I’m going to indulge myself today and write about music.
What, exactly, does the bass player do in most bands?
Lead vocalist? Easy. Singer makes the song. Guitarists? Still easy. Guitars, whether they’re playing chords behind the singer, or playing a solo with its own melody, make sense to the average listener. Keyboards? Same thing. Chords, played rhythmically, or solos, are part and parcel of what we expect in modern music. Drums? They’re that driving beat or subtle accent. Anyone can see what drums do. (While I’m thinking of musician jokes: What do you call someone who’s always hanging around with musicians? Their drummer. Ba-dump-bump.)
But what about the guy or gal playing one note at a time on, well, another guitar, but with not-quite-enough strings?
Why does every band have a bass player?
Music Theory 101 to the Rescue
I’ve mentioned chords more than once. Chords are a bunch of notes played at the same time. They can have different feelings, tied to their technically composition: major, minor, augmented, diminished, anguished (not really; just seeing if you’re still paying attention.)
A major chord in its simplest form is composed of the root note, 3rd, and 5th. For example, a C major chord, commonly just called a C chord, is composed of the root note, the first in the scale of C, which is C, plus the 3rd in that scale, E, plus the 5th in that scale, G. C E G.
A minor chord changes the middle note, from E to Eb, one key below E on a piano.
An augmented chord raises the 5th by one key.
A diminished chord lowers the 3rd and 5th both by one key.
A suspended chord swaps in the 2nd or 4th (or both!) in place of the 3rd.
Have you noticed a pattern here? Which note never changes?
Welcome to bass playing.
The Hero’s Journey, Melodic
Music requires structure. Even free jazz, horrified as I am to say it, has some kind of structure.
The basic structure of the music y’all are aware of is the chord, in whatever tonal flavor. And the foundation of any chord is its root, the primary note it is built around.
While the vocalist is singing a melody using all the notes, the guitarist playing their solo, keyboard too, one of their goals is not to overuse the root note. Even instrumental music has an emotional impact. That’s caused by musical tension being created and released. The melody has to leave home, take the hero’s journey through getting lost, getting as far from home as possible, then in a revelatory flash, finds its way home again to the root note.
Without the journey, there is no homecoming, no emotional impact.
You Can’t Build a House Without a Foundation
All great literature makes use of the hero’s journey. One core element is the hero’s constant desire to go home. We’re constantly reminded that he’s not on vacation here. He’s struggling against his environment to return to where he belongs.
That constant reminder of the search for home is the role of the bass in music.
The simplest bass line possible is to play the one single root note which defines the key of the song. One single note.
Now, most musicians will think that mad, implausible, at the very least, boring. If you have musical ears at all, go listen to one of the greatest bass players alive, the man who invented the bulk of modern electric bass playing. In Sly and the Family Stone’s first #1 single Everyday People, Larry Graham not only invents the slap bass technique, he does it with one single note: the lowest note on the bass, the low E string.
One note. Over and over and over for two minutes and twenty-two seconds.
This brilliant simplicity works because the rest of the arrangement is so complex. Multiple instruments and multiple vocal lines throughout most of the song. The existing arrangement ties them all together in a neat package, but Graham knew that a more complex bass line would muddy the waters. Instead, he kept them clear.
Most of the music you hear on the radio has a slightly more active bass line, playing the root note, not of the key, but of each chord as the band changes. It’s still quite simple, but provides the foundation for each bar of the song.
If you’re not a musician or music lover, I can hear you thinking that… So what? I wondered this myself, long long ago. I started noodling around with a friend’s bass because it looked fun, but I never really knew what I was doing because I didn’t know why I was doing it. I struggled to learn guitar, piano, harmonica, violin. But I kept wondering about the bass, as I figured out the bass line to a few blues tunes and country songs.
When a friend loaned me his college textbooks on musical theory, it quickly became obvious what the bass was doing, and why. When people ask if I play an instrument, I’ll mention that I can struggle along on guitar, mandolin, piano or drums, but that I actually play the bass. Knowing what to do and how to do it came from knowing why it’s done.
Finding why makes what and how become clear.
Curiosity. Starting with why. It’s not just about music.
(Oh, the joke in the title? Leave a comment and I’ll give you all three answers, one per comment.)