From the December 2016 issue of DRUM! | By Daniel Glass
Drums and bass. Bass and drums. When talking about groove creation, these two elements go together like peanut butter and jelly. Through a long history that takes us from march music through jazz, rock, and hip-hop, American popular music has always relied on two types of musicians to create the so-called “bottom end,” one to play a rhythmic thud and the other to match that thud on a low pitched instrument. But what would happen if one half of the bass/drum alliance was removed — say, the bass? Would the remaining instruments still be able to convincingly cover the bottom end? History’s answer to that question is “yes.”
Way Off Bass
By today’s standards, it’s hard to imagine a band being able to function properly without a bassist. In looking back over the last century, however, we can find numerous examples of combos that found alternate ways to re-create that role. For example, Benny Goodman’s famous swing quartet of the 1930s was composed of clarinet, piano, vibes, and drums. The task of “walking” the bassline fell to Gene Krupa and his 28” bass drum. Because the audience could “feel” the resulting pulse, they didn’t miss the actual notes.
In the 1950s and ’60s, jazz pianists adapted the organ into their genre, and along with it a technique long used by church organists. By “kicking” special bass pedals with their feet, they could play the bass line too, thus alleviating the need for an actual bass player. Drummers in jazz organ groups picked up the slack, opting for a more driving approach that combined the groove of R&B and the lightness of jazz.
In the 1960s, psychedelic rock band The Doors opted out of using a bassist onstage, preferring to rely on the left-hand lines of keyboardist Ray Manzarek. And these days, it seems that the approach is bigger than ever. Check out groups like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Black Diamond Heavies, and Carolina Liar. All have managed to seamlessly re-create the bottom end without using an actual bass player. In the process, they’ve not only changed an ancient dynamic, but reframed the question, “What is a band?”