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Low Down: Do Bands Need Bass Players Any More?

Slappin' da bass, mon.
Slappin' da bass, mon.
Photo by Jeff Balke

Growing up in the '80s, there was a concern on the part of drummers that they would be replaced by drum machines. No one thought that every drummer in every band would be swapped out with a box, but spots in all sorts of projects normally reserved for a guy with sticks were being handed over to programmers.

Looking back, it really wasn't a huge overreaction. Prior to the drum machine, most dance, r&b and funk bands had a drummer both in the studio and live. Today, there is rarely a drummer heard in hip hop and rap, both dominant forces in the r&b market, and dance hasn't seen a real drummer in almost 20 years. Some of it is simply a sonic choice. Regular drums can't reproduce the sounds of classic 808 drum machines or the bowel-shaking low end of dubstep.

Bass players have suffered the same fate for many of the same reasons, but it goes beyond the old joke:

Q: How many bass players does it take to change a light bulb? A: None, the keyboard player can do it with his left hand.

Yes, keyboards have taken the place of many parts reserved for the bass guitar in popular music, but, like drums, rock and roll virtually requires a complete rhythm section, or does it?

While the long-storied tradition of organists covering the low end -- ask anyone if jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco needs a bass in his band -- has been a staple of jazz, gospel and blues for many years, it has rarely seeped into rock music.

The Doors were noted for not touring with a bassist, but they had one in the studio. And while John Paul Jones may have doubled on the organ for certain songs live, Led Zeppelin recorded with both instruments for their albums.

But, even if bands were traveling lighter -- and thus affording the individual members a better payday at gigs -- and letting the keyboard player cover the low end, it wouldn't account for the wave of indie bands simply deciding the don't need bass at all.

The White Stripes
The White Stripes

Look at the list of some of the bands choosing to have no bass player:

White Stripes The Dresden Dolls Black Keys Yeah Yeah Yeahs Sleater-Kinney Wolfmother Blonde Redhead Die Emperor Die! Eagles of Death Metal Two Gallants Alien Sex Fiend Atomic Rooster

A couple opt for bringing bass players on tour or occasionally working with one in the studio but, for the most part, they just go without.

The White Stripes were probably the first really high profile guitar/drums duos along with the Dresden Dolls. In a bid to bring some low to the Stripes, Red Kross bassist Steven McDonald released a bunch of songs from White Blood Cells online remixed with bass on them. Bass players everywhere applauded, but it didn't stick.

 

Black Keys
Black Keys
Photo by Marc Brubaker

Since the Stripes stripped down approach reached the ears of young hipsters, numerous other fairly well respected indie outfits have taken on the approach. The most notable are the Black Keys, a raucous, Zeppelin-influenced guitar and drums duo. I can't be the only one who feels like this dirty, blues-infused guitar stomp could use some bass no matter how low the guitarist's tone may go. Granted, they are known for bringing a bass player along on tour, but it still seems off.

I can't really come up with an explanation for the trend or even if this sample size constitutes that in the first place. There is no doubt that in modern rock music that skews towards the indie side, there is an aesthetic that generally values sound over structure. It's also true that younger musicians grow up in a world where they can sit in a room with a laptop and a bunch of random instruments and make music.

Having this kind of technology at their disposal lends itself to tremendous creativity, but not really to technical ability and certainly not to virtuosity, which isn't particularly valued in popular music at the moment anyway.

And with bass tending towards the bottom of the food chain when it comes to being in a band -- many bass players started out as the less talented of several guitar players forced to pick up the four string instead -- how relatively easy it is to pick up (though certainly not easy to master) and the fact that it's overall sonic relevance in modern indie music can be placed in the left hand of a keyboard player, it isn't all that surprising bands have begun to employ it less and less.

That doesn't mean bass doesn't still have a place. As one friend of mine told me years ago, "I used to think bass wasn't really all that important...until I played with a really good one." Bass players link the kick drum to the rest of the band and help music stay in the groove. It adds to the sonic spectrum of overall sound and can drive loudness as effectively as a searing distorted guitar.

Many people have asked me over the years if it is easier to learn to play the bass than it is the guitar. My answer has always been that it is easier to learn the bass initially, but tougher to be great at it, which might be why, in indie music, it is deemphasized as an instrument. Truth is, if an indie band feels a banjo, a cute girl playing tambourine and the pan flute have value, I'm pretty sure they can squeeze bass in there too.


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