I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Lowly Bassist
Some people view bassists as failed or wannabe guitar players who simply don’t have what it takes to succeed on a six-string. Everyone knows bass is much easier, since it only has four strings. Right?
As a bass guitarist you still get to be in a band without trying very hard, and without having to work on your skills or spend much time practicing.
If you are a bassist who cares about your craft these are fighting words. It’s infuriating when people don’t understand or respect the dedication it takes to get good at bass. Like anything else, if you want to excel you put in the time.
It’s a sad fact that the bass guitar is underrated in rock music. Fortunately, it usually isn’t our fellow musicians who are spewing the nonsense. They know how important the bass is, and they know how hard it is to find a good bassist.
The disrespect toward this noble instrument, like most controversy in the world, primarily comes from people who don’t fully understand what they are talking about. While they should really know better, in some ways it’s easy to see why they are so misguided.
I write this post after reading some fairly negative remarks about the importance of the bass guitar. I was kind of upset, but I also had to ask myself why people feel this way. I realized there might be some logical, if frustrating, reasons.
In this article, I'll cover the reasons I think the bass is underrated in the eyes of many. If you are a bassist, hopefully this will help you deal with the haters without resorting to physical violence. If you are among those who don’t quite get why bass is so important, you just might learn something.
Is the Bass Guitar Important in a Rock Band?
Are Bassists Failed Guitarists?
Many bassists fall in love with the instrument without ever touching a guitar. However, I think one of the reasons people disrespect the bass is because so many bassists do start out on guitar.
They switch because the bass is easier, right?
The truth is it depends on how you approach the instrument. Each individual who switches from guitar to bass has their reasons for doing so, and it is true that some do it because it seems easier.
However, there are many other reasons a guitar player might switch to bass. Some are drawn to the sound, and some because they are interested in a style of music where the bass is prominent. Still, others choose to learn bass to expand their repertoire as musicians and increase their chances of finding a gig.
In fact, many great bassists in the '50s and '60s were excellent guitar players but switched to take advantage of opportunities. Remember that the first Fender bass guitars were more similar to electric guitars than they were upright basses.
That was my path to the bass as well, sort of. I was a guitarist in a band with a drummer, vocalist, and another guitar player, and I didn’t feel like going through the hassle of looking for a bassist. So, even though I was much better than our other guitarist, I made the switch.
It was fun to learn a new instrument, but in the beginning, everything I played was very basic. I played root notes, I played with a pick, and the songs I wrote sounded like they were written by a guitarist playing a bass – because they were.
There is nothing wrong with any of that, as long as you have other tricks in your bag. If you don’t, or if you aren’t willing to expand your horizons, you tend to stagnate as a musician.
Some bassists start out as guitar players but learn bass to take advantage of more opportunities for work.
Why Bassists Are Looked Down On
As I learned more about the bass my style changed quite a bit, and I began exploring the capabilities of the instrument. I came to understand how to work with the drummer and rhythm guitarist, and how much a well-written bass line can improve an already decent song.
Unfortunately, I think some former-guitarists-turned-bassist never get to that stage. If you consider all the bassists in the world those players are probably in the minority, but in rock music, it seems to happen quite often.
These musicians become hangers-on to their band rather than contributing members. They are weak links, and playing bass in this manner is, in fact, much easier than playing guitar. So, is it any wonder so many people who don’t know any better look down on bass?
Good bassists aren’t hangers-on. They are contributing members of their bands who help with the writing process and spend time on their own getting better at their instrument. They write lines that make the music deeper and more vibrant, all while keeping with their role as part of the rhythm section.
They are true musicians, and every bit as important as the guitarists in the band. Along with the drummer, the bassist forms the backbone of the music, whether this means a funky groove, a 12-bar walking bass line, or the pounding low-end of a metal song.
Some bassists become hangers on to their band rather than contributing members.
More Reasons Bass Is Underrated
I think it takes a certain personality to play bass in rock music. In most forms of rock the guitarist gets the spotlight. He gets to play solos, have video games named after him, and write the riffs people remember for a lifetime.
While the role of the bassist is no less important, he rarely gets the glory. Sure, you can name a handful of prominent rock bassists in the public eye, but I bet you can name many more guitar players.
Even those who are famous aren't fully appreciated. Most people know Paul McCartney was in the Beatles, but many don't realize he was the bassist.
It’s like playing offensive line in football. Everyone wants to run with the ball and score touchdowns, but someone has to block. Just as football is a team game, a band is a team atmosphere where every musician has an important role to play.
Our modern culture looks for excitement and makes it up if it has to. Those who do the hardest and most important work often go unnoticed in every aspect of society, and the public often doesn’t know the whole story. People who don’t understand music hear a lot of loud guitars in rock music, and they don’t realize how much the bass matters.
The popularity of seven-string and detuned guitars in metal doesn’t help. Now, guitars are tuned so low everything often turns to mush in the mix.
A band is a team atmosphere where every musician has an important role to play.
Can Everyone Hear the Bass?
I can pick out the guitar and bass in every song I hear, and I bet you can too. But would it surprise you to know that some people have no idea of the difference between them, and can’t sort through the music well enough to pick them out?
My wife is one of those people. She's an intelligent person, and she likes to listen to music, but she has absolutely no idea how songs are put together. She has lived with me long enough to know what a bass sounds like, but within the mix of a song she can’t pick it out.
For a long while, I thought she was messing with me. I figured she just didn’t want to stop what she was doing and listen when I yell things like, “Listen to the bass in this part of the song!”
I thought it was a matter of interest, but after many conversations, I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. As hard as she tries, she literally can’t pick it out of the mix. Or, more accurately, she isn't sure if what she hears is a bass, a guitar, or something else.
It seems crazy to me, but I've been at this music thing for over thirty years. If someone doesn't have an aptitude for music and does nothing to cultivate what little potential they do have, I guess it makes sense.
I wonder how many other people are in the same situation. We all have different natural gifts. Is it possible that many people just don’t have the musical aptitude to understand what the bass is doing in a song, and that’s why they don’t see how important it is?
This might also go a long way toward explaining why the mainstream public is interested in so much awful music!
It is possible that many people don’t have the musical aptitude to understand what the bass is doing, and that’s why they don’t see how important it is.
The Importance of the Bass Guitar
Without the bass guitar, songs in every genre sound weak and empty, detuned guitars or not. It adds depth to guitar riffs and helps the drummer establish the rhythm of the song. There is a reason there are so few bands without bassists: It is important to the overall sound of the band!
If you are low-ender, hold your head high. Your work is important, and your fellow musicians know how much you mean to the band. Keep on practicing your craft and getting better.
If you are thinking of learning to play bass, I hope this article helped to squash any worries about being looked down on by your peers. Believe me when I tell you, every band appreciates a good, reliable bassist. They aren’t easy to come by, and if you can turn yourself into one you very well may have a career in music.
Finally, if you are a non-musician who still doesn't understand why the bass is so important, I invite you crank up some of your favorite songs and imagine how they would sound without the bass. I think you’ll see the error of your ways soon enough.
Why Is the Bass Guitar So Underrated?
Nischal on March 02, 2020:
I started playing guitar and really loved it but I never knew the role of a bass until I showed up randomly to a practice session of my friends. I was totally mesmerized by that I felt like the songs were taken to a completely different level by bass. I decided to pick a bass ! As I started learning how to play notes on bass and some self research, I found that my most favorite songs actually were either backed heavily by bass or had very touchy bass lines. It was amazing to know that fact ! Like mentioned above in the article, you can feel the music that you like but you actually need to have some aptitude in music in order to distinguish and understand the different pieces in the music.
Mick on January 06, 2020:
Guy on Safari through the jungle hears some incredible drumming coming from a distance. The following conversation ensues with his local guide:
Guy: Wow! That's amazing -- let's see if we find it!
Guide: No! We must go now -- when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But the drumming sounds amazing, I really want to check it out
Guide: No -- we must go, when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But this is the kind of thing I came here to experience! I really want to hear it!
Guide: No! We must go before drums stop!
Guy: But why? What happens when the drums stop?
Guide: Bass solo!!
Brad on January 05, 2020:
Fantastic article. I'm a keyboard hack turned guitar player / vocalist turned home studio producer (always have had basses in my collection) that started playing bass in a band 4 years ago.
I have always prided myself in having a producer's ear but even as someone immersed in music I never REALLY heard the bass in so many songs.
Because of that I don't begrudge the lack of recognition I get as a newly dedicated bass player. And to all the bass players that have put in all the time and have come up with all those inspirational passages that I'm working on....the ones I never heard before but without them the songs are so much less....my utmost respect. Not just for your talent, but for your motivation. No one plays bass to become famous and those that stick with it are in it for the love and power of the music itself.
And thank you!
Alva snelson on December 29, 2019:
I love. The bass i would like to learn to play a bass. I am looking. To buy a use bass. So that. Ican l can learn to play i listen for the bass in all of.music
Michael James (author) on December 19, 2019:
@Tony - Great story and wise words!
Tony Basse on December 18, 2019:
Funny things can happen in life and you have no idea why .. I said that all to say in younger life a friend and i attended a sock hop ( yes .. Im that old) and seeing the fun the musician were having along with how attracted the girls were to them, we came to one conclusion .. We can do this ..well long story short.. He had a guitar within the next couple of days thanks to dad. Me on other hand got stuck in bass position and had to work for mine. Couple of weeks and 13 dollars later here me and my pawn shop bass come. While never taking a lesson..determination took it from there. Ended up in some of the hottest band going. Over the years i never really felt down played because i seen to many times to know that me and my co partner (the drummer) can and do carry the show. Subconsciously the audience may not know who or what they are rocking or moving to (try keeping yout rock or movement to the solo) so we wont put them into shock by revealing who it. So yes there are life time riffs and solos but its all built on the foundation of who. To all bass players and up coming players, just remember, you build nothing without a good solid foundation.
Craig Stone on December 05, 2019:
Listen to all the really great rock bands,the one thing they all have in common they all have a really great bass player,many of the bass players write the music,for a rock band to be great they need a great bass player.This is of course my opinion.
BasslineQueen on December 02, 2019:
As a bassplayer for more years that i want to admit. (45). I have to say that you are either a bassist or u arent. Its a different mind set people. Its all about the percussion. And lets face it, THE BASS PLAYER IS IN CHARGE'''.
GSPLBASSDC on November 07, 2019:
It's unfortunate that the bass has an image problem in rock music because it doesn't suffer from one in funk, R&B, jazz, and urban gospel!
Yg on October 09, 2019:
It's all nonsense I work for Jaco Pastorius Stanley Clarke was a friend of mine enough said
Daniel Vee Lewis on September 12, 2019:
Most guitar players make good bassist .but having come from being a drummer first I think coming from Drums is better.
Jaco was a drummer before going to Bass. Like myself I found Bass guitar more interesting than guitar. It was like drums with notes... That's just me.
Chris on August 25, 2019:
Frequencies are a big reason too. A lot of people have a hard time hearing that register of frequency. It’s there but they can’t here the pitch.
WB on July 16, 2019:
People dont realize that the Eddie Van halen famous brownsound was because of Michael Anthony's awesome bass notes of choice to cover Eddie's brittle sounding Marshall amp as well as the frequencies of which Michaels Bass was putting . Michael Anthony is one of the best Rock bass player in the buisness who help make Van Halen one of the best rock band on this planet and its obvious.
Carlos Sosa on July 14, 2019:
Listen to Rush or Yes and you'll understand what the bass guitar is capable to do
Tim Zerr on July 05, 2019:
Same with my wife and various other non-musicians. I played lead guitar in my first 2 bands for 2 years. I joined a more mature band with better musicians in my 3rd band and we had 3 guitar players, me being the one with the least experience. I also, when playing lead, sang more than half the songs. When I switched to bass in this band I was not able to sing many songs and missed that. I got back into singing more about 10 years ago when our female singer left. I now can sing half the songs and play bass. This took a lot of work. One thing about singing while playing bass is that people are watching me play and sing since I am up front, and not like a side man in back by the drummer. This helps them hear the bass. I also do solos on more than the bass players token solo. If I feel like taking a solo on stage where this was none, I will push my way into it if I feel it and it fits. At this point in my music life, if the band members are too negative about it, I fight back and will not hang around long if its not resolved. This has never happened and I enjoy my playing, as do many others. Its up to us as bass players to play in a manner that brings uniqueness to our band and not settle for the standard bass pattern all the time. I grew up with bassists like Jack Bruce and learned my style of blues bass with his inspiration when he was with Cream. And when I first heard Stanley Clarke it was a big opening for me to explore more and take chances.
Walt on June 25, 2019:
Well written article!
I've never been a guitar player. I love my instrument for its warm tones.
Singers touch the Heart, guitar players make them scream, drummers keep it all in line, and bass makes the booty move. I love all the instruments in their own right. Even keys, for their awesome ambiance and leads.
Corey Edwards on April 23, 2019:
Another reason Bass guitarist are underated is there are some successful bands that don't have one. (i.e The White Stripes and Sleater Kinney)
Another Daddy Dave DJM7734 on December 27, 2018:
I believe the great pity today is the fact that most everyone listens to their music through their cell phone. A few listen through earphones but most do not. Fewer still also listen through a good set of headphones. Just how good are those cell phone speakers? I bet the speakers installed inside our cell phones doesn't even cost more than 5 to 10.00 each. Thus the bass lines as recorded just do not translate at the correct volume to be heard correctly on cheap cell phone speakers. No wonder so little attention is paid to the bass. The listener can't appreciate music tones that are so low in volume compared to the rest of the mix.
But if a cell phone music listener were to play the same songs through a high fidelity set of headphones or a home system, they would be astounded at the richness of the bass tones brought forward in the mix. The complexity of rhythm unlocked by the volume added in bass lines will allow the listener to physically feel and react to the music. Complete immersion into the accurately recreated track is essential. There's no stopping the toe tapping, and the listener just has to move. The feet and body just won't stay still.
And we would all be much more appreciative of the skill possessed by the bass men we can now hear.
- - just my two cents - - Daddy Dave DJM7734