Essay | Felt, Not Heard

I took up the bass guitar on almost a whim. It could even be described as an accident. My sister bought a bass to join a band, and soon dropped out of it, leaving the big dumb thing without a home. It was offered to me, and I took it. Despite this very unserious origin, it is now one of my hobbies that I am determined to make something of. It is one of the few things that I actively aspire to be great at someday. Other hobbies or skills stagnate after a while, when you're satisfied with your level of expertise, which is usually mediocre or good. With this, though, it's one of the few things that I dream of being able to keep doing until fluency.

Of course, I'm nowhere near that right now. I don't think I can even justifiably call myself good yet, not while I'm still trying to properly understand how to utilize scales and barely getting the slap-n-pop technique right. In fact, I found out just a few days ago that I've been doing pull-offs wrong for two years. It's like learning you've had your pants on backwards since the 1st grade.

What attracts me as I study the bass guitar is its interesting role in the typical band: It is the anti-spotlight. The lead singer gets all the face time, and the guitarists get the crazy, easily discernable riffs and mid-song solos. The drums are the loudest, and any extra instruments have a novelty factor. The bass, it seems, is necessarily hidden and cannot draw attention to itself. If you've ever wanted to play the thing, chances are that someone's related to you a common, tired, saying: the bass should be felt, and not heard.

Yes, you could hear Paul McCartney on "Something," Flea on "Salute to Kareem" and Jaco Pastorious on everything. But those are the exception, not the rule. Bassists that take center stage seem to be few and far between. A typical bassist, one that's not anything special, is usually relegated to duplicating the notes of the rhythm guitar. Maybe sometimes he or she will get to throw in a riff in the intro, but otherwise, have fun picking those same three notes for your garage band's pop-punk song.

Not that I begrudgingly play the bass or have any sort of resentment for not being an obvious major player. In fact, it's come to be what I love about the instrument. It's important to the feel of a song. Something about the resonance of lower notes conveys mood. In a lot of music, it's the essential ingredient, like a glue that holds everything together, or the sheen on a new car. It fills in the gaps so you see one smooth song, perfect and whole.

Enough with the similes, though. The point is, the instrument, when played according to standards set by decades of music history, is almost subversive in nature. It's so unspectacular when it does its job well. As a growing layman observing these things for the first time, I don't think I could have chosen a more appropriate instrument to play.