The ‘classic’ rock band template features three instruments: electric guitar, drums, and bass guitar – in addition to the human voice. Many bands will include two or more guitarists, and plenty will include additional instruments – keyboards, trumpets or saxophones, for instance. But a guitar-drums-bass trinity has formed the foundation of most bands since the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
In very simple terms, the role of the drummer is to keep the beat, the role of the guitarist is to play the notes, and the role of the vocalist is to sing the words. The fundamental role of the bass guitar may seem less immediately obvious.
So do you really need a bass guitar in a band?
The answer is no – just as you don’t need guitars, drums, or vocals, either. A band can include whatever instruments you want it to (or, in many cases, whatever instruments you need it to, given your circumstances or budget)!
You may decide that the type of music you want to make doesn’t rely on a bass-heavy sound. Even if you want a bass guitar but don’t have one, fear not; you can use another instrument to do a similar job.
All this is not to play down the importance of a bassist. There is a reason they are so common throughout music history, after all. Bass guitars are vital in filling out the sound of a song, as well as supplementing both the rhythm and the melody. If you’re thinking of skimping on a bassist purely because you’re not sure what value they can add, you may want to think again! Indeed, if your band’s aim is to reproduce the sound of your favorite rock, grunge, metal, punk, ska, or indie (I could go on) songs then a bass guitar could be nigh on essential to your needs.
In this article I’ll explain the benefits a bass guitar can bring to a band, before looking at how you can get by, or even flourish, without one.
What a Bass Guitar Brings to a Band
A fuller sound
Let’s start with the obvious. More instruments = more possibilities. While I won’t deny that less is more in certain musical situations, there’s no doubt that a ‘power trio’ of guitar, drums and bass is far more versatile than a guitar-drums duo. Just having an extra instrument playing at the same lets you add layers of harmonic complexity and rhythmic synchronisation to your songs – not to mention extra volume.
There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. Adding another instrument to the mix may be a no-brainer, but why should that instrument be a bass? Why not, say, another electric guitar? For sure, a trio of guitar-drums-guitar has its merits, but a trio of guitar-drums-bass is preferable in most cases. This is because bass guitars deal in low-end frequencies that an electric guitar simply can’t produce. These lower octaves are important in fleshing out songs, giving them that full, meaty sound.
You may not notice the bass at first, especially if it’s low in the mix or playing the same notes as the guitar. But you’ll almost certainly notice when the bass is removed. The song will sound ‘thinner’, as if played through a small, cheap speaker or a mobile phone. If you have a sound system with a bass/treble dial you can replicate this effect mid-song and really appreciate what you lose when the bass is turned down.
Alternatively, a song might sound reasonably ‘full’ with just the higher-pitched instruments playing, but when the bassline kicks in at the start of the second verse you really notice the difference! Employed this way, a bass guitar can give your track a timely ‘power boost’ at key moments.
A primal energy
A range of high, low and mid-range tones is important to creating a full-sounding song. If you’re only going to use one instrument, however, the bass is arguably a better bet than the electric guitar. This is particularly true in a live setting, when the longer wavelength of bass notes mean they carry to the back of the field (or outside the pub) better than higher frequencies, which dissipate over short distances.
Furthermore, bass frequencies have a really visceral quality, as anyone who has been to a gig and felt the ground – or their chest – vibrate in time with the bassline can attest to! Perhaps these earth-shaking characteristics are what led two-piece rock bands like Royal Blood and Death From Above 1979 to opt for a bass instead of an electric guitar. I should add the caveat that these bands also use various effects to add more treble to their sound –more on this later.
So we’ve established that a bass guitar will add low-end frequencies that fill out a song’s sound, give it a shot of adrenaline and occasionally make your bones shake. The energy present in these low notes can be harnessed by a variety of genres. Rock bands channel it into monstrous riffs, while funk groups will craft grooves that compel you to dance. Techno producers, meanwhile, create relentless, pounding rhythms to get lost in.
The drummer and bassist in a band are traditionally dubbed the ‘rhythm section’, and often work together to accentuate the beat. While the bass is well-suited for this role, it is a versatile instrument that can also take the lead. A bass can lead or compliment a song’s melody when called upon. It can play solos, riffs, licks and atmospheric swells, and these techniques can be all the more impactful when the listener is used to the bass simply following a chord progression.
Personally, I believe a well-crafted bassline is one of the great hidden pleasures in music. I say ‘hidden’ because in many songs the bass is placed quite low in the mix. If you don’t have a decent set of speakers you may miss it completely!
Making Music Without a Bass Guitar
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that the humble bass guitar has a lot to offer a band. Certainly, it shouldn’t be dismissed without good reason. Still, sometimes there are good reasons not to include one in your line-up. Perhaps you can’t find a bassist. Perhaps you don’t own a bass. Perhaps you want to shun convention and play some more unusual instruments instead. All perfectly good reasons!
Whether the instruments at your band’s disposal are an accident of circumstance or a result of careful planning, you have a decision about how to tackle the lack of a bass guitar. One the one hand, you can get other instruments to play the bass parts. On the other, you can minimize the bass parts, and write music within a higher register. Let’s explore these two options in detail.
Getting other instruments to play the bass parts
A bass guitar is not the only instrument built to produce low frequency sounds. Even instruments that aren’t can often be modified to do so, so your options are plentiful.
Double basses and, to a lesser extent, cellos, are the original lower register string instruments. Usually associated with classical orchestras, they’re also common in skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll bands. If you happen to have a double bass lying around (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) it can most certainly take the place of a bass guitar in your band. The two instruments are similar in many ways, but the tone of a double bass tends to be warmer, and the lack of frets makes a distinctive legato (slurred) playing style possible. They also differ in appearance, of course, and if you were to include the imposing double bass in a more traditional rock band setup, your group would certainly stand out.
Brass instruments like the tuba and bass trombone will make a similar impression on your audience. Their sound is completely distinct from a bass guitar’s, but they can hit the same notes and thus ‘fatten up’ your sound just as successfully. Other examples of acoustic instruments that can play bass notes include pianos, bassoons and even timpani.
All the above can take a bass guitar’s place in the mix, albeit in their own idiosyncratic ways. However, they can be expensive, impractical to transport and, potentially not quite the vibe your band is aiming for. Enter: the synthesizer. Synths are portable, discreet, and open up a whole new world of possibilities for your basslines. As well as offering an almost limitless array of tones, they allow you to arpeggiate and modulate these tones as you see fit. There are even synthesizers that are entirely dedicated to producing bass sounds. It’s little wonder then than synthesized basslines are found in so much of today’s pop, hip-hop, and dance music. A synthesizer could be your band’s best alternative to a bass guitar – you just need to decide which one! Check out this beginner’s synth buyers guide if you want some ideas.
Replicating Bass Guitar Sounds Using MIDI
Maybe you’re not content with an instrument that simply approximates the job a bass guitar does. Maybe you don’t want some wacky, squelchy, or orchestral bass sound. Maybe you want an instrument that actually sounds like a bass guitar. But isn’t one. Because you don’t have one. I’d hesitate to say that you can replicate the sound you’re after exactly, but there are some methods that’ll get you pretty close.
If your focus is on recording rather than playing live, you may be able to use a bass guitar sample pack to program basslines into your DAW of choice. Some of these take the form of ‘virtual instruments’ that allow you to play the strings with your mouse or keyboard in real time, for a slightly more organic feel. This is done via MIDI, which I won’t go into now but you can read all about here.
Again, programming a virtual bass won’t sound quite the same as recording the real thing, but the software is getting better all the time, and can stand in for the instruments you don’t have access to.
Pitch shifting pedals
Ultimately the most accurate (and most practical, for many people) way to recreate the sound and style of a bass guitar, is simply to lower the pitch of an electric guitar. There are several easy ways to lower the pitch of a recording in the studio, but to do the job in a live setting you’re going to want a pitch shifter pedal. One famous example is the DigiTech Whammy. The pedal has many functions, but we’re most interested in the ‘one octave down’ setting. Just as the aforementioned Royal Blood use pedals to shift the sound of a bass guitar up by an octave, so guitar-drums duos like The White Stripes would sometimes shift down one octave to make electric guitars sound like bass guitars. The famous bassline in Seven Nation Army, for example, was actually recorded on an electric guitar.
Such pedals can also merge the original sound with the pitch-shifted output, so that you hear a high and low version at the same time. This allows you to effectively play two parts on one instrument! Of course, the two parts will differ only in pitch, but it’s still an impressive effect.
If your band already has an electric guitar and you want to add bass tones to the mix, buying a pedal that lowers its pitch will usually be cheaper than buying a bass instrument. It also means you don’t need to find an extra musician. If you’re part of a one-, two-, or three-piece band and lacking in the bass department, I would highly recommend investing in a pitch shifter pedal.
Minimizing the bass parts
Despite the myriad advantages of including deeper notes when making music, and the many ways of doing so, maybe you just want to fully embrace the lack of a bass instrument in your band. This is unusual, but that’s not to say it can’t be successful. After all, there are songs, or sections of songs, that sound fantastic when the bass is absent. Sure, they may not sound as ‘full’ or ‘meaty’, but they can be ethereal, or delicate, or soothing. They can be loud or piercing too, in their own way. Songs will sound different without a bassline, but not necessarily less impactful. It all depends on the song in question.
I’ve approached this article from a vaguely rock-oriented viewpoint, as that’s the genre most typically associated with bass guitars. There are hundreds of musical genres and sub-genres, of course, and not all of them rely on a bass section. For instance, much folk music is carried exclusively by higher-pitched instruments like concertinas, fiddles and tin whistles. Many thousands of songs feature only a vocalist and an acoustic guitar; thousands more make do with just the former.
There is nothing stopping you from forming a successful rock band without any bass parts, either. Just be aware that the music you create will not have the same depth of sound of traditional rock songs, and play to the strengths of the instruments you do have when composing.
I should say that abandoning traditional basslines does not mean abandoning low frequencies altogether. A nice, beefy kick drum or similar percussive sound may provide all the low-end goodness your song needs. You don’t always need discernible notes or melody to have a strong, bass-y presence in your music.
What’s more, bass is not something that you either have or don’t have. There is no cut-off point for where a note suddenly becomes a ‘bass note’. Like the dial on your sound-system, pitch is a spectrum. As such, the lower notes on an electric guitar can still function like a bass guitar (to a lesser extent, admittedly), especially if the guitar is tuned down a few semitones.
In the first half of this article I explained why bass guitars are great, and what they bring to a band. Despite this, not every band has one, and indeed not every band needs one.
As I explained in the second half, this can be for one of two reasons.
First and foremost, other instruments can be enlisted to do much the same job. You could get a classical instrument to add a touch of sophistication to your band, or use a synthesizer to create one of a million different bass sounds. If live performance is of no concern you can record a bass guitar virtually on a computer; if it is a concern you can transform your electric guitar into a bass with the help of a pitch shifter pedal.
Alternatively, you may eschew traditional basslines altogether, instead creating music that focuses on treble and mid-range tones.
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