Outside of modern jazz, bass players have a hard time. People either forget they exist—“John Bonham, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and … oh yeah, that other guy…”—or they get caricatured as the goofiest members of the band, due perhaps to the instrument’s unwieldiness and the rocking-at-the waist motions its awkward dimensions inspire. The physical postures of bassists have lent far too many perfect photographic moments to the viral Bass Dogs tumblr, which imagines bass players tickling giant, often embarrassed-looking dogs.
But meme-ing aside, the bass occupies a crucial space, covering a frequency range and rhythmic dimension without which we could not be truly moved by modern pop or classical music, either in spirit or body. And while the low end doesn’t clamor for our attention—like the upper ranges of a chanteuse’s voice, a wailing lead guitar, or crashing cymbals—and can get lost in the tinny sounds of earbuds and cheap radios, we simply cannot do without the sound of the bass. To demonstrate what a propulsive force the bass has been in the evolution of music over the centuries, collective CDZA—who have previously entertained and enlightened us about the guitar solo—feature bassist Michael Thurber in a greatest-hits-who’s‑who history lesson, “The Story of the Bass.”
We begin with that baroque precursor to the contra bass (or double bass), the viola da gamba, which Bach wrote for in his cello suites and in da gamba and harpsichord pieces. When we come to the 18th century, we are in the double bass world of brilliant virtuoso player and composer Domenico Dragonetti, beloved of Haydn and Beethoven (hear a mesmerizing Dragonetti concerto above). We then move through the 19th century with names like Serge Koussevitzky, popularizer of the 4‑string double bass we know today.
With jazz in the ‘20s , the finger plucking style comes to stand in for the tuba of proto-jazz Sousa bands. Then the 4‑note walking bassline comes to the fore, brought most famously by Duke Ellington bassman Wellman Braud. In the 40s and 50s, bass took a spotlight with, among many others, three more sometime Ellington bassists: Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, and, especially, Charles Mingus.
The video zooms through country/bluegrass/rockabilly double bass innovations with a too-brief mention of slap bass technique before Thurber straps on a classic electric to introduce but one of Leo Fender’s contributions to modern music. The first electric bass debuted in 1951, and at the time, only one person played it, Monk (erroneously called “Mark” by CDZA) Montgomery, one of a trio of musical brothers, who played for Lionel Hampton’s band.
As we get into the post-war period, the bass evolves as rapidly as the technologies of amplification, broadcast, and recording. With the dominance of Motown in the sixties, the bass takes a lead role in R&B, with the immortal James Jamerson leading the way (above with Jackson 5). And with British rock and roll, the bass is again pushed to the forefront by, of course, Paul McCartney. New techniques abound—John Entwistle of The Who’s finger plucking style, Larry Graham’s slapping, the funk/rock/soul signatures of Nathan Watts, John Paul Jones, and Chris Squire. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters stands alone as a singular voice on the bass.
Once Thurber reaches off-the-wall instrumentalists like Jaco Pastorious (above) and Flea (one is saddened Les Claypool doesn’t get a name check), we’re off to the races, anything goes, and other clichés. Or how about a pun? It’s a bass race to redefine the instrument until the oughties, when it settles back in for folk and sixties rock revivalism and explodes in the synth lines of the hard dance revivalism of dubstep. It’s a rollicking ride, and as any 8‑and-a-half minute history lesson is bound to be, a survey in broad strokes that surely leaves out a couple or dozen of your favorites (Bootsie Collins? Geddy Lee? Peter Hook? Kim Deal? Robbie Shakespeare?). But on the whole, it’s an instructive tour of a neglected or maligned instrument that deserves much more respect than it gets.