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All Bass, No Treble: When is a Bass Not “Bass”?

When is a bass not 'bass'?

Here at No Treble HQ, we watch a ton of bass videos, read a ton of email from bassists, and get all the news releases about everything bass. Our name is obviously an attempt at being clever. No Treble, after all, is another way of saying “All Bass”. We love the instrument, we love bassists, and we love where bass is headed. It makes our job a lot of fun.

And there’s an interesting conversation these days. Often times when we feature a new bassist doing a new thing, readers sometimes respond with “that’s not bass!”

In the last week alone, we’ve featured Zander Zon‘s all-bass cover of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven”, “new school” bassist Simon Fitzpatrick, and a video by Nick Mason performing his arrangement of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” for solo bass. Feedback for these bassists and their brand of music is usually mostly positive, but it is guaranteed to be mixed.

We hear plenty of responses, and while they’re not all “that’s not bass!”, they’re pretty similar:

“Frustrated guitarist!”

“Where’s the groove?”

“Why doesn’t he just switch to guitar and get on with it?”

And our favorite: “I thought this was ‘All Bass, No Treble’!”

Or the variation: “All Treble, No Bass!”

For those of us who play the bass guitar, our instrument is incredibly young. Leo Fender didn’t invent the electric bass, but he’s the one who made it popular, starting in the 1950’s. That’s not a long time ago as instruments go. In fact, there are plenty of bassists older than the oldest Fender bass still playing today.

While the bass guitar has grown in popularity (and string count), it didn’t start out that way. There were plenty of bassists who wouldn’t take the bass guitar seriously early on, and plenty of band leaders who didn’t either. I can hear it now: “that’s not bass!”

On Portrait of Jaco: the Early Years, legendary trumpet player Ira Sullivan shared the story of how Jaco Pastorius wanted to join Ira’s band. Ira refused at first, telling Jaco that he didn’t like bass guitar. Jaco remarked that he was out to “make this non-instrument an instrument” (Mission accomplished, Jaco).

Once Ira heard Jaco play, he realized Jaco was on to something really new and exciting, and looked past his bias. After all, in music and entertainment, if you have something that’s fresh, you stand a pretty good chance to stand out and make a bigger name for yourself. All Ira had to do was add Jaco to the mix to get there.

Those early days weren’t all that exciting either. Bassists pretty much stood in the shadows, in the back of the band. If they played electric bass guitar, at least they could be heard.

Not long after that first Fender bass, something started to change. Stanley Clarke started doing his thing, and it was exciting, new and featured the bass. It wasn’t bass as usual, that’s for sure. Can you hear it? “That’s not bass!” Today, Stanley likes to say (as he did in our interview with him), “I am proud to announce the bass is liberated.”

Then came Jaco. Playing harmonics and melodies and making his bass sing. I can definitely hear it: “That’s not bass!”

Of course, there were others. But both Stanley and Jaco showed us something else that was new: that bassists could stand in front of the band, and be the featured instrument. Wait for it…

“That’s not bass!”

Zander Zon uses piccolo strings and alternate tunings on his Zon bass. For some, the piccolo strings, and his choice of musical arrangement, disqualify him from playing “bass”.

At the same time, Jaco’s “Portrait of Tracy” remains one of the most popular tunes for bassists. Jaco didn’t use piccolo strings, obviously, but he did play an awful lot of harmonics that by definition should also disqualify him as playing “bass”. That’s not even mentioning his horn-like melodies. “That’s not bass!”

One of the most popular videos here on No Treble is Victor Wooten‘s “Ari’s Eyes“, where Victor plays a bass strung with tenor bass strings and loops various lines and percussive effects while soloing in the upper register. Is that “bass”?

Somehow, Victor seems immune to this criticism (at least as far as any reactions we’ve seen here). Jaco too. But at the time they got started, anyone could have said, “that’s not bass!”

Today, when it is Simon Fitzpatrick doing something along the same lines, perhaps even inspired by Victor or Stanley or Jaco, the “that’s not bass” reactions can be heard loud and clear.

So sometimes, it is selective based more on the player than it is on what they’re playing.

Let’s not leave double bassists out of the conversation. Double bassists play an instrument that’s quite a bit older than the bass guitar, but there’s still plenty of innovation and forward movement for that instrument too. Players like Miles Mosley and Donovan Stokes (aka Dr. D here on No Treble), are adding effects and distortion and all kinds of stuff that isn’t “bass”. I’m sure there are plenty of traditionalists who would say, “that’s not bass!”

Our tongue-in-cheek response to “that’s not bass” is “Looks like he’s holding a bass to us!” And that’s because to us, this is bass. We’re just witnessing this part of our instrument’s progression.

Everything new, and everything that’s a twist on the past, is what makes the instrument we love bigger and better than most. It is hard to imagine another instrumentalist being able to stand on stage alone and entertain the audience the way Victor Wooten does with a looper (or without!) Our instrument is amazingly diverse and flexible, allowing us to mimic drums and percussion, lay down the low end, layer on a solo or melody in the upper register, and even <gasp>, play chords!

While we love (LOVE!) the groove and can listen to James Jamerson all day long, we also love that players are pushing our instrument ahead in unique, previously undefined ways, redefining what it means to be a bassist, and showing the rest of us what’s possible. As I said in my tribute to Jaco on what would have been his 60th birthday, this is a family tree. Jaco and Stanley started it for a lot of us, Victor and Zander Zon and a bunch of other players have taken the baton and are running fast. The stuff that most anyone today would qualify as “bass” was likely qualified as “not bass” at one time in history.

We’re sure this will be an ongoing conversation for us as bass players, and we don’t think there’s a right or a wrong viewpoint. It just boils down to personal preference.

We’d love to hear your take… Please post your thoughts in the comments, and add your voice to the conversation.

Photo by Haags Uitburo

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230 comments

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    Curt

    Curt

    Amen Tom! I have people ask me ” Why don’t you do slap bass or solos?” Because it doesn’t fit the style of music I play! I like to play with the band and…wait for it…LISTEN TO WHAT EVERYONE ELSE AROUND ME IS PLAYING AND COMPLIMENT WHAT THEY ARE DOING! It’s not all about me! It’s about the band and the musical goals of the band. Let the people playing lead instruments do their jobs and you do yours.

Damon

And yet your “history” of the bass is continually biased toward jazz

Elie Chemaly

I love taking risks ,exploring for the love of finding new things regardless of what “should be played” or not . but i feel the drive to solo or be front on the bass is particularly strong these days aomong younger players. I other words its like “lets become great soloists ,groove can wait its easy” attitude. And thats funny to me. If u look at the greats of the past,most of them if not all of them had signature grooves as much as they had signature licks or solos. I feel that balance is broken today. Leaning more towards the soloeing . Thx

Al

Al

It’s all bass. My belief is that doing whatever style or approach tastefully in the right context is the bigger issue. That’s what makes a great player. We also have the freedom to plug ourselves in anywhere or everywhere on the time line or style or technique line we want, and respect others choice to do so. Play on !

Mihai Scurtu

Mihai Scurtu

This article is not bass!

Pier

Pier

you still can hear things like “the bass should only be played with fingers! the pick is for guitarists”.
idiot’s mother is aslways pregnant.

Kelly

Kelly

If you’re making music or performance art, it is what it is. The bass is just as versatile as any instrument and doesn’t have to be relegated to being a background instrument that needs ago be anchored to the drummer. A big part of the problem is that all too often everything in popular instrument-based music is seen from a rock perspective by fans. Bass has rarely been considered a dominant or essential role in rock. Rock is an image-oriented, guitar-dominant genre. Rock is about the cool, posturing, pompous frontman (think: Robert Plant, David Lee Roth, Bono), The over-obnoxious, in-your-Face power chords and spastic (and equally-pompous) lead guitarist (Eddie VH, Neal Schon, Jimmy Page) who rivals the frontman for attention and the thundering beat of sweaty drummers showing off their wanna-be-Neal Peart-like skills behind kits that look like souped-up hot rods. (Notice that despite being the most versatile member of Led Zepplin, bassist John Paul Jones almost always got ignored by fans and music reviews). Bass players in rock are essentially relegated to a second class status unless they also happen to be the lead singers like Sting, Jack Bruce (R.I.P.) or Gedde. You can see it in the kind of jokes that circulate about being the bass player in a rock band. Like, How female groupies try to avoid getting stuck with the bassist and how bass solos are the time for everyone else onstage to go the bathroom or check their email. Many bands forgo bass altogether like White Stripes, Black Keys and The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. Despite the number of amazing bassists in rock, bass still gets the least amount of respect in that genre and often is just considered an instrument to play eighth notes on to make the drummer sound good. That’s why so many hacks with little musical talent but who want to join a band automatically choose bass, because they think it’s the easiest instrument to play without a lot of lessons.

But in many other genres like jazz, r&b, funk, dance, pop and fusion, bass is the dominant or at least equal and indispensable component. No one says, “that’s not bass” in jazz. Bass is recognized as an equal voice without hesitation.

Ric n

Ric n

it is all good all it does is open your ears to become supportive or up front.

Just me

Just me

While I admire players like Jaco, Stanley, Victor and the like, they didn’t liberate the bass, if by liberate you mean playing the upper range, using harmonics, chords, whatever. Maybe your readers would do well to google Domenico Dragonetti, Serge Koussevitzky, Giovanni Bottesini, Gary Karr and especially François Rabbath.

lemonshoe

lemonshoe

The beauty of our instrument is that it is capable of doing so much more than just lay down the groove. Who knows what the bass guitar would become some 5 to 10 years from now. I admire bassist who innovate and take the bass to a whole new different level.

Joe Wright

Joe Wright

Just let people play what they want to play and get on with your own thing! If no one pushes the boundaries then everyone will just play the same and sound the same. Experimenting opens up new doors and styles to all of us. Its in the best interests of every musician for us too boldy discover new ground. Dont allow your ‘thing’ to be shot down. The music you play is as unique as the individual thats playing it and thats how it should be!

Neil A Bliss

I bought one of those Bass Vl’s… I played it and found that it was not quite like playing my other basses, I could do things on it that were so much more guitar like. So I handed it to a guitarist friend. He played it, and said that it didn’t play like his other guitars, that he could do things that were much more bass like.

Conclusion: The instrument is a bass when played by someone who identifies as a bassist.

Marco Ignacio Toba

The question to those people would be “Do you really think that there’s any absolutism in music?”. For example, here in Argentina, the Tango purists says that Piazzolla didn’t play Tango at all. There’s a lot of examples in music history that “the people who are not doing such things”, ended up doind something HUGE!. “Rules are meant to be broken!”

Alberto Carlo Costa

A four string piccolo bass has the same range of a common electric guitar without the highest pitched strings. Since electric bass and electric guitar are instruments of the same family, owning many similar building features, a tenor – alto strung bass IS definitively a tenor – alto guitar. Which Is NOT, by definition, bass, lacking the capability of producing bass pitches, as much an alto saxophone is not a bass saxophone. For instance, i could never sing bass because my vocal strings are tenor strings. I could sing bass only if i could change my strings, which is impossible.

jarlmarx

In my opinion an instrument is a bass when the strings are tuned an octave lower than a guitar. When a bass is tuned in the same octave as a guitar, it’s still technically a bass but needs a specific designation. For example, if guitar is tuned to the octave of a standard electric bass, It’s a bass. When a traditionally bass instrument is tuned above that, it needs a specific name, like a piccolo bass.

Anon

Anon

I love the comment, “It looks like he’s holding a bass to us.” Sums it up pretty well! A bass is a bass is a bass.

Steve

Steve

What is bass? Is it sonic frequency? Rhythm? A tuba sounds bassy to me. So does a baritone sax or the bottom octaves of a piano.
Is it not just an element of the music and can be ascribed to any instrument performing a function?
In regard to the bass guitar, I would imagine the intent is pretty clear given it’s name regardless of how many strings it has.

Cyrille

Cyrille

What I think here, is that some people just can’t stand the fact that a bass player is playing anything other then laying down a groove and think that he should stick exclusively with the accompaniment function. Of course, this is the primary function and every bass players should be able to do that. But we shouldn’t restrict the bass to that role only. As some people said, it all depends of the tune and the arrangement. If it sounds good and nothing seems missing, who cares?

Johnny W.

The bottom line (no pun intended), is that it’s music. It’s either good, or not, it’s either musical, or not, you either like it, or not… Hat’s off to those who think outside the box and force the rest of us to see things (or hear things) in a different (and often cool) way.

Kyth T

Kyth T

Regarding the extended range issue, let’s not forget that most instruments that have 7+ strings are all custom made to order. They are usually not the whims of the luthiers because they are very expensive to make and don’t fit their normal molds. It can also be hard to get pickups, strings, etc… Players are requesting these instruments (sometimes at great cost!) be made to suit their own desires and personalities.

Adrian

Adrian

I get super bored with solo artists that just play normal songs two hand tapped whether it be on guitar or bass. I guess I’m just a huge fan of the interactions between musicians.

juan manuel

juan manuel

if you can´t play it then you must no camment…..it´s easy

Bill

Bass player, bassist, solo bassist, solo artist… these terms all overlap so maybe we should attempt to qualify them? Speaking strictly from my personal perceptions, with no attempt to be dogmatic, just presenting a discussion point…

Bass player is a person like myself who plays the electric (or acoustic) instrument in what is primarily a support-the-song role. 4 strings, five strings, 6 strings… doesn’t matter. That doesn’t preclude soloing or even original composition, it’s just not the focus. The goal is to sometimes be the glue that keeps everything together and sometimes be the oil that allows friction among the other instruments (and vocals) to be resolved successfully.

Bassist is all that plus, maybe, a broader grasp of music theory, sometimes a preference for for the upright bass, the ability to bow… in general a bass player plus…

Solo bassist has all the above skills AND the ability (or at least the desire) to create entire pieces of music using those skills. Generally includes composition abilities but they’re not strictly required. (E.g. performers who develop beautiful bass-only renditions of other people’s songs.) Often involves the use of technology (looping, pitch shifting) in the creation process.

A solo artist may or may not have any of the above skills. The goal is to create music. The instrument just happens to be a bass. Any accompanist who has worked with a singer-songwriter who normally works solo knows what I mean. If you normally sit there with your guitar or piano and sing songs by yourself, you speed up, slow down, pause, etc., as the mood strikes you. Anybody playing with you at that “special gig” is sweating bullets trying to anticipate what you’ll do next. The “solo artist – bass” is no different. He/she writes a piece of music just as it feels right, and because that solo artist is accompanying his/herself, there’s no problem. If asked to back up Stevie Wonder… Things… probably wouldn’t go well for many of them.

Is ability involved in the divisions? No, I don’t think so. There are AMAZING players in each category. The primary differentiator is desire. I LOVE that moment in a show when the drummer and I will telepathically communicate and suddenly turn some chestnut soul or rock tune on its head. And when my big solo comes along in the 3rd set, I try to keep people entertained without ever wandering far off the ONE. Yeah, I’ve written some songs that my bands have played, but the bass was just… bass. THAT’S who I am — a bass player. Your mileage may vary… and that’s FINE.

SO… going back to the original discussion… I think the reason “No Treble” gets sh!t has already been correctly stated by others ahead of me: “No Treble” –as a title– implies a [strong?] leaning toward the bass player, accompanist role. When you begin showcasing solo artists and all the other categories of people who use the bass instrument to accomplish their goals, while[possibly] not honoring that accompanist role… yeah… it’s not unreasonable to expect pushback.

Elorm Agbeyaka

This was a fantastic read! I play bass, as well as other instruments. I sometimes get the “that’s not bass” criticism as well, mostly for my “unconventional” use of effects. But I have adopted a phrase that I will forever preach; “I am not just a bassist, I am a musician.”

Sam

Sam

Well if we’re thinking like that… the 4 string fender P bass is just an evolution of the acoustic bass, so is the fender really a bass? haha

Jonathan Aspegren Bormann

Bass music is, music that makes you dance. The bass part of music is the part of any music that makes you want to dance.
Think about it; Billie Jean, Black Night, Superstition, I heard it through the Grapevine, A Chick From Korea, Can’t Hold no Groove, School Days, Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s fantastic double bass pieces, TM Stevens and Raw Like Sushi, the Cello and double bass parts of Dvoraks Slavonic dances nr. 7, The call and response of Halford’s voice and Hill’s bass playing on Prophecy of the Nostradamus album.
So many different genres, and different takes on bass playing, but they all make me wanna dance.
To me, as soon as the music stops making me wanna move, it’s just a guitarist holding something that looks suspiciously like a bass. Or; if what’s happening i actually good; something completely new. Michael Manring is a good example of this. His combination of effects, d’tuners and all sorts of paraphernalia to me leaves what he does in a realm different from bass playing. He’s not really playing the bass, he’s just making music. I’ll allow him to, cause it’s still awesome.

Yann

Yann

I wouldn’t say it’s “not bass” and I see a value to this kind of playing : as you well described it, it expands the posibilities of our instrument. But I must say, I have seen bassplayers who seem to enjoy only those moments when they get to play chords or anything fast above the 15th fret and just fade out when they’re done … For me, they do miss the point and should play another instrument. Cause the basics of our instrument, from Bach to Jamerson, is to hold the low end and make others sound good. Once you get that, anything else can make only you stronger … But if you don’t, there’s just no point being a bassplayer.

virtanen

virtanen

It seems that there are two paths that can be followed, here. The first is about the instrument “bass” and the other about making music, or “the bass sound in music”.

Bass as an instrument
Now I remember something about the history of the bass as an instrument from my studies (a long ago). Viola da gamba has been around since the 15th century. This instrument usually had 6 or 7 strings and frets. The frets could be moved to fit scales. This is because only later Telemann and Bach started to experiment with tempered scale.

From VDG the evolution went to double bass (Which is NOT a big violin! Remember the word GAMBA). You can find them in several sizes as well as with different amount of strings and pretty different tunings (like “solo”).

From these short notes we can see that the instrument itself has not been limited to experiments. Rather the evolution is ongoing and we have the possibility to see, what will be the next enhancement or feature.

The other path: “bass lines”
I will be put only very few examples for you to think about the role of the bass in music. As a start there were and are (male) bass voices. This is probably the first in line. Before this VDG, there certainly have been several instruments that have taken the role of the bass (voice). There are players who accompany their voice with instruments that have lower register – which I then think could be considered as bass. Here the bass does not equal 31.5 Hz, but something that is lower than higher.

From this point of view I can see, that even a solo guitar (that tiny toy that has around six strings) or a brass instrument in a symphony band can act at least partly as a “bass” and create “bass sound” or “bass line”. So if I listen to music that has “bass” which is created by string, brass or an electronic instrument, or an artificial voice (i.e. using an octaver or similar), isn’t that bass after all?

Questions for us, bassists:
For bass lines, does it matter, what is the instrument?
For creating music (or even a solo), does it matter what kind of instrument was used?
Is there any reason to limit or degrade the possibilities artificially?
Are there any conventions in music that HAVE to be followed?

Remember:
A is usually 440 Hz now, but it used to be 415 Hz during Baroque. This number actually has no relation to anything, it is just an agreement in western music at this moment. Even this number can be tweaked, if needed. Symphony bands tend to go higher all the time, like to 443 Hz or even more.

This text is very brief and limited but I think that everyone can take these two paths into account in this discussion.

References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viol
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_bass
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_guitar
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_tuning#Systems_for_the_twelve-note_chromatic_scale
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A440_%28pitch_standard%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch

Jeremy Sherman

Instrument names are sometimes vestigial, carry-forwards that no longer carry the significance they once had. Piano is short for pianoforte, a soft/loud, which was its big-news innovation over harpsichord which doesn’t have touch sensitive volume. Extended range bass is something like that. I sometimes call my six or seven string bass just an extended range guitar.

m00

m00

I think it’s arrogant to define someone else’s music/style/instrument as”that’s not Bass”
“that’s not my idea of Bass” is more accurate.
And who’s the hell are you, to tell me what i am and what I should be playing?

Daft and pointless.