How to Listen to the Bass
Last week we began deeply listening to the instruments of the rhythm section, starting with the kick drum. This week, we’ll focus on the kick drum’s best friend: the bass.
The bass is perhaps the most important, and the least noticed, instrument in the band. The bass is a percussive instrument like the drums, but it is also the foundation of the harmony. The same set of notes could sound happy or sad just by the substitution of one bass note for another.
Studies have shown the human ear can detect differences in timing in low tones more easily than high tones. Translation? Your singer can fudge the beat, but if your bass player isn’t solid, everyone gets real nervous real fast.
For all these reasons, bass players tend to be relatively unassuming, reliable, and detail minded. While your lead guitarist may have brought a fan to blow his hair around during his solos, your bass player brought the PA system. The bass player is the guy or girl people call when they need to move apartments… on Super Bowl Sunday.
So let’s all celebrate the trusty bass player, and learn how to listen for it.
Good People-Jack Johnson
This is a great example of “meat-and-potatoes” bass. It also illustrates the friendship between the drums and bass.
If you listen to the drums, you’ll hear three main parts: the “tick-tick-tick” of the hi hat cymbals, the snappy crack of the snare drum, and all the way at the bottom you’ll hear the soft thump of the kick drum. It might be hard to hear, because surrounding that soft thump is the bigger, rounder note of the bass. It matches the kick drum exactly, and adds a note here and there to anticipate the beat. Those additional notes move the band from chord to chord, letting the ear know what’s coming next, and giving everyone confidence.
That combination of the kick thump and bass notes together gives us “the groove”, or at least the foundation of it. Those beats make us feel the song and want to tap our feet. The bass and drums move you.
How Great is Our God- Chris Tomlin
This is an oldie-but-a-goodie, and it shows the subtle power of the bass in an arrangement. This song starts with an acoustic guitar and some percussion. Chris sings a whole verse and chorus, but the song doesn’t get off the ground until 1 minute and 16 seconds when the bass enters on the second verse. There is a certain amount of tension that doesn’t release until we hear that bass. But when it enters, all the shoulders relax and it ‘feels right’.
For another arrangement lesson, listen to the bass in the second chorus and the bridge (“name above all names”). In the second chorus, the bass is playing the main groove- a short note followed by a long note with a few fills. But when the bridge comes the bass switches to a driving rhythm with more sustain. That coupled with the drummer playing the ride cymbal lifts the bridge up to another level, which is a perfect accompaniment for the choir. Those seemingly small changes make a world of difference.
Story time- I once visited family in another part of the country, and we went to their church’s Sunday morning service. They attended a very large church with seating for 2,500. But as the worship team kicked things off I had a sense something was missing. I scanned the stage until I realized that the team didn’t have a bass player. They were playing a recorded synth pad from a laptop. They had drums, multiple guitars, keys, and a few singers, but without a live bassist the band didn’t feel complete.
I’ll Take You There- The Staple Singers
This song exemplifies everything that makes the bass great. Except for the intro and a small solo, the bassist plays the same groove for the entire song. But rather than checking out, the bass player gives effort to every note, like he means it. And he keeps it up for 4 minutes plus. That kind of stamina is something every bass player should aim for- to sit at the bottom of the band, hold everything together, and make the song feel good.
I’ve lost track of how many times I used the word “feel” during this blog, but there’s no better word for it. Bass isn’t often a flashy instrument, although there is the occasional standout. More often, you want a bass player with “feel”, someone who knows when to play more, when to play less, and knows what is needed at any moment.
Here’s to the warriors of the low end.