The bass guitar is often thought to be a poor musician’s double bass or a poor musician’s guitar. Nonetheless, luthiers and performers have explored its expressive possibilities within a wide range of musical styles and performance traditions, some of which we chart below.
1. With early versions appearing in the 1930s, the modern bass guitar was invented by Leo Fender and marketed beginning in 1951 as a cheaper, more portable, and louder alternative for double bassists playing in dance bands (Jamerson).
2. The bass guitar comes in two variants: the solid-body electric bass guitar and the hollow-body acoustic bass guitar. Both are traditionally tuned like a double bass, with the same four lowest strings (E’-A’-D-G) as a guitar, but an octave lower.
3. While the electric bass guitar is always amplified outside of personal practice settings, confusingly, the acoustic bass guitar can also be amplified electronically via pickups, usually in performance settings. The acoustic bass guitar is “acoustic” because its main amplification is its resonant, hollow body (Novoselic).
4. Both the electric and acoustic bass guitars originally and typically have fretted fingerboards, which enable ease of intonation. Fretless bass guitars enable swooping glissandi, which can approximate the sound of the double bass (DiGiorgio).
5. The bass guitar can be played with or without a plectrum (pick) (Lemmy, Kaye, Jackson). There are some ideological, as well as musical, differences: the pick more closely approximates the sound and style of the electric guitar, while the alternative—plucking the strings with the fingers—more closely approximates the sound of a double bass (Jamerson). For much of its history, the bass guitar was considered a poor musician’s double bass.
6. 5-, 6-, and even 10- and 12-string variants exist. While the 5-string version is often considered appropriate for rock and metal musicians seeking to extend the instrument lower than the electric guitar (and thereby creating an alternative bass part, rather than solely doubling the guitar part), the 6-string version is used primarily in jazz-rock fusion settings or in virtuoso work (Jackson). The 10- and 12-strings versions are usually considered curiosities, best used in solo work, or in bands that feature those instruments specifically.
7. Initially plucking or picking have been the primary means of creating sound on the instrument, but especially during the 1970s bass players started slapping the strings with the thumb (Clarke, Wooten); popping the strings by quickly pulling and releasing the strings with the index and middle fingers (Clarke); tapping on the strings with both or either hand; and even strumming the strings in a rasgueado style derived from flamenco guitar performance. Combining these techniques is considered a virtuoso achievement (Wooten).
8. The bass guitar enables a variety of approaches to performance: from “walking” bass lines derived from jazz; playing countermelodies or imitating the bass drum and snare parts of the drum set (Jamerson, Ndegeocello); to fully soloistic lines imitating or doubling saxophone or guitar lines (Pastorius, Wooten, Jackson); to “lead” bass guitar parts that at once solo and lay down a groove (Clarke, Ndegeocello, Roessler); to bass solos leading into doubling the guitar part, but an octave lower (Lemmy); to providing coloristic and percussive effects (DiGiorgio); and much else besides.
9. Because the electric guitar has often been considered the virtuoso instrument in male-dominated popular music, women’s contributions have often been relegated to playing the bass guitar. Despite this gendering, women have featured prominently as bassists, making important contributions in all genres—including soul, funk, hardcore punk, and doom metal—with all techniques, and expressing various subjectivities through the instrument (Ndegeocello, Kaye, Roessler, Slajh).
10. While primarily a popular music instrument, a number of composers writing in the concert tradition have included the bass guitar in their pieces (Schnittke).
1. James Jamerson, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”
2. Krist Novoselic: “All Apologies”
3. Anthony Jackson: “Race With Devil On Spanish Highway”
4. Jaco Pastorius, “Donna Lee”
5. Stanley Clarke, “School Days”
6. Lemmy, “Ace of Spades”
7. Victor Lemonte Wooten: “The Sinister Minister”
8. Steve DiGiorgio, “Machines”
9. Meshell Ndegeocello, “Wild Night”
10. Carol Kaye: “Boogaloo”
11. Kira Roessler: “Your Last Affront”
12. Vanja Slajh: “Tree Of Suffocating Souls”
13. Alfred Schnittke: Symphony no. 1
Headline Image Credit: Person Playing Sun Burst Electric Bass Guitar in Bokeh Photography. CC0 Lisence via Pexels.