I have heavy opinions about the role of bass guitar in rock and roll. Deep, resonant, booming opinions, with lots of low end.
Anyway . . .
The bass player is the most underrated musician in any band that isn’t the Beatles or the Police. Guitarists and singers get most of the glory, obviously, and drummers have the reputation as hard-partying savages, though in my experience drummers tend to be the most reliable, mature, and domesticated individuals. Keyboard players are inconsequential.
But bass players determine whether a band sounds good or not. Bass is sort of a bottleneck that all the other elements of a song have to get through. A crappy bass player can muddy the best chord progressions and render the best lyrics indecipherable. Often times the best option for a bass player is to keep it minimal and play under the rest of the instruments, so bass players must exercise restraint.
Bass occupies more sonic real estate than any other instrument. That is, the range of frequencies coming from the bass amp take up the bottom third of the audible spectrum that human ears can hear. And because low-frequency sound waves are physically larger than high-pitched sound waves, they interact with their environment in odd ways. For instance, many clubs have hollow stages, just some sheets of plywood nailed over an empty enclosure, and certain notes on the bass will actually resonate with the entire stage, causing a booming sound throughout the club. So as a bass player, you have to concern yourself with tone and the settings on your amp in a way that you don’t if you’re a keyboard player, in which case you pretty much just turn the amp up or down. Even if you’re ignorant of acoustics, just know that a good chunk of the overall sound you are hearing from a live rock band is the bass.
Today I’m playing songs that have some of the most iconic bass lines of all time. I’d like to thank my friend Milhows, who listened to the show and pointed out that the ascending line on “My Girl” is actually played on guitar, not bass. I hereby publicly acknowledge my failure. Everything else is legit. Quick note that the punchy, repetitive bass stylings of Kim Deal in the Pixies were copied by Nirvana, so I put those back to back.
“My Girl” — The Temptations
“Stand By Me” — Ben E. King
“You Can’t Hurry Love” — The Supremes
“Taxman” — The Beatles
“Come Together” — The Beatles
“Sunshine Of Your Love” — Cream
“My Generation” — The Who
“Under Pressure” — David Bowie (with Queen)
“Another One Bites The Dust” — Queen
“Walk On The Wild Side” — Lou Reed
“What’s Going On” — Marvin Gaye
“The Lemon Song” — Led Zeppelin
“Town Called Malice” — The Jam
“Billie Jean” — Michael Jackson
“Monkey Gone To Heaven” — The Pixies
“Gouge Away” — The Pixies
“Lithium” — Nirvana
“Waiting Room” — Fugazi
“The National Anthem” — Radiohead
“Seven Nation Army” — The White Stripes
“Hysteria” — Muse*
“I Want You Back” — The Jackson 5
“American Life” — Primus
“The Guns Of Brixton” — The Clash