Low Down: Do Bands Need Bass Players Any More?

Categories: Whatever

Photo by Jeff Balke
Slappin' da bass, mon.
Growing up in the '80s, there was a concern on the part of drummers that they would be replaced by drum machines. No one thought that every drummer in every band would be swapped out with a box, but spots in all sorts of projects normally reserved for a guy with sticks were being handed over to programmers.

Looking back, it really wasn't a huge overreaction. Prior to the drum machine, most dance, r&b and funk bands had a drummer both in the studio and live. Today, there is rarely a drummer heard in hip hop and rap, both dominant forces in the r&b market, and dance hasn't seen a real drummer in almost 20 years. Some of it is simply a sonic choice. Regular drums can't reproduce the sounds of classic 808 drum machines or the bowel-shaking low end of dubstep.

Bass players have suffered the same fate for many of the same reasons, but it goes beyond the old joke:

Q: How many bass players does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, the keyboard player can do it with his left hand.

Yes, keyboards have taken the place of many parts reserved for the bass guitar in popular music, but, like drums, rock and roll virtually requires a complete rhythm section, or does it?

While the long-storied tradition of organists covering the low end -- ask anyone if jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco needs a bass in his band -- has been a staple of jazz, gospel and blues for many years, it has rarely seeped into rock music.

The Doors were noted for not touring with a bassist, but they had one in the studio. And while John Paul Jones may have doubled on the organ for certain songs live, Led Zeppelin recorded with both instruments for their albums.

But, even if bands were traveling lighter -- and thus affording the individual members a better payday at gigs -- and letting the keyboard player cover the low end, it wouldn't account for the wave of indie bands simply deciding the don't need bass at all.

The White Stripes
Look at the list of some of the bands choosing to have no bass player:

White Stripes
The Dresden Dolls
Black Keys
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Blonde Redhead
Die Emperor Die!
Eagles of Death Metal
Two Gallants
Alien Sex Fiend
Atomic Rooster

A couple opt for bringing bass players on tour or occasionally working with one in the studio but, for the most part, they just go without.

The White Stripes were probably the first really high profile guitar/drums duos along with the Dresden Dolls. In a bid to bring some low to the Stripes, Red Kross bassist Steven McDonald released a bunch of songs from White Blood Cells online remixed with bass on them. Bass players everywhere applauded, but it didn't stick.

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Remember the "Drum machines have no soul" bumper stickers? Well, keyboard players do, and I agree that the average listener won't care if the thump is coming from the keyboard or a bass guitar, and it takes a bassist to notice a guitar player filling in on a bass. With all that said, yes I can see why some bands aren't concerned about having a bassist, but I think the decreasing "need" for bass players is in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of synthetic music and the unfortunate decrease in popularity of Rock and Metal music. I don't see Country artists replacing their bassist with a beat machine anytime soon either. Bass-less bands have crappy sound. IMHO

Bella Adela
Bella Adela

Ugh. Yes bands do themselves a favor by having a bassist. I've always thought the White Stripes and other bass-less bands sound hollow. Jackson Taylor didn't have a bassist the other night at Firehouse and I thought the same thing about his set. And as far as using the keyboard for the bass.... BORING. Besides not only am I surgeon on my 5-string bass, I'm way pretty to look at!!! :)


Scott Lucas from Local H went one step further by adding a bass pick-up to his guitar and simultaneously plays guitar AND bass. Their only big radio hit, "bound to the floor" has a driving bass line that live he plays on the guitar. Same as Jack White live with "seven nation army". As a counter to your article, DFA 1979 and Cop Shoot Cop put out awesome music, sans a guitar player. The latter utilizing 2 bass players, one playing high and and one playing low end.

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