The bassist is the musical foundation for which so much of rock music formed. While the drummer (usually) is tasked with keeping time, the bassist creates the basis for which we determine what notes to actually play. Unfortunately, like the drums, this often limits the bass players to simple chord progressions only being allowed to let loose for a few brief moments.
Sadly, all too often bass parts are really dull and boring. Anyone who has had got stuck playing bass parts in a Rock Band session knows how monotonous the bass can be. Today we are celebrating some fresh new perspectives on the bass and what it can offer.
A reader commented that when I got to this article I better include Victor Wooten in my write up. While I agree 100% I must unfortunately not include him on my list for the sheer fact that I do not have too much knowledge of his music and could not fairly comment. Either way you should probably listen to Victor Wooten.
Normally I do not like to quote other’s writing, but this is one time where I can not find a better way of showcasing how out in left field Brian Gibson is operating
“According to Gibson, his bass guitar is set to standard cello tuning, in intervals of fifths (C G D A) with a banjo string for the high A (contrasted with the typical bass guitar tuning of E A D G). He used this four-string setup for several years, but has recently been using a five-string setup, tuned to C G D A E, with banjo strings for the A and E. The banjo string is also tuned down an octave.”
This alone should start setting of warning sirens in your head based on his set-up alone. The unorthodox tuning set-up and use of a banjo string of all things on their own should make for a pretty unique sound. That is until you actually hear Brian Gibson start on his musical onslaught.
As the bassist for noise-rockers Lightning Bolt there is little room for subtlety and Brian’s sound often comes across as just a brick wall of distorted noise as opposed to any sort of intricate groove. Drummer Brian Chippendale somehow ends up becoming the melody as Gibson‘s disfigured riffs become incomprehensible to the naked ear. Gibson‘s mutant bass is hard to really comprehend and making sense of what he is doing in conjunction with Chippendale‘s meth-paced drumming is damn near impossible.
By no means is Gibson‘s murder toned bass a sound that will be palpable to all listeners and there seems to be no desire to such either. Regardless, his performance indicates a possibility of what the bass can be and one thing for certain that we can ascertain from Gibson is that the bass can be the source of moods and textures as opposed to just time keeping. On Lightning Bolt‘s last album Oblivion Hunter his bass is designated to the role of swelling ominous terror in conjunction with Chippendale‘s distorted wails. It creates a feeling of dread, and yet has no seeming pattern, like if Brian Eno made ambient albums with chainsaws.
I like to think that there are moments in modern rock music that could benefit from this swelling doom instead of punctual bass plucking. Let the drummer dictate the rhythm as the bass creates a smattering of frequencies for the guitars to play from. His style is defiant to the norm, but like everything in these lists, offers something to learn.
There are a few albums in the Magma discography that stand on high as the peak of brilliance in their carnival of crazy. Nearly all of them have have bassist Jannick Top in the line-up. The suspiciously round individual’s contribution to Magma‘s sound is unmeasurable and was instrumental in creating the heavy suffocating sound of those records. Jannick is not only a very talented musician, but an excellent observer of mood and context. His bass playing does an excellent job of elevating the music beyond just notes and into an emotionally striking composition. Songs like De Futura revolve around his playing and absorb his emotions like a sponge only to wring them out on us. All too often this “emotional” piece is reserved for the vocals and guitars, but with Jannick you get those reactions from the low ends.
Speaking of low ends Jannick‘s bass is also insanely deep and brooding, like a real-life brown note. Tuned somewhere between hell and somewhere below that, his dark and broody sounds create nearby earthquakes and cause old people to cry in terror. Each pluck of the string is like the crushing footstep of a lumbering giant, angry and sluggish. Something akin to a musical black-hole.
These attributes all make Jannick a fresh and unique presence in the bassist world. Regardless of whether he is creating a simple apocalyptic sounding riff to groove from or producing a relentlessly difficult pattern of notes to follow, Jannick produces a continuous outpouring of feeling that is often lost in the presence of other bassists. It is a reminder that although you may have fewer strings and typically simpler parts does not mean your role is less significant.
The post World Wars Germany created some truly unique characters, and many of them were in the music community. A desire to create something truly unique and “German” in the music scene resulted in some of the more peculiar musical acts of the era. This was cultural rock ‘n roll as opposed to adapting to the preconcieved norm. While The Beatles were singing about Lucy and her diamonds, German musicians were shattering the standards of what could be, making the American psychedelic music scene look like kiddie sing-a-longs. Perhaps the allied troops had put something in the water.
One of the forerunners in this way of life was Holger Czukay a classically trained musician who was kicked out of his academy for his far out there ideas. He would eventually find some like minded peers and establish Can, one of the most iconic bands of the Kraut Rock era. Czukay, would use the bass like an EDM artist uses a launchpad, creating pulsating beats that would last endlessly. “Play monotonous” a stoned man once told drummer Jaki Leibzeit who brought the ethos to Can helping develop its iconic hypnotizing sound. This led to a rhythm section that sounded like a live band rendition of club music, that is until all the other madness began to compile on top of it.
This may seem counter-intuitive to the nature of this article, but that is a short sited analyzation of Czukay. There is a difference between the simple musical support developed by some bassists and the continual stream of consciousness that Czukay was constructing. While indeed monotonous, he was often slowly shifting his patterns and notes under the radar of most listeners. Since Can rarely adhered to anything that resembled traditional song structure, nor were they bound by any major label restrictions, they were free to do whatever they wanted. Czukay often swayed the band into directions that were not considered by listeners, leading them to into something completely different five minutes later. A live rendition of Spoon shows how he could cleverly shift the band in a seamless way, much like how a river caries water.
Czukay‘s contributions did not stop at providing hypnotizing patterns and rhythms, as his interest in sampling added an additional layer of calamity into the fold. This is the dichotomy of Czukay, yes his bass playing on its own is awe inspiring in its driving consistency, providing a canvas for which all others can paint on. On the other hand his passion for tape sampling was so beyond consistent and repetitive. It may seem counter-intuitive for a bass player, but there is some sense in putting down your bass and doing something new in order to provide a new layer to your sound. Not only that, but Czukay‘s droning consistency promotes the most obvious and overlooked of lessons, practice, repeat, and perfect.
Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher)
You might notice an avoidance of raw talent in these lists, noting ingenuity and creative approach instead. We are all aware of legends like Bootsy Collins, Les Claypool, and the above mentioned Victor Wooten. This holds especially true for Tom Jenkinson, who is far less known for his bass playing skills than he is for is glitchy sounding electronic compositions.
A quick listen to one of his pinnacle albums, Ultravisitor, however, and you’ll witness a brilliant fusion of both skill sets Tom wields. This becomes even more shocking after noting the marriage of his jazz styled bass licks versus his electronic work that sounds a whole lot like Windows ’95 with a hundred computer viruses. The album on its own is astonishing as you would figure the clash of styles would result in something similar to musical whiplash, but it does not. Instead all the different styles meld together like different cheeses in a tasty fondue pot.
Like Czukay, Tom hops around from different styles and instruments and does not adhere to just one role. This may be disconcerting to young bassists, seeing their heroes abandoning the instrument, but in reality this is something to observe and learn from. These are musicians who are willing to explore sounds and ideas outside of their own and then apply them to their instrument. Tom spent some time in recent years playing solo bass shows, creating compositions just for the instrument. For a brief time he allowed the instrument to be removed from its supporting roll spot and into the front and center. It is a great statement to the traditional band hierarchy, informing the “supporting musicians” that it should not be so and that everyone should have an equal footing.
Juan Alderete de la Peña
All components of the previously mentioned bassists culminate here in Juan. Just looking at his resume you’ll see how many genres he’s hopped from and the various roles he has played in those roles. From heavy shredder in Racer X, to sound warping demon bassist in The Mars Volta, to crooning time keeper in Big Sir, Juan has the unreal ability to match an near endless slew of musical styles and roles.
Juan’s constant band hopping requires a special ability to shift sounds and match who is he playing with, something he does flawlessly. All this time, though, he maintains his signature sound produced by his fretless bass. His tendency to create beautiful swelling tones from what is normally a heavy handed instrument is astounding on its own. Listening to anything from Big Sir cements his incredible ability to take the instrument beyond a thundering monster and into a comforting supporter.
Versatility is extremely important in performance, but beyond that Juan excels in his skills in sonic crafting. He knows how to match the band around him, not just in playing style, but in sonic creation. As the creator of pedalsandeffects.com he knows sound crafting and the importance of it too. Nearly every week he produces a new video showcasing something new in bass playing be it a new effect pedal or a new way to approach your pedal board. When listening to his solo work, Vato Negro, you begin to see this really come to fruition as he create sounds you would never conceptualize.
Passion and drive are important for the musician, but knowledge is also critical. Juan clearly has both which is what helps him so versatile and valuable as a bassist. Even at fifty years old he is no stranger to the deep end of music and is still eager to try new things. He is a role model for all bassist.