The plight of the electric bassist.

As I’ve matured as a bassist, I’ve found that I have distanced myself from many of the classic arguments that surround bassists. What’s the best bass? The best amp? Who is the greatest player alive? Who is the greatest bassist of all time? These arguments will always exist, and the longer I play the less I seem to care. I imagine that shows maturity.

One thing that I can’t seem to escape is the need to defend my instrument of choice as being valid. It’s a ridiculous concept, and one I’d largely forgotten about since my early 20’s. A conversation over Memorial Day weekend, however, brought it all back to the surface.

When I first started playing bass (back in 1990!), I received a lot of grief from family and friends about my choice. Drums and guitar seemed far more exciting when watching videos on MTV, but something about bass just seemed…. right. Besides, I already knew two guitar players and a drummer. If I played bass, I would be IN A BAND. There was never an attraction to playing string bass back then; I was in concert band on a hand me down trumpet in elementary school. Orchestra just seemed dorky, really.*

Thanks to the increasing prominence of electric bass in the popular music of the time, the implications of it being a “lesser instrument” faded pretty fast. This wasn’t an issue for college either, as we didn’t have a very strong orchestra program. Later on in my college years, though, something became apparent. While the electric bass is the undisputed king of the “rock” world, it is definitely thought of as a lesser instrument in two circles: classical music and jazz.

I can understand the lack of respect in the classical world, as you don’t often see electric instruments in the orchestra. What really grinds my gears about this is the view that the electric bass is simply a smaller, easier to play string bass. While the first mass production electric bass (The Fender Precision, so named because the frets allowed for precise intonation) was originally intended to fit that purpose, it quickly grew into its own as an instrument – extended fretboard range, five and six string basses, active electronics… the list goes on. I certainly wouldn’t expect to replace the sonic footprint of 19th century double bass with my Stingray, but why would I? I certainly wouldn’t expect a classical string bassist to hold their own on “Master of Puppets”. You could also think of it this way; a string bass is a handsaw, and an electric bass is a chainsaw. Each have their uses.

On the other side of the same coin, you have jazz bass. Even though the electric bass has been a part of jazz since the sixties (if not earlier), there is a STILL a stigma surrounding its use in many circles. The very first time I played the Artists Quarter, I had an amusing experience. When I was leaving the gig (an opening slot), the bassist for the headliner walked past me (a well known metro area bassist). When he saw my electric case, he actually grimaced.

I view basses as tools; some work better in some situations than others. A properly setup jazz upright sounds different than a concert upright, and obviously both sound different than an electric. Individual instruments sound completely different, for that matter. I won’t deny that certain instrument tones are more conducive to certain styles of music; a warm, deep upright tone does sound very nice with a jazz trio. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean it’s the only instrument that can be played with that style of music, or that a bassist wielding an electric is any less of a player. The best way to describe it is bassism.

In the end, we’re all bassists (Well, those of us that play bass, anyway). The last thing we need to do is fight amongst ourselves. Leave that to the guitar players of the world.

* What it all boils down to is that orchestra kids are nerds.

One Response to “The plight of the electric bassist.”

  1. corey says:

    “Bassism” is my new favorite word.

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