Have you ever stopped to wonder why almost every rock/blues/and jazz band always have a bass player? The bassist is always present but seems to go unnoticed in the mix.
Having a bass guitar in the mix of your band helps provide the sound being produced with structure, depth, color, timing, and pitch dynamics. Sound confusing? It’s actually quite intuitive.
Playing bass in a live scenario or on a recording:
- 1. Produces a sense of structure to the chords and chord changes.
- 2. Works with the Drummer/Percussionist to keep on the beat and in time.
- 3. Provides the listener with clarity as to which underlying cord is being played.
- 4. Sets a dynamic range of the different notes being played (low – high).
Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these topics to understand further how important the bass player truly is to the band and musical mix.
1. Producing a sense of structure to the chords and chord changes.
Next time you sit down and listen to any piece of music, notice how many moving parts there are all going on at once. Let’s use Rock and Roll music as our example.
In the typical Rock and Roll song there will be at the least:
- A drum track
- A bass Line
- One or more guitar parts
- One or more singing parts
- A keyboard or piano part (or some other instrument)
And all these instruments are being played simultaneously. The bass guitar part has an important job here.
It’s the glue that holds all the sound together. The foundation, the frame.
I like to imagine the way a song is put together with the analogy of “a house.” The bass and the drums provide the basic foundation and frame of the building, whereas the higher-pitched (guitar and singing parts) are more like the house’s finishes.
If the bass line is the concrete foundation, the guitar solo is the paint.
The bass line adds an interesting dynamic to the song because it controls what the listener is hearing by which notes are being played on the downbeats and chord changes. Yet, we as listeners don’t always consciously notice this as our ears and focus are drawn to the music mix’s higher-pitched melodies—for instance, a guitar solo or belting high vocals.
And even though the paint on the walls of a house is what our eyes can see we know that a house cannot be built out of only paint, just as a song cannot be built out of only high-pitched guitar solos.
A song needs a frame, a core structure that provides it with depth and strength.
This is where our bass line comes into play.
As the song moves along the bass player’s choice of notes controls the flow and direction the song travels in. Let’s use a simple chord progression for an example.
The chords of the song are:
C major – A minor – F major – G major
Now, I won’t get into too much technical detail on Music Theory in this article, but we do have an extensive/simple article written here that lays out the basics of music theory.
As the song flows through our C, am, F, G chord progression, the rest of the band will be moving through a flurry of melodies. Many of these melodies may not land on downbeats of the song or even use notes that are not found within our chords above.
But… The bass player keeps the whole sound in check. His melody does land on the downbeat of the song. And his notes are found within the notes of the underlying chords.
Commonly the bass player’s notes on the downbeats of the music will land as the root note of the current chord being played.
For instance. When the song moves to an F major chord, the bassist will be playing an F note. When the song moves to the A minor chord, the bassist will play an A.
The same goes for the remaining chord changes of the song.
So even though the bass guitar parts of a song may seemingly go unnoticed, their addition to the mix is undoubtedly important.
Working with the Drummer/Percussionist to keep on the beat and in time.
While it is everyone in the band’s responsibility to keep the song moving along in time and correctly to the beat, some instruments pack a bigger punch with their contribution to the mix.
The drums, and the bass guitar.
These guys are your beat keepers and grove makers. They set the flow and rhythm of the song. The drums and bass need to gel together and make the song flow smoothly on the listener’s ears.
Bass and drums are the foundation of the group, and if they want to effectively provide a solid rhythmic groove for the rest of the band they must individually master the timing, changes, and beat of the song.
Neither musician leads the other. Both the bassist and drummer need to fully understand the piece of music so that they can confidently play through the song without any hesitation or timing delay.
A delay in a musician’s timing can be due to playing a part that is too challenging for their abilities or having to overthink about what changes are coming next in the song.
This is the last thing we want out of the drummer/bassist combo. We need them power through the music with absolute rhythmic precision.
Each will independently keep crisp timing as they play together and really “lock-in” the groove of the song. If these two band members are in sync, the piece of music will always flow along at a predictable tempo for the higher-pitched instruments to seamlessly add their parts.
Providing the listener with clarity as to which underlying cord is being played.
When multiple notes are played simultaneously in music we call this Harmony. At any moment in a song, a snap shot of the all the notes currently being played can be compiled together make an implied underlying chord.
Sound super technical? It’s not too complicated.
Imagine a four-piece band playing through a song. They build up through the intro and verse sections leading to the chorus.
The first beat of the chorus hits and:
- The bass player is playing a G note
- The guitarist is playing a chord with the notes G, B, and D
- The singer is singing a D note
So, what is happening here?
These seemingly random notes actually make up what is known as a G major chord. Due to the natural distance between these notes, when they are played together in harmony, they sound pleasant to the listener.
In this scenario, our bass player is actually playing the note that is the root note of our chord, a G note. As stated above, likely he will be striking this note on the downbeat to solidify the chord change.
But, our bass player doesn’t always have to choose the root note of the chord to play on every beat. He actually has control to define which implied chord is being played with the given notes.
Let’s say that our band is playing a different song. And this particular moment in the song the:
- Guitarist is playing an Am7 chord (notes A, C, E, G)
- Keyboard player is playing a Cmaj6 chord (notes C, E, G, A)
Notice that they are playing the exact same 4 notes. C, E, G, and A.
This is where the bass players choice of note will actually determine what chord sound will be defined to the listener.
If the bass player chooses to play the note A, then the implied chord of all three instruments combined will be an Am7 chord.
Conversely, if the bass player plays a C note, the chord that the listener will hear is a Cmaj6 chord.
This happens because typically the bass guitar is ringing out notes that are lower in pitch than the guitar, singer, and piano.
The lowest note being played in the chord subconsciously leads the listener’s ear to perceive which chord is being implied.
And this ultimately is very important because different chord provides the overall sound/feel of the song with a different emotion.
For instance, a major chord has a positive/happy feel to it. Whereas, a minor chord has a more dark/sad/ominous feel or sound.
Setting a dynamic range of the different notes being played (low – high).
How boring would a song be if every single instrument played the same note, at the same pitch, on the same beat, for the entire song? It really wouldn’t be a song, it would just be kind of a strange, annoying activity. Wouldn’t it?
A solid mix of low and high pitches creates a much more interesting sound for the listener. The bass guitar has a lower range than many other commonly played instruments.
One exception to that statement is the piano. The piano has a huge range of notes and is one of the reasons why it is such a widely used instrument. See this image below from get-tuned.com.
Notice that there are still notes remaining to the left of the lowest bass note E.
When a guitar, saxophone, vocal part, or any other higher-pitched instrument is played simultaneously with a bass guitar, the range of notes is extended and thus creates a more dynamic mix of sounds.
Without the bass’ range of notes, the song will be missing some depth and won’t be demonstrating its full potential to tug at the listener’s emotions. The most pleasurable gathering of sounds will have an even mix of low, medium, and high pitches.
Hopefully now you have some more insight as to why each band/recording needs to have a bass guitar in the mix of instruments. An ever present but lurking in the background instrument that pulls its weight and adds great structure to the song.
As you listen along try to focus on only the bass parts of a piece of music. Give the bassist some overdue credit, he’s helping to keep the whole thing together.