When Choosing An Instrument, Aim Low

As a bass teacher I belong to an Internet job board called “Thumbtack.com.” People looking for various sorts of service providers can log on and see the profiles of several providers in the area and then request a quote for services. It’s free to the potential customers and depending on the service, the provider (like me) pays a small fee to respond and give a quote. Initially, Thumbtack’s algorithms (don’t you just love that word?) had a hard time distinguishing between “bass guitar” and regular old “guitar,” so I got a lot of requests for a guitar teacher, which I most assuredly am not. Now I have the option of not receiving inquiries for guitar teachers, but I haven’t chosen it because sometimes I get an inquiry from someone looking for a teacher and under the heading of “Guitar Type” they put in something like, “Acoustic, Electric, Classical, Bass.”

Oh, where to begin…

So the first three instruments are all variants of a six-string guitar, tuned the same way, and very roughly the same size and shape, although the electric solid body can appear quite different. The bass, of course, has superficial similarities, but the bass guitar is a completely different instrument. Yes, if you squint or take your glasses off, the bass guitar still sort of looks like a guitar. It’s held on a strap you sling over one shoulder. It has a body and a neck and most have frets just like a guitar. Like a guitar the bass can be played with a flat pick (plectrum) although most players use two fingers to pluck. The tuning of a four-string bass (the most common type) is the same as the lower four strings of a guitar (E, A, D, G), but they’re tuned one octave lower. Allow me to repeat: they’re tuned one octave lower!

The difference is huge, categorical in fact. Even though there are some frequencies that cross over both instruments, the bass takes up a completely different place in the sonic spectrum and is experienced in a different way. One cannot feel a guitar note in the gut. One cannot fail to feel an amplified bass note that way. In fact, other than the lower notes on certain types of keyboards (some of which are made to mimic or replace the bass guitar) or perhaps the amplified sound of the bass drum (the “kick”), there is no other instrument that is felt as well as heard, it’s just the physics of low frequency tones and what’s sometimes referred to as the “punchiness” of the bass. Plus, the function of the bass in the ensemble is also quite different than the guitar. The bass is there to provide a sonic foundation, the floor on which the other instruments and the voice rest. It’s the bridge between the more-or-less purely rhythmic instruments like drums and the more-or-less purely harmonic or melodic instruments like the guitar or voice. It’s the glue that holds the whole ensemble together.

Now I know that there are many guitar players who own basses because if you know the guitar it’s not that hard to pick up a bass, at least initially. And I know there are lots of teachers who are essentially guitarists but still feel they can teach the bass, and maybe they can. After all, there are those crazy cats I remember from elementary school who seemingly could play and teach everything, from oboe to violin to tympani to glockenspiel. But if you’ve got a compound fracture of the tibia do you really want to be operated upon by a general practitioner?

Maybe that’s a bad analogy.

Here’s the deal: It’s an old saying, but the guitar is the easiest instrument in the world to play badly. The acoustic allows one to accompany oneself while singing and is a handy tool for the songwriter. You don’t need a band to perform with unless you want one.  And a band ain’t a band without at least one guitarist, can’t be done.

But consider the bass: In many ways it’s the stealth leader of the band, because where the bass goes, the chords go, and as the chords go, the song goes. Ask people in bands, some will tell you, if the bass player has the song down, everyone else will be OK. Ask a singer, particularly a soul or R&B vocalist and they’ll tell you the one instrument they really have to be in sync with and the one they depend upon the most to guide them through the tune is the bass.

And consider one more thing: no offense, but there’s a zillion guitarists. A good bass player will always, always be in demand. Maybe we get the least attention (unless we happen to be singing lead), maybe we appear to be stuck in the background, but if there ain’t no bass, there ain’t no booty. So when choosing an instrument, head on down to the deep end and dig in, you won’t be sorry.

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