The Bass Player Is the Essential Underdog

Only the most die hard music fans can name the bass players, but what would rock bands be without them?

By Amelie Wilcox

The world has heard of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Freddie Mercury, Stevie Nicks, Ringo Starr, and Dave Grohl. But the names Kim Deal, Jack Bruce, John McVie, and John Paul Jones are generally unknown. A massive focus on a band’s singer, guitarist, and drummer exists but bass players are oddly forgotten. Basses play a huge part in the rhythmic section of a song but their contributions often don’t speak loud enough for the public’s ears. 

Before I started playing, I couldn’t even pick out what a bass guitar sounded like. I would have noted that it was low and looked like a guitar but that was about as much as I could tell you. Unless it is the leading line of the song, which isn’t common, the sounds of this instrument are used to support the others in the song. The lead guitar, drum beat, and vocals are easy to pick out, each performs its own dominant line. The bass on the other hand usually plays off of the other instruments, with more muted parts, to help keep songs rhythmically accurate and add extra flare. Songs with iconic leading baselines include “Come Together,” “Seven Nation Army,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Feel Good Inc.,” and more. Those songs all share what the bass can do but more often than not, they don’t get that credit. Many people would assume that those bass lines were played by other instruments (most likely guitar).

I’ve seen “I’m with the guitarist,” “I prefer the drummer,” and “(Singer’s Name)’s wife” shirts. The general public sees something they like but they need more of it. They buy tickets and merchandise, purchase albums, and watch shows. Usually their eyes drift to the frontman or the heavy guitar solo, but as a bass player, it’s like you’re not on stage at all. You could be there playing your heart out, and it would be like you were in the audience too, standing there, mesmerized by the rest of the band. You begin to realize you’re not the favorite, you’re the forgotten one. That fleeting feeling puts you in a state of forgetfulness. “Am I even here?”

I didn’t even need to learn that lesson; I went into playing knowing the reality of things. For as much as a bass player brings to the table, it’s the glue, and that’s its job . . . holding the band together. I’ve realized, after lots of thinking, that’s why the bass guitar often goes unnoticed. In a large scheme of things, it is the binding force. Think of a band as a kindergarten art project. The drums are the feathers sticking out, the beads spread across are the guitar, the paint splattered is the singer, and obviously, the bass is the Elmer’s glue. When looked at, the elements (in this case the other instruments) are showcased to look all flashy but no one notices the glue. It’s clear and invisible and does its part. My dad always says, “The bass players’ job is to provide the foundation, work with the drummer to keep the rhythm, and to show up and do what they’re told.” I keep that advice to heart. Bassists are around to keep a band rockin’ and not to rock the boat. Its contributions as the glue, keeping things smoothly in order, even without notice, is what actually makes bass players the underdog in music and bands. 

Photo: Bass guitar by Feliciano Guimarães on Flickr