The Bass Handbook, new from Backbeat Books, is a comprehensive guide to mastering the electric bass guitar. This extremely versatile instrument has played a irreplaceable role in the history of rock music; however, wielders of the electric bass tend to go unnoticed. Author Adrian Ashton explores the history of the electric bass guitar in the book’s opening.
The world of the electric bass guitar: what a wonderful place to be. It means so many things to so many people, myself included. Firstly, it is, as Jethro Tull bassist Jonathan Noyce put it, “our secret weapon”. Why secret? Many people forget that the bass can carry the rhythm and the melody, something rare amongst musical instruments. Furthermore, it can influence the harmony, whether the other harmonious voices like it or not. So, like all weapons, it needs to be handled with care.
Then there’s the image; electric bass is so adaptable. Bassists can be shy and retiring, using their skill and musical delicacy to drive a band forward with purpose. With a wry smile and a deep inward glow you can be crucial to the success of a musical act, and no one else needs to know. Bassists like Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones or The Who’s John Entwistle spring to mind; magicians of the electric bass, they conjured up electrifying basslines but with very few stage moves. Entwistle decided to sport all-white suits just so someone would notice him on the stage alongside Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar strums and Roger Daltrey’s flying microphones. Bassists can be shrinking violets, whereas singers and lead guitarists can not.
But bass players can also take centre stage. Flea, for instance, is equal in stage presence to any of his fellow Chili Peppers. Virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten has been known to throw in a back-flip during breathtaking live-performance displays of fluid bass soloing. Or you can command the arena by adding some vocals to your bass work: Sting, Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney anyone?
Then there’s the gear. Let’s get the downside out of the way. To go really deep on the bass we need strings, instruments and amplification that tend to be a little more expensive and bulky than the gear of most other instrumentalists. This is an acceptable situation, given the advantages, and even this downside has created interesting bass-related adventures. For a start, bass players tend to have bigger ears and wider eyes when it comes to new ideas and creations. Graphite basses, neodymium speakers and extended range instruments have all been widely accepted by bassists over the years, in contrast to the “let’s stick with what we know approach” adopted by others. The result is a colourful, diverse and stimulating equipment industry that caters for the wide-ranging characters in the bass community.
That’s the best reason toe embrace the bass guitar: the people. Many players talk about the brotherhood of bass, the sense of community and camaraderie amongst bassists. I feel it too although we should remember that we are almost always part of a group of musicians, a larger unit with messages to deliver to our complex world. Every player I’ve known has taught me something, from the professionals I’ve learned from or interviewed to my own students. I hope, in return, that The Bass Handbook reflects the mutual respect amongst bass players and helps to maintain the great bass tradition.