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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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