On Bass: Layering the Low End
Pairing an electric bass with a synth bass is an often-used technique that can yield very cool results.
Guitarists often get to layer many parts while recording. The same player may play the rhythm parts, leads, acoustic, swells, etc. We bassists, however, usually only get to play one part per song. That’s because more than one bass part sounds like a bass solo, or is too muddy, or too weird to get on the radio, right?
Modern music is filled with songs that use stacked or alternating bass parts for unique sounds that no other combination of instruments can create. In instrumental music—especially solo albums from bassists—multiple bass tracks are very common, but it’s an important tool in pop music as well. This month’s column covers the multi-bass approaches most commonly encountered in popular music featuring vocals. We’ll try to dissect how the different parts work together.
In country music, the method of doubling bass parts has been around since the ’50s. Named after the sonic effect it creates, the classic “tic-tac” sound was first achieved by doubling the bass part with a 6-string bass or a baritone guitar.
Having the bass double a piano player’s left hand is also very common in country music. This is a great-sounding technique that forces you to really commit to a part. Listen to the Shania Twain shuffle “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” for some excellent-sounding note-for-note doubling.
Another technique is for two basses to play opposite parts. A great example is Lou Reed’s classic “Walk on the Wild Side,” where bassist Herbie Flowers played the changes on an upright bass, and then overdubbed the part in 10ths using an electric bass. A similar-sounding track is “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” by John Mayer. Willie Weeks handled the business end by playing a relaxed root-note pattern with upbeats emphasized, while Pino Palladino added the little pops and the 10th intervals. It’s possible to achieve a similar feel using only one bass, but the song is a masterful example of bass blending and a minimalist approach.
Another commonly used technique is mixing a synth bass with an electric bass that’s mostly popped rather than heavily slapped. This creates a natural separation between the bass sounds—one high and one low. The main trick is to pop in the holes where the synth bass is silent, creating a sort of simple, in-between-the-notes solo. There are many great examples of this, though I’m a sucker for this technique on pop stuff. Swedish pop producer Max Martin has used this on countless hits, such as “Oops! … I Did It Again” by Britney Spears and “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, to name just a couple.
Sometimes this technique is most effective when the pops are so short that the actual pitch becomes almost indiscernible. I often find myself using such super-staccato pops to add energy, and recently used the technique while tracking pop singer Anthony Rankin’s new single, “Phoenix in Vegas.” In the verses I also played a P bass with a pick for a dirtier sound to blend with a round synth-bass tone—kind of a modern-pop version of the tic-tac technique. The balance between the clean, modern Marcus Miller-like tone used for the finger pops and the warmer, vintage-rock tone really gives the track its own identity.
The next step from popping between the synth-bass notes is to double the actual synth-bass part with thumb slaps, while still filling with pops as described above. British pop/funk/fusion group Level 42 ruled the arenas of Europe in the ’80s, thanks in part to the musicianship of Mark King. King was known for doubling sequenced synth bass with his thumb and performing almost impossible parts while effortlessly singing lead. Check out “Hot Water” or the mega hit “Running in the Family.”
The aforementioned methods focus on two different bass instruments combining forces to create one bass part. But even on some pop tracks, bass is occasionally used as a lead instrument on top of a bass part. To successfully achieve this effect—especially if using only one bass guitar—it’s crucial to EQ the two tracks differently. This can make the melody stand out as much as if it were played on a guitar or piano. (Proper EQ is also a must in order for the whole track sound clear.) Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning Graceland features Bagithi Khumalo laying down the bass lines and overdubbing melodic hooks and vocal-like phrases and fills, producing wild and fun counterpoint to many of the vocal melodies. One has to be very careful not to overplay when venturing into this approach, but using the bass as a second lead singer of sorts can yield amazing results.
Until next time, happy listening and playing!