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Strumming on a Bass Guitar, like.One of the perks of my relationship right now is that my ladyfriend has both been a professional and studied musician, and she’s of a scientific bent. This means I can ask her fairly pointless questions and get hugely satisfying, thorough explanations with very little work invested on my part.

I’ve been wondering, for example, why the bass guitar parts of musical ensembles seem to be simplistic and dull compared with the more complex parts played by other instruments—lead guitar and keyboard most obviously. This is more blatant when comparing solos, and seemed to be consistently unflattering to the bassist, presumably in terms of compositional attention (if not the performer’s ability). So, I asked Carolyn, “is the discrepancy between the complexity of lead and bass guitar parts a function of the physical characteristics of the instruments, musical conventions, the egos of band leaders, or…?”

She’s reliably kind and patient in the face of such blunt ignorance: I learned that there are a few things going on. First, yes, the instruments have important physical differences, pertinently that the strings on a bass guitar are necessarily thicker to resonate more slowly, to produce lower tones, and are consequently more awkward and tiring to play with alacrity. Another consequence of those low notes is that they are more difficult to distinguish from one another: Carolyn described rules of thumb for the narrowest allowable intervals to be played below a certain point, beyond which the information gets unacceptably muddy. Instruments that play in higher registers can paint their sound pictures with more colours and in higher resolution. (She added that when bass players perform solos, they often move to a much higher range on their instruments to take advantage of this.)

The other issue at play here is cultural, and is informed by how auditors of “Western” music have been trained to make sense of what they’re hearing. This kind of music hasn’t changed much since the Baroque period, when an omnipresent “basso continuo”—usually part of what the harpsichord was playing—gave structure and foundation to the other tones, constantly ground chords and dictating harmonics. This part has been largely taken by bass guitars in modern genres like rock and blues, and to provide the necessary stability and informational clarity, convention discourages wanton dalliances across the soundscape.

So, there! Now I know.


Update from Carolyn:

So, good bass players can break free of that Western music paradigm, but it sorta messes with how we feel the music.  Here’s an example:

Joni Mitchell did not compose music like most singer-songwriters. She was never formally trained, and therefore never approached writing with a tonally based chord progression. She’d tune her guitar to the sounds of the environment around her (highway noises, wind harmonics, squeaks), and then she just moved through soundscapes, creating incredibly complex chords and harmonies by inventing chords on her guitar.  When she started collaborating with other musicians to record albums, the bass players wanted a chord progression so that they would know where to put the bass notes. Apparently it caused some consternation.  So, most bass players would try to apply a chord progression to her songs, and played according to that.

Take a listen to this (maybe 1-2 times through) and try to really listen to the bass, as well as how the song feels.

Then, listen to this.  The second version is with Jaco Pastorius—arguably one of the best contemporary bass players who has lived.  Jazz (particularly with the arrival of Miles Davis) was moving away from chord progressions and into tone landscapes – changing scales, really – not chords.  He understood that Joni’s music wasn’t like typical folk/rock, but more like modal jazz.  So he plays within, complementing, her sound landscapes.  So interesting.  But perhaps a wee bit uncomfortable at first to the listener.

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