electronic tuner to make sure that they are playing in key.