It has never been a good idea to compare individual musical instruments and rate their significance. I have noticed that a favorite question for debate within the musical community is “Which instrument is the most important?” – a foolish argument that I too have unfortunately been involved in. These kinds of debates gradually vanish as individuals acquire sufficient information about music and develop broader tastes. What comes after the abandonment of such arguments is the realization that each and every instrument has a different quality of the expressive power that an artist seeks, and a different role in the orchestration of a piece. Musicians choose an instrument after feeling a connection to it, which is associated with the first factor I mentioned. Also, as a result of music having an intrinsic spectrum of technical aspects, each and every instrument is used to accomplish a particular purpose during the composition process. If a regular pop music song is dissected, one realizes that different instruments contribute to the song in different ways: drums will establish a pulse, giving a heartbeat to the song and adding a sense of continuity, while the bass guitar will highlight the elements of harmony and help balance the sound frequencies. Guitars, keyboards and sometimes wind or brass instruments are used for accompaniment and to help lay the musical foundation. Then, on the top of all this, are (usually) the vocals, which say most directly what the songwriter wants to tell us.
As I have chosen the bass guitar as my own primary instrument, that is the instrument I have the most information about and experience in. Also, the bass instruments – bass guitar being one of the most common – have a particular role in the process of establishing the musical infrastructure of a piece. Creating the bass part of a song can be considered a separate art in itself, and even though I respect the technical efforts that most bass players make, I tend to analyze each artist with respect to the way that they develop their part in a song. After several years of searching, I believe that I have come up with a list of musicians with differing and unique approaches.
Since I am a fan of progressive rock and the band Rush, Geddy Lee has been one of my musical heroes. The way that he approaches his instrument – the bass guitar, of course – has impressed me ever since I first heard it. The aspect of his bass playing that strikes most people hearing it for the first time is the sound. Lee’s bass produces a sound as loud and forceful as a lion’s roar, which evokes a sense of power and energy that matches quite well with Rush’s energetic music. Also, Lee writes his bass parts quite differently than is usual. As with most bassists in rock music, he generally follows the guitarist (in this case, Alex Lifeson, who is a master in his own right). However, he diversifies the riff he is playing by incorporating the vocal melody into the bass part and by constantly improvising. Another aspect of his writing is that he never really stops playing – even during Lifeson’s guitar solos, Lee continues to diversify his part in the song. He also uses the strategy of many guitar players by incorporating chords into his music, something most bass players would not do. To demonstrate this point and other aspects of his writing that I may or may not be fully aware of, I would recommend the songs “Limelight,” “La Villa Strangiato,” “Freewill,” Big Money” and “Ghost Rider.”
Another hero for most bass players, including me, is the late Chris Squire from the progressive rock band Yes, whose sound, technique and songwriting led to a revolution among bassists. He had a bright, crystallized yet deep sound that he made with a pick – the use of which has been a matter of debate among bass players for many years. Squire accomplished what is in fact a hard task: highlighting the melody while maintaining the rhythm. He also had a quite unique style of songwriting in that he recorded different bass parts simultaneously. Like Lee, he made good use of chords, venturing into a territory where most bassists choose not to go. To understand his contribution to rock music in general, one should listen to “Heart of the Sunrise,” “The Fish” and the rightfully famous “Roundabout” from Yes’s 1971 album “Fragile,” as well as “Close to the Edge” from the album of that name (1972).
Since I’ve mentioned only bass players from the progressive rock scene so far, a valid question would be, “Are progressive rock bands the only ones that have inspirational bass players?”; the answer to such a question would, fortunately, be a simple “no.” As I become increasingly more aware of the post-punk scene, I am encountering many inspirational bass players, a favorite of mine being Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order. Although his playing would be considered modest from a technical perspective, “Hooky” happens to have a unique bass tone that is distinguished by having an almost intrinsic chorus effect, and also a unique playing style in which he has made delightful use of repetition. His writing is unique in that it simply steals the role of the guitar altogether: the song is driven by the foundation laid down by the bass. To show such aspects of his songwriting and playing, I would recommend the songs “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (I’m sure everyone could see that was coming), “New Dawn Fades” and “A Means To An End” by Joy Division and “Age of Consent” by New Order.
To this point, I have talked exclusively about bass players from rock music, but that does not mean influential bass players are rare among the remaining scenes. An example would be Tom Jenkinson, or, as he is known to the public, Squarepusher. As the son of a jazz musician father, Squarepusher has diverse musical roots. However, the music he made in the late ’90s and early years of the following decade does not at first glance seem to have any relation to jazz. Although he is capable of incorporating most of the techniques there are into his music, including slapping and popping, his most striking accomplishment is that the listener never even realizes he is playing the bass guitar. That is, he has processed his sound to such a degree that it becomes indistinguishable from the electronic sounds that he incorporates into his music. However, there are certain songs, such as “Papalon,” in which an unmasked bass guitar sound created by his masterful playing blesses our ears. To fully understand his contribution to music, one should listen to the albums “Hard Normal Daddy” (1997), “Do You Know Squarepusher” (2002) and “Ultravisitor” (2004).
In conclusion, each and every instrument is important in its own right, and different approaches to songwriting do exist. I suggest that my fellow music lovers stop debating which instrument is better or more important, and invite them to just relax and enjoy what the many skilled musicians out there have to offer us.