The Bass Guitar as a Mode of Being by Barrett Hathcock
If you’re going to play the bass guitar, the first thing you need to realize is that you’re going to get laid a lot less than anyone else in the band. The lead singer, naturally, is going to get laid a lot more than you. He will be followed quickly by the lead guitar player, who will be followed by the drummer, followed by the rhythm guitar player. Then, if there’s one in the band, the keyboard player will get laid. The horn players, if any, will long be laid by now. And finally, finally, if there are any women left on the planet, the bass player will get laid. I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m not saying this is the way life should be, but there comes a time when one should be honest with oneself, especially if one is about to embark on playing an instrument. Even Paul McCartney—an exception if there ever was one—has said, “None of us wanted to be the bass player. It wasn’t the #1 job: we wanted to be up front. In our minds, it was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that; we wanted to be up front singing, looking good, to pull the birds.” Of course, he was the Cute Beatle. But he was also a singer, which we might call our First Exception to prevailing bass player logic: the bass player whose status as Bass Player is superseded by some additional task performed higher up the cover band totem pole.
But left alone, without vocal talent, maybe just the occasional back-up shout out, what’s a bass player to do? It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments. Welcome.
I decided to take up the bass when I was 13 years old, the summer before I began the 8th grade. I announced myself to my father, who cocked an eyebrow and said, “Where did you get this idea?”
I’m not exactly sure. I had been daydreaming about it for a while. I had been playing in the front yard and mentally thumping the same bass note over and over in my head, rapt. There was a Faith No More song I had on tape which began with that single boingy bass note before launching into their trademark abrasive metal-funk, and I thumped along with my imaginary bass. (I got so excited by this memory I had to go look it up. The song was “Falling to Pieces.”)
There was also the bass guitar over at Greg’s house. His older brother Kenny played the drums. In fact, he had the largest drumset I’d ever seen, a Neil Peart–inspired array of tom-toms and cymbals that went on and on, a great, long salad bar of head sizes and cymbal warps. His band kept their gear at his house, and I remember glumming out “Wild Thing” after someone showed me the notes, while my friend John assaulted Kenny’s drumset. This was my first time actually playing the bass. Its strings felt easily manipulatable, tendons thick enough to really grab.
There was also Bob, who played bass and sang with my father. They had been playing together since the 70s, way before I had been born. He and my father, who played drums and also sang, were the double-helix to all manner of band species—Stax party, 80s reggae, New Orleans second-line, heavy 70s harmony, salad jazz, etc. Each weekend, in my child’s memory, they embarked toward some new musical land. In their world guitar players were the people you hired at the last minute, once you booked the gig. Genre-wise, guitar players were aboriginal, nontransferable, and tended to have their own agenda, which was the glorification of their own tone. They weren’t part of anyone’s core. What you needed was a good keyboard player who could play different styles convincingly and who could sing backup. What you needed was a chick singer who showed up on time and didn’t sleep with the keyboard player. What you needed was a guitar player who actually learned the songs. If you wanted glamour, you sprang for horns. So Bob was always around, and at that time played a Steinberger four-string, a headless spine of black graphite, a very 80s instrument, alien and sleek, like some device Max Headroom would keep in his closet for sex. But Bob played it with an effortless, unshowy sophistication. And together, he and my father were professional adventurers, disembarking Friday afternoons, their pirate ship a rented 5x8´ U-Haul trailer.
At 13 I was already playing the drums, an old set of my father’s, and I was pretty good for a kid who only played alone in his bedroom. But all of my other friends played drums. John played drums frighteningly well, with a preternatural ability to mimic any flurry of stick combinations. On Kenny’s set, he could already play the double-bass drum part in Metallica’s “One,” even though he only had one bass drum back home. (Apparently he just like intuited how to work a double-bass drum pedal.) And Greg also played drums, like his brother, but with an enthusiastic sloppiness, like Keith Moon without the drinking. We three were the drumming section of our middle school marching band. I was rigidly stuck in second chair. (No metaphor there.) And other friends were starting to pick up instruments. It happens at that time in life, when you sprout hair and your balls drop and you start to produce real semen. It was time to choose a weapon. And though I did not think deliberately about it at the time, it seems like I chose the bass guitar as a defensive gambit, so that I wouldn’t be left out of whatever bands were about to be formed in the next year or so. (A band is just a gang with more equipment.) The bass guitar was similar enough to the drums and different enough from the guitar—already practically every male around me played the guitar, as regular and predictable as shaving—that it seemed like a prime band-involvement opportunity. Maybe I didn’t know what I was doing. The choice—like marriage, kids, what job you end up having—now seems like a non-choice, a tidal drift. I am appropriately wary of assigning too much meaning to my 13-year-old self. But nevertheless, I went into eighth grade partially defined—a bass player.
But the bass guitar is an instrument of the shadows, the land below middle C, the bass clef not even included in fake books. It’s the land of subtext, the swamp, the unlit basement.
Bass playing is to guitar playing as racquetball is to tennis. Like racquetball, it appears much easier to play than it is. And unfortunately, at least in terms of my self-valuation, it is easier to play, and therefore not as glamorous as its unwalled cousin. Consequently, it attracts slobs who play it poorly. Tennis is played on grass and makes one think of the new buds of spring. Racquetball is played in a room where no light escapes, a bunker, a dudgeon for shameful pursuits.
Tennis players, like guitar players, trot over during break in their white shorts, pick up your P-bass, and condescend to thump out a few riffs, grinning down at you like smug lettermen. But it’s a hidden secret within the world of musicians that guitar players—that is, players who started with and conceive of themselves as such—are manifestly terrible at playing the bass. This is because they don’t play the bass guitar as a bass player. They play it as if it’s a regular electric guitar, one that should suffer their high-register, fleet-fingered squiggles. And though the two instruments are obviously similar, are just different portions of the sonic spectrum cut off and strung out against a piece of lumber, they are different worlds, demand different skills for survival, lend themselves to the nourishment of radically different creatures.
And despite this realization, the realization of the sophisticated guitar player’s inability to really get the bass, a microscopic superiority, the bass player then proceeds to do himself no favors by always wanting to play the guitar. Let this be rule #2. It’s the musical version of “But what I really want to do is direct.” And in this alter-ego sickness, the bass player is not alone. Everyone else in the band actually wants to play something else, as if their true musical patrimony was switched at birth. The drummer really wants to play the guitar. (On break during rehearsal, he will always go over, pick up the guitar, and ask if he’s doing his E chord correctly. He is not.) The singer, that strutting codpiece, really wants to play the guitar, noticeable by the ridiculous, complementary air guitar he will launch into whenever the real guitar player takes a solo, a sort of maddened male need to do something with one’s hands. The keyboard player really wants to play anything but the keyboard, signified by the amount of time he spends coming up with sounds imitating other instruments or no instrument known to man, as if the sound a keyboard makes is to be avoided at all costs, a genetic embarrassment, like having a harelip.
Another problem with the bass guitar is that for most of the time, you’re not really supposed to hear it. You’re supposed to feel it. It’s the holy spirit of the power trio. Playing the bass guitar is really sometimes not so much like playing a melody or even playing notes as it is focusing the emphasis within a measure or within a song. If the drummer is telling you, the listener, when to clap your hands, the bass player is telling you how to move. He’s pushing you with his notes, synchronizing hips. His notes are the dark Sharpied balls of fury in the kid’s drawing, while the singer and the guitar player delicately outline the actual flower. And it’s a weird psychological place to be—playing an instrument that’s meant to be felt, not heard, like a well-behaved child. It’s one of the reasons the bass player always looks to the other players, the ones who are always seen and heard, not forgotten in the shadows. But the bass guitar is an instrument of the shadows, the land below middle C, the bass clef not even included in fake books. It’s the land of subtext, the swamp, the unlit basement.
I asked Bob for advice, and he said, See if your dad will spend a bill. A what? A bill. Ask him to drop 100 dollars on a bass to see if you dig it. We ended up dropping four.
We first bought a white Yamaha, long and sleek as a motorboat, and I played it for two days through a rig created from spare PA gear. But something didn’t sit right with my father. Our first prospect was a bass guitar and rig on sale from a guy in Terry, MS, about half an hour south of Jackson. We went to visit. He was an old bluegrass musician, off-loading. The bass was a 1968 Fender Mustang, a short-scale bass, that had been stripped down plain wood. It was a beat-up looking thing, vintage before vintage was worth having. His rig was a 100-watt Peavy amp and a 15-inch speaker housed in a homemade cabinet, plywood painted black. The amp wasn’t even a bass amp. He was asking $400, and we said no, though in hindsight, I’m not sure why. We bought the Yamaha instead.
But after a couple of days, my father changed his mind. I was fine with the Yamaha, even though I do remember it was gigantic, a serious piece of lumber on my lap, like trying to caress a canoe. Perhaps it was because what the man in Terry—I just have named him Terry in my mind—was offering was a complete rig, and my father knew that come the weekend, he was going to have to disassemble my bass rig so he could use it in the PA at his own gig. My father, bless his heart, carried the lessons of a professional musician in his cells. And one of those lessons was that every musician needs his own discrete rig. No borrowing from friends. No cobbled together ad hoc assembly. You need your gear and you need to be able to go at a phone call’s notice. It’s why he was loathe to mix and mingle parts of various drum sets. Each one needs to be its own self-contained space ship. And so we took back the Yamaha, and we went back out to Terry and bought the Mustang.
And except for the P-Bass my wife brought to the marriage, it’s the only bass I’ve ever played for longer than five minutes. Opening its case has a Proustian affect on me. It’s smell has been preserved these 25 years, something wooden and slightly greasy and faintly sweet, the smell of something locked up. Each time I thumb the latches, I’m 14 again and over at John’s house and we’re about to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” extremely loud, for the 30th time that week, after which everyone will ask me if I’ve learned “Tommy the Cat” yet, and I will say, Sort of. It’s one of the few objects in my house I can never envision getting rid of. To do so would be to sell a protozoic version of myself.
There’s a mean joke about bass players. A guy decides he wants to play the bass, so he buys the gear and goes to his first lesson, and the instructor teaches him the notes of the strings. He goes home and comes back a week later, and the teacher teaches him a simple walking bass line. He goes home. Teacher sees him next weekend and says, “Hey, I didn’t see you at your lesson.” And the bass player says, “Oh, hey, yeah sorry man, I couldn’t make it. I had a gig.”
The slightly nicer way of putting this is that you can learn all the notes you want on the bass guitar but you’re only going to play 20 percent of them in one night.
It’s actually pretty easy. The hard part is the rhythm, or fitting the rhythm within something else. The notes are so big, the sounds so round and present, that you can’t hide when you hit them. With a guitar, you can squiggle out a note, and even if it’s not entirely correct, it’s not that big of a deal. There are so many more notes to play! But if you’re off on the bass, everyone’s going to notice. A wrong note on the bass is like a fart in an elevator. Those fat notes move the whole weight of a song around. It is like racquetball. It’s four strings confine you like the four walls. There is less that can be done, but within that limitation there are infinite angles, so that you’re always bank-shotting your way through problems. (I suck at tennis, by the way.) You can half-ass bass playing a lot more easily than you can the guitar, but there are precious few who actually use its limitations wisely. Those who accept the instrument and excel at it have a no bullshit buddhist franticless calm. They seem to have given up the constant swaggering pressure, the constant cock measurement, of the guitar. They have taken themselves out of the race of male aggression, that tendency to turn everything into a parody of high school football, and they are happier people for it.
But it’s really no fun to play alone. On the guitar you can feasibly accompany yourself singing, or if you are talented and work very hard, you can fingerpick a song, briefly covering both bass and melody. But except for certain virtuosic freaks, the kids who never ever went outside, you can really only do one melodic line at a time on the bass guitar. This means that practicing at home you’re mostly kept to thumping out baselines while imagining the party around you, like someone stood up for prom. Of course you can reach up into the treble clef, steal the cookies of attention off the shelf, but you’re going to get reproachful stares from your bandmates. A bass player with an overabundance of talent and ambition can actually be a bad player, since there is limited room within most bands and most pop songs for bass attention, much less bass virtuosity. Becoming a brilliant bass player is a little like becoming a brilliant dental hygienist.
When I think about it, I realize that many if not most instruments are caught in this same trap. That is, they are melodic but not harmonic. The limits of a trumpet are not that different from the limits of a bass guitar, imprisoned to single melodic lines. But it’s this melodic isolation combined with the bass’s subterranean focus—its exile upon exile—that makes playing it by yourself so depressing. You’re confronted with your basic dependency on other people, the basic fact that you have no importance, don’t really exist, without someone else’s presence. To be a bass player is to constantly confront your subservience to other people, your existential need to be useful. To be needed and ignored by them at the same time.
All of which is a long rationalization for why I never practice.
Though I said that the bass player is the last person to get laid in the band, I also have to admit that the bass helped me find my wife.
I was a junior in high school. It was a basketball game. I was in the stands with John, and I saw this impossibly beautiful girl enter the gym. She had the face of the girl in the first Nightmare on Elm Street, the face of the Noxema Girl, the face of John Cusack’s French-speaking girlfriend in Better Off Dead—what was her name?—a curly brunette with beautiful lips and ice-blue-eyes-type of girl, and here she was, the Ur-version of this girl, in a navy blue V-necked sweater, standing at the edge of my school’s basketball court. Seeing her was like feeling the beginning of a concert: that moment when they shut off the lights and the coliseum collectively gasps before everyone starts screaming their faces off. Just as I was elbowing John (just who the hell is that?), out walked Kelly, a freshman and a friend of mine. Kelly was with this girl. They were together! (Monique!) Halfway through elbowing John I was off the bleachers and walking across the gym. (Never in my life have I been so forward as I was with this girl.) Kelly played guitar. We were musical buddies, she circling around my band. Her friend was named Katie, up visiting from Florida.
“Barrett’s the guy I was telling you about—the bass player,” said Kelly.
“That’s me,” I said.
“Katie also plays the bass.”
“Oh, really,” I said. “And what kind of bass do you play?” (This strikes me now as a terribly male question, a combination of braggadocio and condescension, which is to say: I was flirting.)
“A 1962 Fender P-Bass,” she said, unflustered, undimmed. “Sunburst.”
“Oh,” I said.
Is there a more beautiful word in the English language than “sunburst”?
When I was in college, I played briefly in a house band for a weekly blues jam. Saturday nights in suburban West Tennessee, we’d play from eight to twelve. The way it worked is that we would play straight sets at the beginning and end of the night. In between anyone who had signed up could play their song, and we’d function as their backing band. This, of course, could only really happen with the blues, every song based on a handful of easily transferrable templates. The majority of people who participated were male, either singers and/or guitar players. They tended to follow the Clapton model or the Stevie Ray Vaughn model in terms of style and song selection. There is nothing quite like witnessing a string of inexpert guitarists attempt to play/sing like SRV. His style, which depended on a generous amount of complicated sloppiness, doesn’t translate well. I was only subbed out by another blues jam bass player on one occasion, and the drummer was only subbed twice. Our regular guitar player and our singer-harmonica player used their plentiful free time to disappear and get high.
Nothing clarifies the utter necessity of the bass player while also illustrating his disregarded status quite like a blues jam. I had to be there, but I was not someone anyone there wanted to be. What does it mean to assume the unwanted role? To want something no one else wants? And then to constantly reconsider your choice when it becomes apparent that no one else wanted it in the first place, that you were the only one? Were you crazy to choose it? Do you actually want it?
The bass is the beta of the band, the second in command, the sidekick, the rom-com go-between, the C3P0 of life. What does it mean to recognize yourself as a beta and be unable to change it? By choosing the bass was I merely filling the mold cast for me long before I had the self-awareness—or the self-generated paranoid anxiety—to perceive it? Am I simply that type of person?
Now when I’m in my hometown, I occasionally sit in with another blues band. It’s strange how, as someone who doesn’t particularly like the blues, I’ve done the majority of my playing in blues bands. But in this instance, I play guitar, as they already have a regular bass player and it’s easier to add another guitar player to the mix. (Yes, I too have maintained a fraught sideline affair with the “real” guitar all along.) I try to be a good steward of their hospitality and make myself helpful to the song at hand. I try to be unobtrusive. I try to match the drapes. These are all characteristics of a good bass player, I realize, submitting myself to the primacy of the other players, creating scaffolding for their renovations. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting to play guitar or relish the attention when it’s time to take a solo, but I do feel constantly like a fraud. It doesn’t help that in cheating on my bass in high school I never really learned how to solo, never learned that apotheosis of guitar performance. Soloing, of course, runs counter to the true nature of playing the bass. I can “play” the regular guitar, but I somehow missed the crucial adolescent woodshed period, where the guitar becomes a stand-in for masturbation and which is the one true locus of all guitar achievement, the guitar solo being a private pleasure made public, with the same potential for queasy boredom for the audience.
I realize that I’ve spent as much time thinking about the bass guitar and what it means as I’ve actually spent playing the bass guitar, maybe even more. I’ve worried its dependency, its seemingly second-class status so much that I can’t ask other bass players about these issues because I’m too embarrassed. These pedantic, reverberating questions are now a personal mythology for me, truer because unprovable and gut-provoked. Of course almost all of this is probably bullshit. It’s only true if you believe it, which would be fine if I could only will myself not to believe it.
The painful truth is that all of the things I’ve said about bass players are true only of this bass player. And my worry is that I will go down as being only a bass player—overlooked, unnoticed—and not a particularly good one, in life as much as on stage. I disparage the bass guitar, but more than that I’m ashamed that I haven’t given it my full attention, that my unchecked analysis of it is both the symptom and cause of me not being very good at it. And who else but a real, true Bass Player would spend his life staring into the shadows?
Recently, I was at a dinner in Milledgeville, Georgia. Of all the places one can land in this adult life, I had arrived there for a job interview. The main work of the day done, my hosts were taking me out to dinner at the town’s best restaurant, located in an old bank in the crosshairs of Milledgeville’s tiny but Rockwellian downtown. “We don’t know about you but we’re going to have a drink,” my hosts said, and I joined them. It had been as good a day as possible under such artificial but not unpleasant circumstances. (I was—in my mind—their perfect complement.) At some point during dinner, live music began behind me. And as I talked and ate and drank my drink and generally behaved myself, I thought: these are lovely people, this is a lovely town, and this is lovely music happening behind me in this converted bank. It sounded like a jazz trio: vocals, guitar, upright bass, and they were playing the easy dinner favorites, to my mind not a cliche but a tradition.
And after a lovely warm dark plate of short ribs, we rose to leave, and as I followed my hosts out of the restaurant, they stopped to tip the band, and I looked around and it was just one guy, his lap full of guitar, surrounded by an array of blinking equipment. There was no bass player; there was no trio. There was just this one industrious dude and his ghostly compatriots, submerged to bits. I felt personally betrayed, as if he’d murdered my childhood, but I knew it would take too long to explain so I kept my mouth shut.
Later, after my hosts had dropped me back at the local inn, I went out again in search of coffee, and coming out of the local coffee shop (Rockwellian hipster) there was a kid playing a trombone, apparently for tips. She must have been 11, 12. Her mother was nearby, gesturing for her to keep going whenever she’d stop. She was standing on a park bench, playing alone, wearing her high school’s hoodie, just one of the universe’s unaccommodated brass singing to the 9:30 night, searching for the band that didn’t have her.
Incidentally, I didn’t get the job. My theory is that they gave it to a guitar player.
What the cover bands of America need are better bass players, bass players who aren’t there because they could only get a gig playing bass, bass players who aren’t secretly gunning for the guitar player’s spot, bass players who don’t resent their role as bass players. The cover bands of America need players who stand in the shadows proudly, players who live for the shadows, players who escape the light before the applause can start, bass players like Navy Seals, indispensable and unseen, wearing night goggles, bass players who are there to make the singer sound good, make the song sound good, make even the guitar player sound good. Bass players who submit themselves to the instrument and quit trying to find the reward. Bass players who don’t sit in the library all afternoon staring at their computer, thinking: what does it mean that I am 35 years old, that my life has come to this, that I am just a bass player?
Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Miss. If you need a bass player, he’s always looking for gigs.