Rock'n'Roll is all about singers and guitarists, right? Well... not really! Bass too is an important instrument, and many popular rock stars were bassists, too!
While it's true that many bassists end up in the background, the bass player is an important part of any band, and some of the best-loved rock stars played the instrument, including Paul McCartney, Sid Vicious, Sting, Brian Wilson and Flea. If you want to join the club, here's our guide!
Why Play Bass?
Some people are just naturally attracted to the simplicity of a four-string instrument, or by the fact that it's easier to learn how to play bass than a guitar. Others, simply love the satisfying sensation of producing those deep, low frequencies with an instrument!
As we said in the introduction for this article, the bass is still a crucial element for most kinds of popular music, and there are so many hits that benefited immensely from their memorable bass lines: The Jam's 'A Town Called Malice', Pink Floyd's 'Money', Red Hot Chilli Peppers' 'Give It Away', and Queen's 'Under Pressure' to name but a few.
According to a recent survey by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, only 5% of school children play bass, compared to 13% who play electric guitar. If bass is your instrument of choice, that's actually great news - with less people playing bass than guitars, it means it's easier for bassists to find a band to fit in, since there'll be less competition!
Bass Is Great For Girls Who Want To Rock, Too!
It's a sad but true fact that the world of rock'n'roll can be quite sexist. By all means, we support girls (and women!) playing anything, including electric guitars, of course!
But for any girls who are starting to play an instrument and really want to be in a band, perhaps the easiest way in is to play bass guitar. Ever since Suzi Quatro rocked hard to songs like, well, 'Rock Hard' (watch video) it seems that rock bands have been much more open to embracing a female bassist than a female lead guitarist or drummer!
Since then, there's been a wealth of successful bands who had only one female member - and, more often than not, it was their bassists! Can't be a mere coincidence, can it? To name a few: Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon), Pixies (Kim Deal), Smashing Pumpkins (D'Arcy Wretzky), Talking Heads (Tina Weymouth), The Subways (Charlotte Cooper) and White Zombie (Sean Yseult). More recently, Simone Butler has gained admirers as the new bassist in Primal Scream, successfully replacing Mani, who left the band to rejoin The Stone Roses. Big shoes to fill, but Simone fit the bill perfectly.
Is the "token female bassist" a cliché by now? Is this a good or a bad thing? Or even a cynical move by some bands? Well, up to you to decide... but there's certainly no shame in being the "token female" in a band if you're actually good at it! And one of the greatest bassists ever was a woman, anyway - the legendary session musician Carol Kaye, who played on hit recordings such as The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' album and Stevie Wonder's classic 'I Was Made To Love Her'.
Here's a classic example of how to rock on a bass guitar, courtesy of Carol Kaye:
It's Easy To Learn How To Play Bass Guitar!
One of the best things about playing bass, is that it's easy. Or, rather - it *can* be easy! On a very basic level, a bassist can just find the root note to whatever chords the guitarist is playing, and reinforce that chord, "beefing up" the sound. We're not going into details here, but basically this is the reason why many people who initially thought they didn't have any musical aptitude, got into playing bass - with a little bit of dedication, it's quite easy to just follow what the band is playing and do, at very least, an OK job! Even someone notoriously non-musical, like Sid Vicious, was able to get away with it!
A beginner guitarist may have trouble playing a chord well at first - after all, it involves a few strings, and placing your fingers all in the right places, to play the different notes that constitute a chord. A beginning bassist has an easier job: you can just play one string, play one note at a time, and sound ok!
Here's an interesting video for beginners, that shows how simple it can be to play bass:
We're not saying that it'll be super easy for everyone, but it's certainly an easier instrument to start learning, and it's easier to make it sound good... which can be very satisfying if you're just starting out!
But make no mistake - it's not easy to play bass as well as a Paul McCartney or a Carol Kaye, of course! This requires a lot of talent and dedication, like with any other instrument.
Recommended Gear: The Best Bass Guitars
The most popular types of bass guitar are the ones designed by Fender - the Jazz Bass and the Precision Bass. Both models are excellent, and used by pros worldwide. Their designs spawned many copies, but, of course, nothing beats an authentic Fender!
The Precision Bass (or simply "P-Bass") was the first ever bass guitar designed by Fender, and the first electric bass to gain popular attention - it revolutionized music. Before, most musicians would use an upright bass. The P-Bass was lighter, slicker, with a punchier, more focused sound and more sustain. Thanks to that, music styles such as rock'n'roll, soul and funk could evolve, using the driving rhythms now possible thanks to the electric bass.
If you choose to play a Precision Bass, you'll be playing the most classic, legendary type of bass, that has changed very little in 60-years!
The Jazz Bass was Fender's second bass, and achieved even greater success than its predecessor. It is without a doubt the most popular type of bass guitar in the world, today. It is punchier than a P-Bass, with more midrange and treble (though that kind of difference is not that obvious or relevant for beginners). The Jazz Bass is used worldwide by musicians of every musical style imaginable, from jazz musicians to rockers such as Flea, Geddy Lee, and many others.
Other Types of Bass Guitars & Their Famous Players
There are other kinds of bass guitars, which are also great, such as the Jaguar-style bass, SG-style bass, Mustang-style bass and Thunderbird bass. Most of those models have narrower necks than the Jazz and Precision models, and often are also short-scale, making them great for players with smaller hands, beginners or guitarists who fancy playing bass but want a more familiar feel.
On The Beatles video for 'Hey Jude', George Harrison can be seen playing what looks like a guitar, but is actually a Fender Jaguar VI 6-string bass!
Indeed, even though those bass guitars are not as popular as the Jazz and Precision models, still many top players have used them over the years, including the late Jack Bruce, from legendary sixties group Cream, who's considered one of the greatest bassists ever.
Besides playing the Jaguar VI bass, Cream's Jack Bruce also helped to make the Gibson SG bass more popular. Other users of the SG include Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones), Peter Quaife (The Kinks), Jim Lea (Slade) and Doug Yule (Velvet Underground). It's a great "rock'n'roll" bass, with a different feel and tone to Fender basses: the neck pickup offers more low end, and narrower neck makes it easier to play. On the other hand, it has a more limited tonal range. Also, not as good as a Jazz bass for slapping.
Another great "rock'n'roll" bass guitar, the Fender Mustang bass has a narrow neck and short scale. Bill Wyman also played a short-scale Mustang bass, like Mikey Way (My Chemical Romance), Dee Dee Ramone (Ramones), Carl Wilson (Beach Boys), Rhys Webb (The Horrors) and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads (see pic).
Perhaps the most "rock'n'roll" of all bass guitars! The Gibson Thunderbird seems a top choice for bassists in loud rock bands: this type of bass was played by Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith), Nikki Sixx (Motley Crue), Kris Novoselic (Nirvana), Adam Clayton (U2), John Entwistle (The Who), Jared Followill (Kings of Leon) and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth).
The most legendary non-Fender style bass has got to be the famous Hofner violin bass, with it's distinctive violin-shaped body. You know, used by some guy, who played it in some famous band from Liverpool...
In common with most of those different types of bass guitars, the Hofner has a narrower neck as well, but it's also much lighter than other basses. It's a dream to play!
Finally, at the most high-priced end of the spectrum, the Rickenbacker bass is certainly one of the most desirable instruments for any bassist. It's been used by Paul McCartney (Beatles and Wings), Roger Waters (Pink Floyd), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), Lemmy (Motorhead), Geddy Lee (Rush), Mani (Stone Roses / Primal Scream) and many other top names. It's a very distinctive bass and one of the best money can buy. It looks and sounds awesome!
Bass Amps & FX Pedals
Here at PMT we have a great range of bass amps and fx pedals for your bass. We recommend you check our Bass Amplifiers section to find an amp that suits your needs - we stock bass amps to suit every situation, from small 10w amps for playing at home, to massive 300w rigs ideal for touring pros!
In the past, bassists didn't have a great choice of effects pedals specially designed for them, and usually had to use pedals originally meant for electric guitars. One of the pioneers was Paul McCartney, who plugged his bass to a guitar fuzz pedal on The Beatles' track "Think For Yourself", from 'Rubber Soul':
Today, things have changed dramatically and bass players are well served with a wealth of great Bass Fx Pedals to choose from, including fuzz, wah, EQ & much more! They are a great addition to any bass player setup, if you want to widen your bass' sonic palette. One of the best choices is to get yourself an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff - bassists love it!
Now that you know the basics... get ready to turn up the bass!