The Bass’ Important Role in Jazz

Few instruments have been as important in the development and evolution of jazz as the bass. From the upright basses first used in the 1890s to the electric basses favored by many jazz musicians today, the bass has been at the forefront of this great genre. This article will review the basics of jazz bass.

Bass Basics

In jazz, bass is typically used for “comping” or accompanying other instruments, and sometimes for solos. From the 1920s and 1930s swing and big band era, through bebop and hard nop, to the 1960s-era “free jazz” movement, the resonant, woody sound of the double bass anchored everything from small jazz combos to large jazz groups. Electric bass began to emerge in the 1950s, and became especially popular during the jazz-rock fusion era of the 1970s. Most bassists play one type or another, but a select few, such as Stanley Clarke, are virtuosos on both the double bass and the electric bass.

In jazz, the double bass is usually played with amplification and it is mostly played with the fingers, pizzicato style, except during some solos, where players may use the bow. The pizzicato style varies between different players and genres. Some players perform with the sides of one, two, or three fingers, especially for walking basslines and slow tempo ballads, because this is purported to create a stronger and more solid tone. Some players use the more nimble tips of the fingers to play fast-moving solo passages or to pluck lightly for quiet tunes.

The Early Years

Early New Orleans jazz ensembles of the 1890s were marching bands that used a bass saxophone or sousaphone to play the bass lines of songs. As this music made its way into bars and clubs, the upright, or double bass, began replacing these wind instruments. Some musicians mastered both wind and string and alternated them depending on their needs.

Before modern amplification, the bass was typically the quietest band instrument so many bassists began using the “slap” style of bass playing. As the name implies, the bassist would slap and pull the strings to make a rhythmic sound. This would cut through the music better than the simple plucking method, and made for clearer rendering of the bass’ sound on early jazz recordings.


As the swing era progressed, and even more as bebop and other forms of jazz came into play, further innovations in bass playing emerged. Where earlier bass playing involved a more-or-less simple “walking” beat that accompanied other instruments, melodic solos became more and more frequent in the 40s and 50s. Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, who both worked with the legendary Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus were among jazz’s bass masters. They were all responsible for innovations in bass playing.

Modern Jazz Bass

Unlike in rock, electric bass has not entirely overtaken the genre. Indeed, the double bass is used very frequently in modern jazz. This is especially true in recent years where a return to more traditional jazz forms has become popular.