Bass Players To Know: Chris Wolstenholme
Again spotlighting the anchor of a power trio, this Bass Players To Know features Chris Wolstenholme, bassist for Muse. Since the mid-90’s, Muse has released innovative and intelligent music that continues to push the boundaries of rock. Their larger-than-life stage presence, persistence in the industry, and brilliant multi-instrumentalism continues to result in hit records and sold out performances. Wolstenholme brings complex bass riffs, powerful backing vocals, and an extensive knowledge of tone manipulation to the table, certifying him as a powerhouse bass player to know.
So Who Is Chris Wolstenholme?
Born in 1978, Wolstenholme grew up in Rotherham, England and began his musical life as a drummer. He later moved to Devon and while working with another band in the same rehearsal building, ran into Matt Bellamy and Dominic Howard. They convinced Wolstenholme to switch to bass and formed a new band, Rocket Baby Dolls. The trio changed their name to Muse in 1994 and after a series of performances, smaller label signings, and EPs, released their debut record Showbiz in 1999. Over the next five years, Muse released two new albums, had their first top ten hit with “Time Is Running Out,” and headlined the Glastonbury Festival. More importantly, they certified themselves as a new force in the world of rock music, fusing together glam and prog rock with classical techniques, modern electronic instrumentation, and operatic vocals.
Throughout the early 2000’s, they continued to release albums, climb the charts, and tour the world. While recording their fifth album in 2009, Wolstenholme came to terms with his ongoing alcoholism and checked himself into rehab. He returned to the band and they released their first self-produced record, The Resistance, which earned them a Grammy award for Best Rock Album. In addition to the success of their studio records, they’ve produced music for film (notably the Twilight saga), released live records including Live at Rome Olympic Stadium, and have received numerous MTV Video Awards, Brit Awards, and accolades for record and concert sales.
Let’s Talk Style
Playing in an ensemble like Muse, a trio that continues to blur the lines of musical genre in favor of creative exploration, Wolstenholme has license to play with space and creativity. His bass lines are allowed to occupy much of the aural space, providing not only the harmonic backbone to the band, but also a thick sonic cushion for grand pianos and falsetto vocals. He exhibits every kind of overdrive a listener could want, going from crunchy and well defined metal-esk tones to fuzzy, lower octave synth beds.
When it comes to composition, the band fuses classical techniques, such as ostinato and arpeggiation with heavy, lick-based rock. Wolstenholme’s riff-based grooves are smart and complex, highlighting leading tones such as the thirds or sevenths of dominant chords. He takes advantage of open strings, playing bass lines that usually span the octave and jump up to the 12th fret for a meatier sound. Furthermore, many of his bass lines reflect arpeggiation similar to that of the Bach cello suites, where the chord is outlined in an ascending manner with the third or fifth as the highest note. On the more atmospheric or ballad type songs, his part is often simple yet affirmative, using strong root notes, reserved chromaticism, and emphasized leading tones.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Hysteria” (Muse: Absolution)
Quite possibly one of the coolest bass lines in modern rock music, Wolstenholme combines open string acrobatics with clever chromatic descending lines. The main riff drives the verses of the song while an open, octave driven groove adds breathing room to the choruses. Mix in some heavy overdrive and a power stance for maximum rock. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to learning this note for note and head banging in front of my bedroom mirror.
“New Born” (Muse: Origin Of Symmetry)
A great example of how Muse integrates classical composition in rock music, this song features a driving eighth note theme to outline the chord progression; a common technique alluding to Bach cello suites and the octave jumps in the lower register of Beethoven piano sonatas. The introduction breaks down into a heavier “B” section of the song, supported by Wolstenholme’s heavily overdriven tone and the use of chromatic, tension-inducing leading tones.
“Madness” (Muse: Live at Rome Olympic Stadium)
While the bass line may seem simple, it’s a great example of how Wolstenholme embraces modern technology in the studio and live setting. Playing a double neck bass and synth instrument, he performs most of the song by swiping his right thumb across an electronic pad and fretting the neck of the synth. This gives him the ability to create a sweeping sound that mimics the rhythm of the vocal hook and to have control over the envelope of the note without playing on a traditional keyboard. Following the solo, the whole band kicks in and Wolstenholme switches to the “traditional” neck of the bass to pedal and drive the final chorus.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Chris Wolstenholme? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!