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The "traditional" role of bass

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by mutedeity, Sep 23, 2008.

  1. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    This is in response to something I posted on that since when can any guitarist play bass thread, that was closed. I think this is worth saying though.

    The "traditional" role of bass is to provide the lowest melodic voice. Bass is no more a "rhythm" instrument than any other instrument. Guitar is just as much a rhythmic instrument as bass, for example, and bass is no more like drums than guitar is, really. While drums are also tonal and technically melodic instruments they are not strictly subject to chromatic tonality in the sense that bass and guitar generally are, microtonal instruments aside. In fact if anything bass is more akin to the left hand playing piano.

    With that said, in certain circumstances bass is treated in a more or less "percussive" way, but it is also treated in a more or less melodic or harmonic way. In my opinion the assertion that bass is part of the "rhythm section" is just another limitation.
  2. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    A description I heard in music school eons ago was the bass gives tone to the bass drum and the guitar give tone to the snare. You can hear that in older rhythm sections. As the drums got busier so did the other instruments of the rhythm section. Bass players still lock into the drummer bass drum.
  3. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    Sure, I agree with this and in most cases where you are playing as part of an ensemble this will be the case. What I am trying to say here is that there are other considerations about what the role of bass is and what bass can and can't do. I think sometimes here on talkbass there can be a tendency to impose limitations about what the bass should be doing based on people's personal experience or preference.

    I think it's important to point out that there are any number of ways to play bass and that any given way works in the right context. What context is right really comes down to what the composer wants to achieve, whether the composer is the bass player or not.

    I think the most important thing to do is keep an open mind about what is possible. Experience is the key to knowing what the appropriate thing to do is in a given situation, as opposed to setting limitations on what you can or should do. No-one would have ever developed any of the diverse approaches to playing bass or any other instrument that have been developed if everyone decided that bass had to play a specific role and lock in as part of the rhythm section.
  4. fearceol


    Nov 14, 2006
    I think most of the advice (good IMO ) given on TB about locking in with the drummer is given to newbies to help with their groove ect. Also, in fairness to most posters here, the general consensus is "nothing is written in stone".
  5. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    What you are saying it true. However what any given instrument does in any musical situation is, I think, determined by 1.) sound qualities and performance limitations of the instrument and 2.) what the history of the style has shown to be appropriate. For instance, a fairly good bassoon player could do about 95% of what is done by electric bass, but that would not really cut it for various reasons.

    In the 50's the Fender Bass was a practical replacement for DB in a lot of music, and in the styles of music that EB replaced DB (slowly) the playing style was kept pretty much the same, until it was recognized that EB had some unique capabilites that allowed for a shift in playing styles and that was reflected in the expectations of the music. (I thinking of the playing of McCartney and Joe Osborn in the late 60's... very innovative, but it would not make it with 50's R+R) This is still an ongoing process, and, as you noted, an open mind is needed.

    But.... an open mind without knowledge of history will simply re-invent the wheel on a daily basis. We need to be inspired and informed but not shackled by the things that have come before us.
  6. The nature of bass is much like the nature of light. Light has dual nature (sometimes it behaves like waves, sometimes it behaves like particles) which depends of the observation. I've always seen bass as the link between rhythm and melody, and with a foot in either camp it can go a long way towards making or breaking a song. Depending on the "observer" it may take a percussive role, or perhaps a melodic role. But just like light, it is neither and both.
  7. JTE

    JTE Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    I think that the role of the bass (whether it's Jamerson, Ron Carter, Jimmy Smith's feet, Chet Atkins' thumb, Stevie Wonder's left hand, or the bass singer in a barber-shop quartet) is two-fold. It's to define the harmony, and to connect the rhythm section with the rest of the music.

    Like Jack Bruce said however- just because it has a traditional function, that doesn't mean you have to fulfill it in the traditional way.

  8. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    You can play anything you want and your telephone will tell you if it works or not. If the phone stops ringing with gigs you have to make a decision. I better start playing a more traditional role, or commit to what your doing till people eventually dig what you do. Lots of stories of artist doing their things for years even a decade or more before music catches up with them. Can you wait that long it's all up to you.
  9. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    This has nothing to do with economics. Experienced musicians will know what to do and when it is appropriate. Beginners will learn over time or not. It's not about setting trends or whether it's cool to use this technique or that. Personally I don't think much of anyone that needs to be told whether what they do musically works or not. The only time I ever care what anyone thinks is when they pay me to listen to their opinion.

    No, this is about how every time there is a discussion about what bass is or isn't a whole lot of people decide to dictate emphatically, preaching to the choir or not what bass should and shouldn't do. Those people are wrong, end of story. Bass is what the person playing it or writing it make it or what is appropriate to the circumstance. When it's about economics the role of bass is what it's being paid to be, but when it's not it has nothing to do with what someone on talkbass thinks it is.

    Case in point where someone says "Bass is more like drums than guitar". Well, a bass is a bass and it does what it does, which is pretty much whatever the person using it is capable of and prefers to do.
  10. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    I think I may have been the one of the posters who claimed the bass is more akin to drums than a guitar...

    and that is the crux of the matter to me: is the OP the former or the latter? If they need clarification on why the bass is not simply a 'big four string guitar' then they are unlikely to be experienced.

    If he/she is experienced (like Mute clearly is) then a response that encourages expanding the instrument in non-traditional ways is appropriate.

    on the other hand, if you encourage beginners to ignore the role they will be expected to fill by most bands, then you might be giving them some poor advice, which could close doors for them. And considering the overwhelming value of playing with experienced musicians as a learning experience, I would not want to give advice that could mess up that opportunity for anybody starting out.

    I'm all for not limiting the role of the bass, but You gotta Learn the rules (roles) before you can break 'em.
  11. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    To be fair, I pretty much agree with what you are saying there mambo. What I think we need to be careful with though is that we are giving good guidance as opposed to conveying a set of limitations.

    Certainly, under certain circumstances it is right to say to a student or someone otherwise asking for advice to think of bass in terms of an extension of the drums or to lock in with the drums when approaching certain types of music or certain contexts. What I think we need to be careful of doing though is emphatically saying that bass should do this or that as a general rule and that the role of bass is generally this thing or that thing.

    I think there is a general attitude with teaching sometimes that keeping beginners misinformed about certain things, because it will make it easier to understand things, is a good idea. I generally don't agree with that because giving people limited or conflicting information only limits the person when they come to having to look at things from a new perspective. Which is why I take this stance about saying things like "the bass is more like drums than guitar" in the first place. Also if whether the phone is ringing or not is your main focus of playing music you should probably already be at the point where you know why you might do a certain thing for a client who is paying you as opposed to what you would do in your own time. In fact I would argue that the person who is the better professional will be the one who is more open to innovation and has as many different perspectives on the role of their instrument, and therefore more options and understanding of what is appropriate.
  12. Thump Jr.

    Thump Jr.

    Jun 8, 2008
    SW FL
    I am definitely a beginner, but please humor me. Let me see if I understand it. Would it then be fair to say that the bass tends to occupy a role between that of drums and guitar? I can see how it "extends" both. On the one hand, the bass is commonly (IME) a rhythmic instrument in that it tends to assist the drums in driving the rhythm. Disco and hard rock come to my mind here. On the other hand, in many respects the bass IS a large guitar not necessarily limited to four strings, and is capable of much of the melodic role of the guitar. I've heard this occur more in a jazzy vein, but also in some rock. Bass, by my reckoning, inhabits a continuum of roles between rhythm and melody, shifting towards one or the other as the situation demands.

    Am I close?
  13. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    It depends on what the bass is doing in the context of the music it is being played in. Let me say this though, bass is not a "rhythmic instrument" more than guitar is. All instruments are rhythmic. The term, "rhythm section" is a term that has to do with the way that drum kit and bass interplay in "rock" or "jazz" contexts. Also keep in mind the drum kit isn't much more than a hundred years old, if that and they don't call the bass part of the rhythm section in an orchestra now, do they? Also in a "jazz ensemble" piano and guitar can also be considered part of the "rhythm section".

    I wouldn't say that bass is necessarily "between" guitar and drums either. When bass is part of an ensemble it could be providing any number of functions. Bass is just another voice, that voice could be providing dynamic counterpoint or it could be playing basso ostinato, or it might just be playing root notes. Bass might be an improvisational lead instrument or even a solo instrument.

    You as a beginner are better off making a point of listening to as many different types of music and listening to as many different ways that people play bass as you possibly can, rather than listening to a few things you like and deciding what the role of the bass is based on a limited experience. That way you are in a much better position to know what the appropriate thing to do is when you need to and also you will have more options available to you when the time comes for you to go beyond the "traditional" role of bass.
  14. kangia


    Aug 10, 2008
    C'mon people! Do we need to categorize it? Is there an instrument that you couldn't put in the 'rhythm section'? Well, maybe kazoo.

    And I agree with Thump Jr. The music genre is a big factor here...

    Bass Guitar Place
  15. The best advice was stated earlier in the thread.

    "You must learn the rules before you can break them."

    If one does not learn what the "traditional" role of the bass is/has been, one cannot advance/evolve the role in one's own life. In the end, music is personal. What makes us groove? What makes us rock out? What makes us fly amongst the stars? We cannot begin to answer those questions, musically, until we learn the fundamentals as well as the historical implementations of our chosen instrument.

    Once that is accomplished, then it's your heart that tells you if it's right or not.
  16. Mmmmm, I hate to jump in the middle, but, orchestra, at least in the classical context, does not make me want to dance the way R and B does.

    However, with that in mind, I believe the appropriateness of making the distinction is a moot point. All melodic components have a rhythmic value, so therefore any instrument could be considered part of the rhythm (and in many non-Western contexts, they are).

    Even drums have a resonant tone (melodic).

  17. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    Yes but what bass does in R&B is not the definitive role of bass, which is exactly my point. Bass doesn't have to make you jump up and dance for it to be doing what is appropriate or valid.

    Any sound has a rhythmic component. Rhythm itself is a complex thing that doesn't necessarily mean what it is generalised to mean. I am just saying that the concept of a rhythm section is arbitrary in agreement with what you are saying there.

    I would say that even drums have tonality. All sounds are melodic in my opinion since melody is a series of tones in sequence.
  18. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    Why couldn't kazoo be a in the rhythm section?
  19. mutedeity


    Aug 27, 2007
    Personally I think the fundamentals of any instrument are the basics of music theory. That and basic application of efficient and safe technique. The best way to develop an understanding of the role of any instrument is to listen to as much music as possible and develop an understanding of what different approaches are taken with a given instrument.
  20. May I just end that with.....Amen.

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