“The bass, no matter what kind of music you're playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full. When the bass stops, the bottom kind of drops out of everything.” - Charlie Haden
Learning to play bass doesn’t mean just playing the notes. It’s also about getting the rhythm right. Bassists are often under-appreciated and thought to play a passive role behind the guitarists. However, the bassist and drummer have the leading role in the band.
Did you know that the oldest form of a guitar-like instrument dates back 3,500 while the bass guitar has only been around for a century?
Here are some of the most important things to know about the bass guitar.
What Role Does a Bassist Play in a Band?
Unlike what people often wrongly think about bassists, they’re just as important (if not more) as the guitarists in the band.
Whether they’re playing acoustic or electric bass, this instrument is a hugely important part of any band along with the drummer, guitarist, and singer.
The bass provides depth, rhythm, groove, and the driving heartbeat of the song. It keeps time, plays cool riffs, and helps guide the whole band. Thus, the bass plays an essential role in a band.
Imagine a rock, pop, metal, or jazz song without any bassline. Let’s break the stereotype right now: you don’t learn the bass guitar because you aren’t gifted enough to play the guitar.
The bass isn’t a poor version of the guitar. They are two similar and related instruments. A guitar has six strings that are commonly tuned to E, A, D, G, B, E. The bass has four strings tuned to E, A, D, G.
Bass strings are tuned in fourths, which means there are four notes between each string, e.g. E to A, A to D, D to G are all four notes apart. The bass strings are also tuned an octave lower than the corresponding strings on a guitar.
The bassist is there to provide the rhythm and they need to be in perfect time, have a great sense of rhythm, and keep. They need to hit the notes in perfect time with the drummer so that the guitarist and singer can follow along.
In fact, the first note played tends to be the fundamental note of a chord (which can tell the guitarist which chord to play). If they don’t have a great ear, they can always see which note the bassist is playing.
The bassist (along with the drummer) provides the rhythm and looks over the melodies.
Find out more about the role the bass guitar plays in bands.
The History of the Bass Guitar
The modern history of stringed instruments dates back to the harnessing of electricity.
Do you know the history of the bass guitar?
Until the middle of the 20th century, jazz and classical music used acoustic instruments. Swing and jazz bands would play louder and louder in order to be heard in the street. Double bass players complained about how little sound their instrument made and how hard it was to transport. Luthiers and manufacturers started putting increasingly-better prototypes together.
In 1910, the Gibson Company created the first acoustic bass. In 1933, the American Paul Tutmarc created the first electric bass ever, the Model 736 Bass Fiddle, with a short-scale neck, a small electromagnetic microphone, and a solid body. A solid body improved the sustain and amplification of the sound. It was designed to be played horizontally and had frets to make it easier to play in key. The bass was actually originally designed to be played with an amplifier.
The next major invention came in 1951 when Leo Fender created the Precision Bass, the first widely used electric bass. Its name comes from the fact that it had frets (allowing for precision playing).
The Jazz Bass was released 10 years later and flooded the market. With two pickups and a thinner neck, it had a new sound which was very popular amongst musicians. The world of music was turned upside-down in the post-war boom of the 50s, and by the 60s, music like rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and hard rock was appearing.
There are plenty of manufacturers who now produce bass guitars:
- Harley Benton
The hippy wave ensured that the electric bass would never go out of fashion. Woodstock was the hippy counterculture’s shining moment in 1969. At the time, plenty of artists were using electric basses in their music: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Animals, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Doors, and later AC/DC, Nirvana, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pantera, etc. Preamps started to be included in the 1960s to boost the high and low ends.
In the 70s and 80s, the bass underwent changes to improve its suitability to certain types of music; fretless models, improved sound, new amps, 4-, 5-, 6-, and 8-string models, and acoustic basses.
Find out more about the history of the bass guitar.
The Most Famous Bassists
There have been plenty of great bassists throughout history.
From Paul McCartney (The Beatles) to Cliff Burton (Metallica) via John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) or Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), there are plenty of bassists around to inspire you.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- Cliff Burton, Metallica (1962-1986): Known for his rhythmic and harmonious approach to bass playing.
- Micheal Balzary, aka Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers (1962- ): One of the founders of the band and famous for his use of slap bass.
- Paul McCartney, The Beatles (1942- ): On songs such as Love Me Do, Ticket to Ride, Help!, Penny Lane, and Let It Be.
- John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin (1946- ): One of the most famous bassists in the history of rock music.
- Roger Waters, Pink Floyd (1943- ): A founding member of the band and composer of songs including Dogs, Comfortably Numb, Money, Wish You Were Here, Have a Cigar, Welcome to the Machine, Shine On You Crazy Diamonds, In the Flesh? Another Brick in the Wall, Mother, Empty Spaces, and Hey You.
- Jaco Pastorious (1951-1987): Known for his solo work.
- Rex Rober Brown, Pantera (1964- ).
- Tom Hamilton, Aerosmith (1951- ).
- Duff McKagan, Guns N’ Roses (1964- ).
- Marcus Miller (1959- ).
You can also find bassists like Tim Commerford from Rage Against the Machine who played on Killing in the Name.
The Top 10 Basslines
Would you like to hear some of the best basslines ever written?
Here are 10 songs with great basslines for playing on electric bass guitars.
There’s a little of something for everyone in this list.
- Lou Reed - Walk on the Wild Side
- Pantera - Five Minutes Alone
- Pink Floyd - Money
- Metallica - Orion
- The Jackson Five - I Want You Back
- The Beatles - Come Together
- Queen (feat. David Bowie) - Under Pressure
- Queen - Another One Bites the Dust
- Red Hot Chili Peppers - Can’t Stop
- Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication
Looking for more?
The YouTube channel CoverSolutions has tonnes of freely accessible videos to help you play along with and get better at. This channel is a veritable goldmine for aspiring bassists and you can watch the bass being played as well as the tablature showing you what to do. There are also videos for drummers and guitarists, too.
If you'd like more help learning the bass guitar, consider getting private tutorials from one of the tutors on Superprof. They'll offer one of three main types of private tutorials and it'll be up to you to choose the type of tutorial that's best for you and your budget.
Face-to-face tutorials are your traditional private tutorials between the student and a tutor. They're great if there's something specific you'd like to learn as the lessons will be tailored to you and your learning style. However, this bespoke service comes at a cost, meaning that this type of tutorial is usually the most costly.
Online tutorials are also just between a single student and their tutor but their tutor won't be there in the room with them. Instead, they'll provide their tutorial over webcam. While this isn't always ideal for hands-on subjects, if you have a decent mic, a talented tutor can teach you how to play bass without even being in the room with you.
Finally, you can also get group tutorials. With several paying students attending the tutorial, this type of tutorial tends to be the cheapest per person per hour. Of course, the tutor's attention is also divided amongst the students and they won't be able to tailor the lessons to a single student. However, in the beginning, this might be a good option as everyone needs to learn the basics and you don't want to spend too much money on a new hobby if you think you mightn't stick at it.
Luckily for you, many of the tutors on Superprof offer the first hour of tuition for free. This is a great way to get to know your potential tutor, ask them about their teaching style, experience, and qualifications, and iron out the finer details of the kind of tuition you'd like.