The Role of the Bass in Rock, Jazz, Blues & Classical

Oct 23, 2019

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: no matter what instrument you play, there’s no need to limit yourself to a single genre! Any musical instrument can play basically any genre of music, all you need in a bit of knowledge, and a splash of creativity!

Over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring how a few different instruments fit into 4 genres of music; specifically rock, jazz, blues, and classical.

We started this topic a few weeks ago exploring the role the piano fills in each of these genres. We followed that up last week with the guitar’s place. We’re going to continue looking around this topic this week, with an instrument that sometimes looks like a guitar, and sometimes really doesn’t: the bass.

Rock Bass

We started covering this genre a little bit last week when we talked about rock guitar. The bass guitar is the most common form the bass takes in a rock band, and it primarily helps the percussion section provide the song with its rhythm. The bass provides a sort of foundation to a rock band that, while you might not always notice it, you’d notice if it was missing.

The bass player in what could be considered a “normal” or “conventional” rock band acts as a sort of link between the drummer and the rest of the band. They lock into the beat of the bass drum, and help link the main beat, the main pulse, of the music from the somewhat “dry” sound of the drums, to the warmer sound of the melody and harmony. The bass acts like the concrete of the music’s foundation.

Jazz Bass

When it comes to jazz, though a bass guitar can be used, the upright, double bass tends to be more popular. In this genre the bass is usually used for “comping,” or accompanying other instruments, as well as the occasional solo. From the swing and big band eras of the 1920s and ‘30s, through the “free jazz” movement of the ‘60s, the resonant sound of the double bass has anchored everything from small jazz trios, to big bands.

Today, the double bass is usually played with amplification and is usually played with the fingers, pizzicato style. Usually, the only time a bow is ever used is during some solos. But before amplification, the bass was one of the quietest instruments in the band. This led musicians to develop the “slap” style of bass playing. As the name implies, the bass player literally slaps and pulls the string to make a rhythmic sound. This cut through the sound of the rest of the band much better than plucking and continues to be a popular style to this day.

Blues Bass

In a blues band, each instrument has a very specific role to fill: most of the instruments “comp” and solo, the drummer provides the tempo and “feel,” and the bass player locks in and outlines the chord progressions. Typically, the audience is focused on the vocalist or the soloist, so the bass player must be confident in their ability to back everyone else up.

As with other genres of music, the blues bass provides both the rhythmic and harmonic foundations. The rhythmic foundation refers to the pulse of the music. A good bassist provides a good-feeling, steady pulse. The harmonic foundation, on the other hand, is something most people overlook when it comes to the role of the bass. Yet, the bass is critical to the harmony. In fact, when we hear a harmony – several notes played at the same time – the audience hears them all relative to the lowest pitch – the bass note.

Classical Bass

When it comes to a classical orchestra, each of the stringed instruments have their own role based on the note ranges they can reach:

  • Violin: Soprano
  • Viola: Alto
  • Cello: Tenor
  • Bass: Bass (Big surprise!)

There is some overlap between each, but the smaller instruments, like the violin and viola, play higher ranges, and the large bodied instruments, with wider strings, like the cello and bass, play in the deeper, lower range.

The basses, all lined up behind the cellos, have a few different names in a classical orchestra. There’s the basscello, contrabass, double bass – each one placing the instrument in the band relative to the cello. And that’s because, for a very long time, the role of the bass was to double, or play, the cello line, just an octave lower -hence the instruments’ names. Just as you might guess, they play the bass line, the lowest part of any performance. The bass’s job is to literally ground the work and add depth to the overall sound of the music.

That said, the bass doesn’t have to double the cello. In fact, during the Romantic era, composers started to pay more attention to the bass. For example, in Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Bass in D-major, the two instruments are each given their own part. Beethoven was also fond of composing independent parts for the bass and cello.

As one of the most versatile instruments for modern musicians, the bass can be found in basically every popular genre, in one form or another. As a matter of fact, thanks to its role as part of the foundation of any genre, you would be hard pressed to find any contemporary form of music that doesn’t utilize some sort of stringed bass instrument.

If you’ve always wanted to learn to play the bass, but haven’t gotten around to learning yet, now is your chance! Bass guitar and string lessons at The Music Studio aren’t just for kids or beginners – they’re for everyone of every age and skill level!

Don’t hesitate to begin – or continue –  your musical journey today, with The Music Studio!