The Craft of Pop Bass
The rock and roll of the 1950s was influenced heavily by country music, and although both genres have evolved steadily over the last 60 years, the basics have, by and large, stayed the same. A well-written song, typically using guitar, drums bass, and often keyboards, has remained the backbone of both styles. In this article, we will review the electric bass’ role in both of these different, yet still connected, genres.
In Memphis’ Sun Studios on the evening of July 5, 1954, a young Elvis Presley picked up his guitar and started strumming an old blues song, “That’s All Right, Mama.” Joining in that session was bassist Bill Black, who would go on to record many sides with Elvis. Many other songs had been attempted earlier by the combo, but this one was the one that proved to them (and eventually, the world) that this budding form of music had “legs.” The bass line in this song, in fact the entire rhythm of the song, was country-based, with an element of rhythm and blues thrown into the mix. Although many other rock & roll and country acts would soon follow, the bassists, by and large, stayed in the background, keeping the bass lines strong and simple.
At the onset of the 1960s, country and rock bassists continued to stay in the background, with some artists using a rotating roster of session bassists. Rock had begun to change, no longer being thought of as rebellious, but increasingly mainstream. The British Invasion changed that. For example, all four of the Beatles were excellent singers, and bassist Paul McCartney’s frequent lead vocals proved that bassists need not be forever relegated to the background. Similarly, country music was branching off into different areas (the Nashville Sound, the Bakersfield Sound, Countrypolitan, etc.) and bass lines were becoming more complex to fit the needs of these more sophisticated songs.
This decade saw another sea of change in rock music, as it became louder in some sub-genres, and bass lines became yet more sophisticated in the realm of progressive rock. At the same time, a movement was taking place in both the country and rock genres to re-simplify. Country lost its orchestration, and punk rock grew fast as a response to the complexity of progressive rock and the burgeoning disco scene. Bass lines once again became simpler.
Another movement in popular music at this time was the growing popularity of country-rock. The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, and most popularly, The Eagles managed to take equal measures of both styles of music and add their own special touch. Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmitt were not only great bassists during their respective stints in the Eagles, but proved to be excellent singers and songwriters as well.
The 1980s and 1990s
The 1980s and 1990s saw resurgence in the popularity of country music with the ratings of country radio stations beating out rock stations in many key markets. As more country artists began to rock out, and as more rock artists added a twang to much of their music, the lines became blurred. It was hard to distinguish a country bass line from a rock bass line if you managed to isolate it. Alternative music straddled a bridge between punk and more complex metal, so bass lines were accordingly more complex. This often included alternate bass tunings.
Although the bass-heavy hip-hop and dubstep genres have largely begun to out-popularize and outsell rock and country these days, these two genres have stood the test of time. No one knows for certain what the future of popular music holds, but one thing is clear: Bass is not going away.