Are bass players just failed guitarists?
Before you get your flamethrowers out, let me tell you I play both guitar and bass equally well (or equally badly perhaps). For me personally, there are distinct advantages to playing both. At open microphone nights and at jam sessions, there might be four guitar players but no bass (or conversely two bass players and no guitar). So I like that I can tuck my little Steinberger Synapse into its gig bag and easily fit it into the back of my Prius, and voila: instant choice of bass player or guitar player.
But there are of course disadvantages too. The obvious one is you don’t get really good at either one. Since I also dabble in analog synthesis (not to mention all my other pastimes), I know I spread myself pretty thin. In all honesty though, I cannot blame my persistent musical novicehood on trying to play numerous instruments. No, in fact I believe that’s pretty much backwards: I play around with many instruments to make up for my lack of mastery of any one of them.
Well, anyway, back to the question. Some of my friends who just play guitar, believe the bass is where aspiring guitarists wind up when they discover they are in over their heads. They consider the bass to be something of a “guitar lite”. To a non-musician, how could you argue? The bass looks like a big guitar with two strings missing, therefore it must be easier to play. When you go to a club gig, the bass player seems much more laid back and his playing seems sedate by comparison to the guitarists who are playing exotic chords and shredding lead riffs with lightning speed. It’s hard to argue against the role of the bass player in the average club band as much more than an accompanist for the guitar players. I’ve heard it argued that a person could learn bass well enough to play in a band in maybe a year or two tops.
I have to agree, but only to an extent. I was indeed one of those guys they are talking about. I got my first guitar maybe when I was ten years old, and for years never got past simple barre chords and slow melodies. I got discouraged easily. Then I got a bass and found I could actually sound good on it rather quickly. I can see why some could make a causal connection (albeit a shaky one) in that regard.
But after letting my old Stratocaster sit in its case practically untouched for many many years, I became newly determined to play the damn thing. So I started studying and practicing, and listening closely to some of my favorite guitarists’ handiwork (we’ll talk about my guitar favorites in another blog). And now that I’m actually starting to dig my own playing for the first time in my life, I believe I’m good enough to be playing in a drunken garage band just for fun. And believe me, that is quite something to aspire to.
I remember picking up a friend’s violin once and after ten minutes of making horrible screeching noises, wondering if I’d ever be able to make even a simple nice sound out of it. I have a Shakuhachi flute I bought about ten years ago, and to this day cannot get a sound out of it beyond my breath rushing out of my mouth! So I am aware that there are musical instruments that seem to have a steep learning curve right off the bat. Bass is definitely not one of them. One could pick up a bass with no knowledge of music theory and incapable of even reading tabulature, and still figure out how to sound like a bass player very quickly. And that’s where it gets its bad rap from. But like most things that appear simple on the surface, there is a deepness to the instrument that can take many years (even a lifetime) to really master.
I’ve kept up with my bass playing too though, and I even acquired a six-string bass to fool around with. But it was when I got turned on to the likes of Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Bailey, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, and their ilk, I came to an understanding of the true nature of the bass. It was the easiest instrument to play just okay. But when you start listening to the really good bassists out there (note my use of the superlative “ist” ending instead of just player.), I comprehended really how anything, even the most simplistic seeming things, could be taken to very high art forms. Some examples that came to mind were the Japanese arts of flower arranging, paper folding, and of course the tea ceremony.
And then there’s poetry. We all learned as children how to put together simple rhymes and limericks and such. For us young writing newbies, simple poems were so much easier for us to master than say, writing a novel. But at higher levels of artistic expression, that formula changes. A masterful poet has the ability to create intense imagery and moods in a relatively few lines of prose. Poetry is to me, the most difficult and highest literary art form, and not coincidentally, one that is difficult to understand until one is able to peer beneath the surface and see the subtleties and nuances that define all of the arts at the finer levels. Yet to those who tend to just see and hear the superficial aspects, these subtleties go unnoticed.
As for the bass, I think it might have been John Entwistle with the Who, who changed the role of bass from simplistic oom pah pah background to a bonafide lead role. In my humble opinion, he overshadowed Pete Townsend’s guitar playing. Pete had flash and sizzle, and was a good songwriter, but John had substance. Listen to “My Generation” if you don’t believe me! Even Townsend said pretty much the same in an interview: that Entwistle was leading Townsend through their back and forth trading of riffs in a point-counterpoint sort of exchange.
Only a handful of bassists before that had taken the initiative to step out with lead riffs. Jimi Hendrix’s bassist Noel Redding did it sometimes. Cream’s Jack Bruce too. But for the most part, it wasn’t until a more recent crop of bassists (many hailing from the jazz world) created something of a small revolution in music, whereby the background accompaniment instrument of bass turned into a spotlight instrument. I pay attention now to the bassist when I go to concerts. In fact my wife even got the bug after seeing Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller and Steve Bailey on stage at the same time, and went out and bought herself a little Squire Bronco to learn on. Now she insists when we get concert tickets, we try to get them on the right side of the stage (where the bassist typically hangs out).
So I’ve become more determined than ever now to practice both guitar and bass as often as possible. And I’ve developed a respect for all musicians, no matter what they play (be it violin, mandolin, harmonica, voice, or whatever). I strongly contend that the bass is as complex and entertaining an instrument as any, and that while it is easy to play satisfactorily when you are first starting out, it can be taken to a very high level of mastery. Maybe in a future lifetime I will be at that level. But in this one, I relish listening to the great bassists we are privileged to have in our midsts.