The Story of the Bass: New Video Gives Us 500 Years of Music History in 8 Minutes

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of the Rock Gui­tar Solo: 28 Solos, Span­ning 50 Years, Played in 6 Fun Min­utes

The Fun­da­men­tals of Jazz & Rock Drum­ming Explained in Five Cre­ative Min­utes

An Abridged His­to­ry of West­ern Music: “What a Won­der­ful World” Sung in 16 Dif­fer­ent Styles

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • eknirb says:

    He does­n’t play it any­more, but when he was in Chica­go, Peter Cetera could real­ly play bass.

  • J Neo Marvin says:

    How can you leave out reg­gae?

  • Online Bass Lessons says:

    That’s awe­some!

  • Patrick Stisen says:

    And how about met­al? i can name a few bass hooks.

  • Rick Deckard says:

    Fan­tas­tic! nev­er for­get Mark King; Lev­el 42.

  • tikkuria says:

    Les Clay­pool, Simon Gallup, Eric Avery, Rut­ger Gun­nars­son, Mark King, Aston “Fam­i­ly Man” Bar­rett…

  • Oquidoqui says:

    What no Car­ole Kaye?

  • Nacho07 says:

    You could include or not man­ny names as for ex Mar­cus Miller, but you canu00b4t exclude a hole music style!!!nnWhat about reg­gae, Aston fam­i­ly man Bar­ret???

  • Nacho07 says:

    You could include or not man­ny names as for ex Mar­cus Miller, but you canu00b4t exclude a hole music style!!!nnWhat about reg­gae, Aston fam­i­ly man Bar­ret???

  • SSINTENSE says:

    Vic­tor Wooten?

  • SSINTENSE says:

    Vic­tor Wooten?

  • 2277DoubleBass says:

    Nice job! Cor­rec­tion: The Suites for Cel­lo were not writ­ten for the Gam­ba. He did write music for the Gam­ba, but the D minor Suite Pre­lude you played at the begin­ning was writ­ten for cel­lo. You picked all my favorite bass tunes!

  • Michael of CDZA says:

    Thanks for this Josh Jones and Open Cul­ture. We love you guys and are flat­tered that you took the time to write this. One quick note, you “erro­neous­ly” called me Mark too, lol. My name is MICHAEL. Keep up the great work and lots of love from cdza.

  • Ric says:

    I applaud the effort put into the arti­cle and shar­ing it on the inter­net.
    I think it is impor­tant to keep the his­to­ry as accu­rate as pos­si­ble, so please note the first elec­tric bass pre­dat­ed Fend­er’s 1951 Pre­ci­sion Bass.
    In the 30’s many upright bass­es had pick-ups. I have seen one that was even fret­ted.
    Paul Tut­mark made a four foot tall sol­id body elec­tric upright in the mid 30’s, and soon after released the Audiovox #736 a hor­i­zon­tal­ly held, fret­ted neck, sol­id body elec­tric bass. The adver­tised price in 1937 was $65.00.
    Pic­tures and artilce here:
    In 1947 Bud Tut­mark pro­duced a sim­i­lar design elec­tric bass, The Ser­e­nad­er.

  • Ric says:

    Anoth­er cor­rec­tion — when did the bass become a gui­tar? The his­to­ry goes from acoustic bass­es to elec­tric bass­es, but then Fact Man’s sign sud­den­ly intro­duces “bass gui­tar”. Iron­ic , when the bass in ques­tion was an elec­tric VIOLIN bass.

    Even so, I love the video, the musi­cian­ship and musi­cal selec­tion is superb.

  • Jim Johnson says:

    One of my favorites was Berry Oak­ley of the All­man Broth­ers Band. No men­tion of Jack Bruce?
    I did read recent­ly that in a typ­i­cal rock & roll band, the bass play­er was the most like­ly to go bank­rupt first:-).

  • beca says:

    these videos are not rec­om­mend­ed for young chil­dren because they show unex­pect­ed instru­ments that make your ears bleed, that’s a fun fact :)

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