Every day we go to school with gig bags strapped to our backs and a glimmer of light in our eyes, utterly afraid of how we pale in comparison to the billion others playing the same instrument as us. There are plenty of things around Berklee to take each of us down a peg: a lab of junk you never expected, a bombed proficiency, or a dude on the beach effortlessly playing a riff that you’ve been practicing the whole semester. So why do you do it? Why don’t you sell your Fender Stratocaster, quit music school, and use whatever is left of your loan money to buy a car and get out of dodge? I’ll tell you why: it’s because the day you picked up your hunk of wood or brass and physically expressed your life through it, you made an otherwise lifeless item into an extension of yourself, and like any appendage you would much rather augment and improve it than amputate. With that being said, instead of wallowing in the depressing facts of being a musician by today’s ridiculous standards, we should all relish in the extensions of our personalities — our instruments.
This series will focus on one principal instrument at a time, and what better way to start than with the most overworked and underappreciated instrument in the band? It’s the one that bears the heavy burden of balancing both rhythmic and harmonic continuity: The Bass. There are numerous bassists scattered throughout the school, and chances are you have bought coffee next to them at Dunkin’ Donuts or held the door open when their hands were tangled with an upright. Knowing the important role held by bass players, I decided to talk to a number of them around Berklee to find out why they do what they do. Why? Because maybe I don’t want to be a cocky guitarist anymore, and because maybe the best way to improve my mediocre skills on my principal is to glean a little inspiration from players of instruments that aren’t generally deified by music fanatics. And maybe we as a community of musicians can stop living in our own little worlds, worrying about how we compare to our peers, and start playing our parts together with one sound and one voice.
To know the bass, one must know the bassist. In all my experience with bassists, they are placid soft-spoken creatures. Even though they have the very essence of sexual appeal in any song, you’ll rarely catch them screaming for the spot light because they are busy being the adhesive material between a crazy drummer, an overplaying guitarist and a dogmatic vocalist. Of course the likes of Les Claypool, Flea, and Bootsy Collins do exist, but even in their most ostentatious stage gimmicks they still fundamentally express a great musical power along with extreme responsibility. Bassists must exercise restraint because they don’t see songs as just the lyrics or an epic solo. They see the whole picture, and they lock in with everyone through a phenomenon known as the groove (not to be confused with The Groove). When asked to identify the most important aspect of playing bass, faculty member Mark Poniatowski said, “The groove, is there anything else?” So what is the groove? Other than it being your favorite source of information online, there are many definitions for groove. One book will tell you it’s listening and enjoying, another that it’s a routine or set pattern, and a third might describe it as a narrow pathway carved to guide motion. These differing concepts that seemingly have no real connection to each other are all applicable to the musical concept of groove. Another way to put it is student Matt Augustine’s description of his most important job as bass player: “locking in with the drums, not over playing, having a good time, and filling out the sound.”
Bassists live with an internal understanding of groove, but what about the rest of us? Fourth semester guitar principal Nick Fair states, “The groove is the magic moment when everything is going right, and we as guitarists can feel what we play, and I always say the bass is what gets the butts moving.” Fourth Semester Vocal Principal Sara Rachelle expresses, “The bass gives you ground to stand on, without it I feel naked,” and continues, “The groove shows what emotional state I should be in. If the groove is funky I should feel funky, if it is sad, I should feel sad.”
The guiding principle of bass is that the listener doesn’t have to consciously realize it’s there, but it would be impossible not to miss if it were gone. That’s not a bad thing, because during that moment when the guitarist is wailing and the drums are driving, the bass fits it all together, making the performance or recording into a harmonious experience. Fourth semester bass principal Diarmuid Lally extends the concept of bass past a particular instrument to a role, saying, “If I show up to a gig with a tuba, there’s a chance I might not get fired. Bass is a frequency range and so it must be understood that tuba, electric bass, upright, organ bass, synth etc. are the one family. And we must understand how to use all of these to provide the listener with something they can move to.”
My best friend is a bassist, and he has always proven over the last ten years to be the linking factor between the most dramatic and dynamic personalities in our group of friends and musicians. Such is the gift and particular role of being the foundation of all music. So as we continue on through this semester of ensembles and groups, and spend the rest of our lives as avid players and listeners, let’s take a step back and listen to the bottom. Not only is it the libido of sound, it is the bringer of equilibrium to music. And when you see a bass player, thank them, because without them keeping all of us together the whole band would collapse.
Professional Writing / CWP Faculty
“The first instrument I studied was trombone in the 5th grade. By 7th grade, I had discovered Led Zeppelin and John Paul Jones and quickly realized that bass was the cooler instrument.”
Influences: “Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, John Paul Jones, George Porter Jr. and James Jamerson.”
Bass Department Faculty
“From the first time I picked up a Fender Bass, it felt comfortable. I was a trumpet major and my roommate was a business major who had a Fender sitting in the corner of our dorm room. Picked it up and started playing along with James Taylor records. Felt great! Still does…Love the instrument and what it is capable of in a group setting.”
Influences: “The Wailers bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett…he plays melodic, and groove heavy. Another influence is Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. Haven’t figured him out yet. That’s what’s so intriguing. He’s an enigma to me. He often leaves out downbeats, often plays tonalities other than the root of the chord, and when the Dead used to play live, the scene was so awesome. That’s togetherness…the audience would hang on to every note, and Lesh’s playing had lots to do with it. No one sounded like him… there was no bass player paradigm for Phil Lesh… consequently he developed his own unique voice. There’s a lesson to be learned there, if you can find it.”
What should non-bass players know about the bass? “Listen to music through the bassists ears… try and isolate the role of the bassist in the music. There are many different kinds of bass parts and they each reap a different vibe. Eventually you develop tastes for this style or that style. As a bassist I try to not listen so much analytically when studying, becoming too influenced… I did that for around 30 years… Working on solidifying my own voice.”
Third Semester Bass Principal, Professional Music Major
“My dad was a drummer, and I got an electric guitar when I was fifteen, and I jammed with two other guitarists. As an act of fate, I leaned my guitar on a desk and it fell over and the headstock broke. So I started playing bass while it was in the shop. When I got my guitar back, I just felt more comfortable with the bass. “
Preffered Styles: “Soul, R&B, and Hip-hop, Early Fusion.”
Fourth Semester Bass Principal
“Most guys I knew played other instruments, bass seemed like a cool way to get into a band. It was also the instrument I know least about, which drew me to it.”
One aspect of the bass you respect while playing: “Space, trickiest to master, but if you pull it off, it has the most impact. Felt just as quickly by musicians and non-musicians.”
Influences: “On the Bass, everyone from Jaco to Hendrix (listen to him play bass on “All Along the Watchtower”). Off the bass, anybody that’s really speaking on their instrument. Listening to good soloists is important too because the best ones improvise with space really well, Benny Goodman being a good example.”
“Freshman year of high school, three friends and I wanted to start a band, and everyone else picked all the well-known instruments. That, and the fact that every group has only one bassist, with few special exceptions. Also, the fact that I knew so little of it made me interested. The rest is history.”
Influences: “John Berry from Rufio, one of the best rock bassists ever. Flea from Red Hot Chillie peppers for obvious reasons. Victor Wooten, not because of his playability but because of his attitude towards music and the bass. Local Orlando Bassists Todd and Jarrod for showing me what local bassists could do, and for always being cool. ”
Most important aspect of playing bass: “Being able to transcend between melody, rhythm, and noise without anyone noticing.”
Fascinated by the bass? There are plenty of amazing players out there to listen to. Certainly too many to list in one mere article, but I recommend reading about and listening to the following musicians: Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Bootsy Collins of James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers, Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, Les Claypool of Primus, Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Geddy Lee of Rush.