The Trouble With “Bass”

Bass players out there have a problem with bass, and I don’t mean the instrument itself. I’m not referring to our role in the band; whether we grind out root notes or solo into the stratosphere, and I’m not even referring to the opinion of the instrument by the general public.

I’m talking about the actual word “Bass”. The problem doesn’t exist until you write it down, then our beloved instrument also looks like the name of a fish.

Bass is pronounced ‘base’ with the long “A” sound whereas bass (the fish) is pronounced with the short “A” sound and rhymes with the word “ass”. Since both words are identical, it is difficult to separate one from the other when you do an online search. Don’t even think that adding a style of bass playing like “rock bass” is going to help you either – because again, that is a specific type of the bass fish family tree.

That leaves you with the only viable option (in my eyes), adding the word ‘guitar’ to the mix. Although this helps clarify that you are talking about an instrument, it ends up leaving the impression that a bass is a form of guitar. The general public may then come to the conclusion that the bass-guitar is the dim-witted second cousin in the guitar family tree (since it only comes with four strings) – an option slightly better than thinking that we play with fish.

It’s true that the electric bass debuted after the guitar, but the upright bass has a history of hundreds of years. Compared to that, the guitar is still in diapers. Yet even the upright bass can have some identity problems. This classical instrument is also known as the “double bass”, which in drummer circles also means two bass drums. Double bass drumming is common in hard rock and heavy metal – luckily double bass of the upright four-string variety isn’t!

Budding bassists are already confused enough with all of this ’bass’ overlap, but now they have something else to contend with: amplifiers. When new bassists meet the ‘bass’ knob on their amplifier for the first time there’s little thought involved: crank it! I’m a bassist aren’t I? I need tons of bass!!! Then we wonder why…

• We can’t hear ourselves in the mix
• Our preamps always running into the red
• We randomly blow fuses and/or speakers
• …is that pyro or is my amp on fire again?

Can you appreciate the irony that bassists often need to reduce the amount of bass in their signal to hear themselves? Talk about counter intuitive.

We could lament this issue, and talk about how hard it is to maintain order in this confusing state of instruments, fish and frequencies, but there is a positive side.

The bass is the foundation (pun intended) for music as we know it. It enjoys a coveted role in both the melodic and rhythmic aspects of music; which extends to the guitar and drums that our “bass name” is associated with. Bass frequencies are the stuff that high-end amp rigs (not to mention car audio systems) are measured by and where the latest engineering advances are made.

The ‘bass name’ is everywhere because it is important. Like the air we breathe, it may be taken for granted, but it is necessary for life (or in this case music) to flourish. 

The bass is not a guitar and it’s not a fish. It’s an instrument that comes with at least four strings…and it’s cool. When asked you can tell people that you play THE bass, and let the rest take care of itself.

  • One of the most important lesson I learned was in the first year of playing bass, when a fellow bassist told me to crank — the treble! This was when fender was just about the only bass amp around and bass and treble were the only two tone knobs on an amp. Most guys cranked the bass and got a muddy. distorted sound. I ran the tone control on my Fender Precision wide open — all treble, turned the treble control on my Bassman 2×12 50 watt amp to around 7 and the bass knob to 3 and never had trouble cutting through the mix, yet still had plenty of bottom. Today’s high tech amps have the advantage of being well thought out to provide plenty of bottom and punch without turning the bass control to 10, but I still hear plentyof bassist who think bass means “turn the bass control as far to the right as you can.”

  • Hey Dave, great story about your bass amp eq experiences. Don’t be a stranger!

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