When establishing a bass pattern and feel for a song, many things come into play. How well does the groove support the phrasing of the vocal? Does it feel too busy, or perhaps too lifeless? Sometimes, the part is great, but the instrument itself needs to change. As a result, I like to view the bottom end of a recording as something that can be accomplished with a plethora of instruments. Even if I am working with a band that presents its signature sound with a bass guitar, that doesn’t mean we have to stop there to capture the best sound on the recording. Hey, think of all the overdubs the guitarists and vocalists get? Let’s give the bass player some!
One of the most common additions to the sound of an electric bass I employ is a synth. I am not alone in this practice, as some of the biggest selling bands in history (the Police, U2, the Killers) have used this technique to great effect. Often times, the synth part will hold down some subsonic tones that simply ape or accentuate elements of the bass guitar part to enhance the overall dynamics and sound to be more interesting, and, possibly, huge. As each song should always be approached separately, some may want an aggressive and punctuated top end to the bass guitar. When that part is recorded, see what happens if you tease in a lower sound you can feel, but not really hear in the mix. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Other times, a bass guitar might want to be replaced entirely by another instrument. I particularly like using organ bass pedals for songs (or sections of songs) that call for a long tone that needs no real percussive quality. There is an ominous tone that organ pedals provide that sends a very unique vibe to the bottom end. Brian Wilson used this technique to perfection in the quiet instrumental section of the timeless classic “Good Vibrations.” Of course, other choices of instruments can be used to replace the electric bass, such as upright bass, synth, and tuba (for you brave ones).
Another expressive organ option I love to use is the “black keys” section of a vintage Farfisa Organ. The same effect can be achieved with a Vox Continental, or any organ that has black keys on the far left side of the keyboard. These sounds are not exactly “pretty,” and when a bit of distortion is applied, you can get a grainy tone that can blend very well into an aggressive track.
I’ve also used an upright bass to double an electric bass part. Listen closely to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” and you’ll hear that combination. Intonation is key when attempting this, so I suggest you record the fretted bass first, and then the upright (or fretless bass) afterwards. Mess around with the balances in the mix to get the flavor you want.
LOW END CAN BE ANYTHING
The basic premise here is that your bass parts don’t have to be performed the usual or more literal way. Experiment with other textures in different sections of your songs, and see if the results make improvements to your track.
In addition, if you are a bassist who can play keyboards (even just one note at a time), you may find yourself to be more in demand as a studio session player. And if you are a bass player who feels this article is aiming to somehow take your gig away, now you know how drummers have felt ever since the invention of the drum machine! But we all know that drummers playing real drums will never be replaced— even if it’s just to add a human element to digital loops. The same concept applies to bass players. You will always be needed to lay down the bottom line, but the instrument and approach required to best serve a track might be something other than an electric bass guitar.