The bass guitar is a relatively new instrument.
At least in its current form.
It’s predecessor, the double bass, has a much longer history.
But the modern bass has a fairly short history.
And in that short time, it has evolved a lot.
With its evolution, its role in music has changed too.,
But not as much you might think. Keep reading to learn all about the bass guitar and how it became an essential component of modern bands. We’ll also take a look at how it could continue to evolve in the future.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Bass Guitar And Its Role In Modern Music
- 2 What Is A Bass Guitar: Final Thoughts
The Bass Guitar And Its Role In Modern Music
Bass instruments have continuously evolved, from the classic 4-string upright basses to modern electrified bass guitars. And we are currently witnessing the peak of bass guitar evolution.
We now have fretless basses, bass guitars with well over 10 strings, semi-acoustic basses, and designs that were a too difficult to even imagine (let alone accomplish) several decades ago.
Along with the myriad of innovations in the way bass guitars are made, they are also being used in different roles.
From progressive rock and metal, to fusion jazz and a host of other avant-garde genres, more and more players are drifting away from the usual “support” bass player role and are carving different paths for this instrument.
Ever since the great rock and roll revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, there have been at least a handful of bands whose bass players strayed from the norm. I’m talking about acts like Rush, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and more recently, bands such as Tool and Dream Theater.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say that all bass players played only supportive roles in the rhythmic section in the time since Fender first rolled out the P Bass, and prior to the ’70s.
However, a few examples don’t make up a rule. Innovative uses of the bass guitar did became more commonplace with prog rock, metal, and fusion jazz.
And they began reaching broader audiences when the internet became commonplace. Right around the same time, top bass makers began using more advanced technologies to build wilder designs.
I’ve always felt it was inevitable for the bass guitar to step out of the shadow of lead guitars and vocals. In this article, I’ll take you through the role the bass guitar had in the past, the role it currently has, and what it potentially may become in the future.
The Universal Golden Standard Of Rhythm
No matter which period of time or which genre we’re talking about, bass guitars have always been used as a percussive, rhythm-oriented instrument.
Even in the virtuosic hands of someone as skilled as John Myung or Jaco Pastorius, bass guitars will always have a place next to the drums and percussions because their frequencies are in sync (far more than bass and guitar instruments).
Moreover, no matter how far bassists push the envelope, even some of the absurdly intricate licks by the likes of Geddy Lee of Rush or Les Claypool of Primus, the bass can never be replaced as an integral component of the rhythm section.
To better illustrate this point of view, I’d ask you to search for audio clips of songs you’re familiar with, but with a cut-out bass line. Without the groovy tone and vibe of basses, guitars sound thin, and the drum sounds are far more overwhelming in the mix.
This means that the role of the bass guitar was always that of a catalyst and the bass guitar and drums relationship an indispensable one. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
An Emphasis On Supporting Other Instruments
Around the time Fender launched the first commercial bass guitar (the infamous P Bass), swing music fell out of style, and rock and roll, pop, and jazz took over the scene.
The counter melodies, intricate licks, and thumpy riffs that double bass players used to prefer weren’t as trendy. It was as if the entire global bass player community began to favor a more simplistic approach.
The second role bass guitars had during this time was the role of an emphasizer. With single-coil pickups and strong amps, bassists could follow guitars, drums, and vocals with a far more controllable tone.
That’s why bass lines in major rock or pop hits of that time aren’t as pronounced. The bass tone is used to bolster the tone of all other instruments and make the sound more complete. And all but the worst bassists could pull it off.
A Second Guitar in the Band
The music scene and the role of the bass guitar maintained a steady constant up until the 1990s when “core” genres and styles began surfacing.
Wearing influences from hardcore punk and metal meshed with original grooves, metalcore and all of its offspring gave the bass guitar another purpose – a second guitar in bands that featured only one.
This phenomenon wasn’t universal to metalcore: punk, metal, and a variety of other styles realized that bass guitars could produce chunky riffs and play licks and melodies that stood independent against guitar riffs. Connoisseurs of heavy music styles warmly embraced this trend of guitars and basses playing the same notes in unison.
Improvisations, Counter Melodies, And Bass Solo Bands
Until relatively recently, it almost seemed against the rules for bass players to step away from the norm that was keeping the band’s pulse vibrant with a steady rhythm.
A few solos here and there were common, but entire bass solo pieces like Metallica’s Pulling Teeth were unusual. That is probably why they are still held in high regard among musicians and music lovers alike.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, bassists began using their instruments with more flexibility, partly because different types of basses with additional strings and a broad spectrum of pedals became commercially available.
Bass As Lead Guitar
Even though the trend of all-bass bands didn’t exactly blossom, it birthed more than a few groups, such as Death from Above, Om, and Ruins.
However, the tone of these guitar-less bands relies so heavily on custom strings and effects to the point that it’s not even a bass sound anymore. Even so, bass guitars are still used as lead guitars in certain bands like Royal Blood.
Key-Basses & Laser Bass Guitars?
We already have the Keytar (keyboard & guitar hybrid instrument invented in 1975) and laser harps (laser-activated instruments invented roughly during the same period). So logically, the next step of the evolution of music would be the invention of a key-bass guitar, or a laser bass instrument.
This is less of a longshot than it seem, because bass frequencies are in higher demand in music styles that utilize similar electronic contraptions like EDM.
Bass guitars have already attained virtually all possible roles in music,from supportive instruments and band catalysts to taking the spotlight in the leading roles.
The only step up from the current landscape would be to completely break away from all contemporary norms and virtually invent a new one, which would arguably be a role that favors music entertainment over actual music playing.
What Is A Bass Guitar: Final Thoughts
What a bass guitar is has changed a lot. At the same time, it hasn’t changed much at all. Its standard role as a support instrument has stayed the same since it was first introduced. And just about everyone still uses it that way.
But some bassists additionally use it in additional ways. Some use it to play lead, for example. And it is these innovative bassists who have pushed forward the evolution of the bass guitar itself. Manufacturers keep modifying the instrument to meet the needs of groundbreaking musicians.