Low End Theory vol 1 part 1
by Wayne Thursby
Nobody listens to the bass
Before we can prescribe any solutions, it's important to know what problems we're trying to solve. Before the 1960's there were roughly two kinds of bassists. There were those which were trained jazz players, originally learned on an upright bass, and were transferring those skills to a new instrument. The second group were bassists that started as guitarists, and they brought a different approach to the instrument.
Here we're using the term "bassist" as distinct from "bass player". One of them is a student of the instrument, and the other is simply a guitar player banished to a four-stringed wasteland by virtue of being the worst in the band.
Early 1950's-era bassist like Bill Black -- bassist on early Elvis Presley recordings -- brought the supporting, rhythmic theory from upright blues bass and essentially played the same basslines on the electric instrument. His upright technique can be heard on tracks like "That's All Right" and they don't change much even after he stopped playing for Elvis (over money) and formed his own group.
You can hear the simple boogie-woogie bassline on in their album tracks as well as in movie appearances like 1961's "Teenage Millionaire".
Here, the bass is used as a supporting instrument, essentially outlining the chord progression through simple, predictable arpeggios. It doesn't sound bad exactly -- it's definitely serving a role in the song -- but it doesn't really add anything either.
At the same time there were bassist like Paul McCartney who took the instrument in another direction. Paul started off his career as a guitarist, and brought a melodic sense to his basslines that would have simply never worked in a traditional jazz setting. This fresh approach made the bassline the central hook of many of the Beatles songs -- with lines so melodic and catchy they would stick in your head.
Later in the 60s, a man named James Jamerson would take the best parts of both of these approaches, and transform the role of the bass in modern music.
Upholding the traditional role of the bass, and reflecting his training on upright jazz bass, Jamerson knew how to support the groove of a song rhythmically. The attack, decay, and strength of the notes are just as important as the selection of the notes themselves.
Jamerson frequently played with a mute across his strings. This made for a more upright-like decay on the electric instrument. This directly impacts the kinds of basslines that work, because the short decay time means that any single note won't last very long -- requiring another note to follow up quickly.
This means that a Jamerson bassline is consistently delivering notes -- even if the pitch doesn't change, the requirement to keep playing notes affords the possibility of influencing the rhythm in relatively static sections.
Now, given this tendency of muted bass strings to push the player in the direction of "more notes" -- it's easy to imagine overdoing it. Whether a conscious decision or not, this is where another part of his technique comes into play.
Jamerson played with one finger. Yep, just one. I know that everyone that's ever told you how to play emphasizes the use of two fingers, and they're not wrong. But Jamerson's finger -- which he called "the hook" -- allowed him to play essentially at full speed without overwhelming the track with excessive noodling.
This blend of limitations pushed the complexity of his basslines up a bit, but then put a nice, comfortable ceiling on it to keep it from getting over blown. This balanced complexity actually lends itself to a wonderful kind of simplicity when it's done right.
In the next article in the series, we'll explore Jamerson's melodic sense, and how this defines a "good" bassline.