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The Role of the Bass

Bass is often one of the most over-looked instruments in a musical group. Many audience members have no idea what a bass even is. Despite this fact, bass is probably the most critical instrument in a group. It is rare to find a performing band without a bass player. As a budding bassist, you should be happy to know there is always a high demand for bassists—especially good ones.

The Responsibilities of the Bass Player

Traditionally, the bass performs two basic and vital functions within a band or group:

  1. Bass provides the rhythmic foundation.
  2. Bass provides the harmonic foundation.

The Rhythmic Foundation

The rhythmic foundation refers to the consistent pulse of the music. A skilled bassist supports the group by providing a good-feeling, steady pulse. Most music that is well received has a steady rhythm, or beat, to it. This is the responsibility and priority of the bassist. Listen to the following recording. Notice how you can tap your foot to the rhythm of the bass. That is the pulse the bass creates.

The drummer, when present, also aids in providing the pulse. However, don’t be mistaken that it is the drummer's job to create the pulse and you are only along for the ride. Your sense of rhythm must be very solid and independent of anyone else in the group. Each group member should have good rhythm independently while playing together as a whole.

Your rhythmic skills are the most important thing for you to master as a bassist. It doesn’t matter how perfect your choice of notes is. If your notes are in the wrong place rhythmically, it won't feel or sound right.

The Harmonic Foundation

Most people realize the bass player helps with providing the rhythm. A lot of people don't realize the other important function the bass player — supporting the harmony.

Harmony means together. In music, harmony is the playing of several different notes at the same time. Sometimes one person alone, such as a guitarist or pianist, creates this harmony. Other times several people, such as an orchestra, rock band or a barbershop quartet, create the harmony together.

The bass plays a powerful role in how we hear harmonies. When we hear several notes played at the same time, we hear them all relative to the lowest sounding pitch — the bass note.

The following examples let you hear the powerful effect the bass note has on the harmony. In each example the same two notes are played on the piano while the bass plays a different note creating a different musical effect.

The bass player's second major traditional role is to properly define the harmony by supplying the correct foundational notes.

In Summary

As you continue studying music, you will learn that music is comprised of three main elements—rhythm, harmony and melody. The bass lays the foundation for two of these three elements. Studying bass means to study rhythm and to study harmony, and the techniques to create them on the bass.

Bass is a very powerful instrument. A good bassist can often rescue a mediocre group, while a bad bassist can easily destroy a great group. Use your bass-playing powers for good, not evil. Learn about rhythm. Learn about harmony.

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