The bass gets no respect in rock or country. Yet jazz musicians practically worship the instrument, be it a misappropriated bass violin or cello or a four- or -five-string guitar with some heavy gauge strings.
But I submit that, without the bass, rock is nothing. You can point at The White Stripes or Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as examples of bass-less rock, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The absence of the bass defines that music.
But bass gets no respect because, all too often, the bassist is standing off to one side plucking a monotone note in time with the drummer. That is a crime. The Beatles did not do that. Nor do the Stones. In fact, the departure of Bill Wyman, while blown off by Mick Jagger, sent Keith Richards into fits of rage. As long as the Stones exist, Daryl Jones has a job barring Wyman’s return to the band. (Not likely as Bill’s 82.)
Bass gives rock it’s balls. It’s the thumping back beat behind anything blues based and almost anything hip hop. It works best when it’s either melodic or it does rhythmic acrobatics. And there are five guys who exemplify that.
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have often said The Who never had a proper lead guitarist and that drummer Keith Moon functioned more like a keyboardist. But they did have a lead guitarist. His name was John Entwistle, and his bass did not sound like the quiet stoner standing in the corner plucking away. Entwistle’s bass is front and center on about half the Who songs he appeared on, especially “Boris the Spider” and “The Real Me,” both songs where the bass defines the melody.
If Entwistle played his bass like a lead guitar, Squire upped that game. His bass work was so elaborate that, on the band’s 1980 effort Drama, Trevor Horn had to pick up a bass to play a rhythm line. Squire’s bass doesn’t even sound like a bass. “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” almost sounds like a keyboard or a low-tuned lead guitar. Most bass players keep a groove with the drummer. Squire weaved with Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin. The result is magic!
Squire’s equal in bass-as-a-lead-instrument is Rush’s Geddy Lee. Even in the band’s early Zeppelinesque phase, Lee emulated Squire, playing solos on an instrument that normally isn’t noticed. When Rush became more prog, it was Geddy Lee who provided that foundation and let Neal Peart become the one drummer who could simultaneously be John Bonham and Keith Moon at the same time.
The man giving the groove to King Crimson for most of the last 40 years. Dapper and understated, it’s when you watch videos of the Belew-led versions of Crimson where you realize that it’s Levin and not Adrian Belew or Robert Fripp playing some of those bizarre sounding guitar lines. Levin doesn’t always play bass, either. His favored instrument is the Chapman Stick, a headless eight-stringed bass, which Levin taps to play both guitar and bass lines. It’s a skill that comes in handy for a band that’s had multiple drummers in the same line-up since the 1990s. (As well as keeping up with Bill Bruford, formerly of Yes.)
If Geddy Lee is the spiritual child of Chris Squire, Flea, he of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is Tony Levin’s. Flea tends to play four- or five-string basses, but he plays them like Levin, slapping and tapping. The Chilis take a lot of their cues from hip hop and funk, but Flea’s bass lines seem almost lifted from the latter-day Crimson. You can hear this on “Give It Away.”