Jazz bass

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This article is about the use of the double bass or electric bass as a jazz instrument. For the brand of Fender bass guitar, see Fender Jazz Bass.
Ron Carter pictured playing with his Quartet at "Altes Pfandhaus" in Cologne

Jazz bass is the use of the double bass or bass guitar, to improvise accompaniment ("comping") and solos in a jazz or jazz fusion style. Players began using the double bass in jazz in the 1890s, to supply the low-pitched walking basslines that outlined the harmony of the music. From the 1920s and 1930s Swing and big band era, through Bebop and Hard Bop, to the 1960s-era "free jazz" movement, the resonant, woody sound of the double bass anchored everything from small jazz combos to large jazz groups.

Beginning in the early 1950s,[1] some jazz bass players began to use the electric bass guitar in place of the double bass. The electric bass gained particular prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s type of jazz known as jazz fusion.

Most jazz bassists specialize in either the double bass or the electric bass. Some players, such as Stanley Clarke and John Patitucci, achieve virtuosity on both instruments. Whether a jazz bassist is comping (accompanying) or soloing, or playing on a double bass or an electric bass, they usually aim to create a rhythmic drive and "timefeel" that creates a sense of swing and groove.

Double bass[edit]

Beginning around 1890, the early New Orleans jazz ensemble (which played a mixture of marches, ragtime, and dixieland music) was initially a marching band with sousaphone (or occasionally bass saxophone) supplying the bass line. As the music moved into bars and brothels, the double bass gradually replaced these wind instruments. Many early bassists doubled on both the "brass bass" and "string bass," as the instruments were then often referred to. Bassists played "walking" basslines—scale-based lines that outline the harmony.

Because an unamplified double bass is generally the quietest instrument in a jazz band, many players of the 1920s and 1930s used the slap style, slapping and pulling the strings to make a rhythmic "slap" sound against the fingerboard. The slap style cuts through the sound of a band better than simply plucking the strings, and make the bass more easily heard on early sound recordings, as the recording equipment of that time did not capture low frequencies well.[2] For more about the slap style, see "Playing styles," below.

Double bass players who have contributed to the evolution of jazz include swing era players such as Jimmy Blanton, who played with Duke Ellington, and Oscar Pettiford, who pioneered the instrument's use in bebop. The "cool" style of jazz was influenced by players such as Scott LaFaro and Percy Heath, whose solos were melodic.

Paul Chambers (who worked with Miles Davis on the famous Kind of Blue album) achieved renown for being one of the first jazz bassists to play bebop solos in arco (bowed) style. The first player known to do that was Slam Stewart, who would scat in octaves with his bowed bass in his solos, good examples of which can be found on the trio recordings he made with Art Tatum and Tiny Grimes. Ron Carter(another bassist that worked with Miles Davis in his second great quintet), is credited as the father of the modern school of jazz bass playing.[citation needed]

Free jazz was influenced by the composer/bassist Charles Mingus (who also contributed to hard bop) and Charlie Haden, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman. Beginning in the 1970s, some jazz bandleaders such as saxophonist Sonny Rollins and fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius began to substitute the electric bass guitar for the double bass.

Apart from jazz fusion and Latin-influenced jazz, the double bass is still widely used in jazz. The sound and tone of the plucked double bass is distinct from the fretted bass guitar. The bass guitar produces a different sound than the double bass, because its strings are usually stopped with the aid of metal frets. As well, bass guitars usually have a solid wood body, which means that the sound is produced by electronic amplification of the vibration of the strings. The upright bass, normally in the solid "stick" variation (enabling much higher volume without feedback), is still widely favored by bass players in salsa and timba bands, because its sound is so well suited to those musical styles.

Playing techniques[edit]

In jazz, the double bass is usually played with amplification and it is mostly played with the fingers, pizzicato style, except during some solos, where players may use the bow. The pizzicato style varies between different players and genres. Some players perform with the sides of one, two, or three fingers, especially for walking basslines and slow tempo ballads, because this is purported to create a stronger and more solid tone. Some players use the more nimble tips of the fingers to play fast-moving solo passages or to pluck lightly for quiet tunes.

Amplification gives the player more control over the tone of the instrument, because amplifiers have equalization controls that can accentuate certain frequencies (often the bass frequencies) while de-accentuating some frequencies (often the high frequencies, so that there is less finger noise).

An unamplified acoustic bass' tone is limited by the frequency responsiveness of the instrument's hollow body, which means that the very low pitches may not be as loud as the higher pitches. With an amplifier and equalization devices, a bass player can boost the low frequencies, which evens out the frequency response. As well, the use of an amplifier can increase the sustain of the instrument, which is particularly useful for accompaniment during ballads and for melodic solos with held notes. Like other acoustic instruments used with amplification, such as the jazz violin, a double bass is often plugged into a preamplifier, impedance-matching device, and/or a Direct Injection (DI box) box before it is routed to the PA system, electronic effects, or the bass instrument amplifier.

An example of pizzicato jazz bass technique.

In traditional jazz and swing it is sometimes played in the slap style. This is a vigorous version of pizzicato where the strings are "slapped" against the fingerboard between the main notes of the bass line, producing a snare drum-like percussive sound. The main notes are either played normally or by pulling the string away from the fingerboard and releasing it so that it bounces off the fingerboard, producing a distinctive percussive attack in addition to the expected pitch. Notable slap style bass players, whose use of the technique was often highly syncopated and virtuosic, sometimes interpolate two, or even three more slaps in between notes of their bass line.


A five-string Electric Upright Bass

In both jazz and jazz fusion bands, some jazz bassists use a modified type of double bass called the electric upright bass (abbreviated EUB and sometimes also called stick bass). The stick bass is also widely used in salsa, because its volume and tone are especially suited to that style of music, even in studio recording. It is an electronically amplified version of the double bass that has a minimal or 'skeleton' body, which greatly reduces the size and weight of the instrument. The EUB retains enough of the features of the double bass so that double bass players are comfortable performing on it. While the EUB retains some of the tonal characteristics of the double bass, its electrically amplified nature also gives it its own unique sound. As well, an EUB is considerably easier to transport than its acoustic equivalent. The scale length of EUBs varies: some scales are 42", similar to most double basses, whilst other models have scale lengths of only 30" like a short scale bass guitar. The shorter scale can make it easier for bass guitarists to convert to the EUB.

Solid bodied EUBs produce very little sound without electronic amplification. Hollow-bodied EUBs produce a quiet tone that is loud enough for individual practice. However, since hollow-bodied EUBs do not have a large resonant cavity like a double bass, they cannot reproduce the lowest notes of the instrument without an amplifier. To amplify the EUB, the string vibrations are sensed with a pickup. Early EUBs used magnetic pickups similar to those in electric guitars, or percussive magnetic diaghram pickups (e.g., the Ampeg Baby Bass). Many modern EUBs use piezoelectric pickups located in the bridge or a combination of pickup types. The signal from the pickup is usually preamplified and equalized with a preamplifier and then sent to a bass amplifier or a PA system. For practice in a hotel room or apartment, an EUB can also be connected to headphones.

Preamplifiers and equalizers for acoustic instruments or double basses can also be used to "roll off" the treble frequencies or "notch out" the "scratchy-sounding" frequencies. Since the EUB typically does not have a hollow sound chamber, or only includes a small sound chamber, the EUB is less prone to feedback than the double bass when amplified. To use a bow with an EUB, both the bridge and fingerboard must be radiussed (given a curve).

Electric bass[edit]

Jaco Pastorius, performing with Weather Report in Convocation Hall, Toronto, Canada November 27, 1977

The electric bass is a relative newcomer to the world of jazz. Until the 1950s, the double bass was used to anchor jazz ensembles from combos to big bands. The electric bass was introduced in the early 1950s when Roy Johnson (and later Monk Montgomery) first used the electric bass in Lionel Hampton's big band.[1] When the electric bass is used in jazz, it has both an accompaniment and a soloing role. When the bass is used to accompany, it may be used to perform walking basslines for traditional tunes and jazz standards, in smooth quarter note lines that imitate the sound of the double bass. For latin or salsa tunes and rock-infused jazz fusion tunes, the electric bass may play rapid, syncopated rhythmic figures in coordination with the drummer, or lay down a low, heavy groove. In a jazz setting, the electric bass tends to have much a much more expansive solo role than in most popular styles. In most rock settings, the bass guitarist may only have a few short bass breaks or brief solos during a concert. During a jazz concert, a jazz bassist may have a number of lengthy improvised solos, which are called "blowing" in jazz parlance. Among those who have spearheaded the bass guitar in jazz are Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, and Marcus Miller.

Fretted and fretless basses[edit]

Jack Bruce playing a fretless Warwick Thumb bass at the Jazzfestival Frankfurt, Germany 28 October 2006

One of the options for bass guitarists is whether to use an instrument with frets on the fingerboard or not. On a fretted bass, metal frets divide the fingerboard into semitone divisions (as on a guitar). The original Fender basses had 20 frets, but modern basses may have 24 or more. Fretless basses have a distinct sound, because the absence of frets means that the string must be pressed down directly onto the wood of the fingerboard as with the double bass. The string buzzes against the wood and is somewhat muted because the sounding portion of the string is in direct contact with the flesh of the player's finger. The fretless bass allows players to use the expressive devices of glissando, vibrato and microtonal intonations such as quarter tones and just intonation.

In a small combo, the bass player may alone determine which type of bass to use and for which tunes. In a band with a bandleader, the leader may provide guidance on what tunes are best suited to each type of bass. Some bassists use both fretted and fretless basses in performances, according to the type of material they are performing. While fretless basses are often associated with jazz and jazz fusion, bassists from other genres use fretless basses, such as metal bassist Steve DiGiorgio.

Fretless basses are often used by jazz fusion bass guitar players; this fretless bass has flatwound strings; note the markers inlaid into the side of the fingerboard, to aid the performer in finding the correct pitch.

Bill Wyman takes credit for creating the first fretless bass guitar in 1961 when he converted an inexpensive Japanese fretted bass by removing the frets.[3][4] The first production fretless bass was the Ampeg AUB-1 introduced in 1966, and Fender introduced a fretless Precision Bass in 1970. In the early 1970s, fusion-jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius created his own fretless bass by removing the frets[5] from a Fender Jazz Bass, filling the holes with wood putty, and coating the fretboard with epoxy resin.

Pastorius used epoxy rather than varnish to obtain a glass-like finish suitable for the use of roundwound strings, which are otherwise much harder on the wood of the fingerboard. Some fretless basses have "fret line" markers inlaid in the fingerboard as a guide, while others only use guide marks on the side of the neck. Tapewound (double bass type) and flatwound strings are sometimes used with the fretless bass so that the metal string windings do not wear down the fingerboard. Some fretless basses have epoxy-coated fingerboards to increase durability, enhance sustain, and give a brighter tone. Though most fretless basses have four strings, five-string and six-string fretless basses are also available. Fretless basses with more than six strings are also available as "boutique" or custom-made instruments.

Alternative instruments[edit]

While the majority of jazz and jazz fusion recordings and live performances use either the double bass (or a related instrument such as an electric upright bass) or the electric bass to supply the "low end", there are some exceptions. In jazz organ trios, a Hammond organ player performs the basslines using the bass pedalboard or their lower manual, along with a drummer and a saxophonist. In some jazz fusion groups, the basslines may be played by a keyboard player on a bass synthesizer or other keyboard. As well, in some duos and other small groups, the basslines may be provided by a piano player; in a duo consisting of a jazz pianist and a jazz singer, the piano player plays a bassline with the left hand and chords in the right hand underneath the singer's voice. Similarly, in some duos or trios, a jazz guitarist may play basslines, a role that is especially feasible if the guitarist has a seven-string guitar with a low "B" string. In traditional Dixieland or New Orleans-style jazz groups, the basslines may be played by a tuba or other low brass instrument.

Esperanza Spalding performing on December 10, 2009 at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert.


  1. ^ a b http://www.musicradar.com/news/bass/the-history-of-the-electric-bass-part-1-early-days-507234
  2. ^ Historic Jazz Fotos
  3. ^ Roberts, Jim (2001). 'How The Fender Bass Changed the World' or Jon Sievert interview with Bill Wyman., guitar player magazine December (1978)
  4. ^ This fretless bass can be heard on The Rolling Stones songs such as "Paint it Black".
  5. ^ In interviews, Pastorius gave various versions of how he accomplished this; the versions mention the use of pliers, a putty knife, and, in at least one interview (Guitar Player magazine, 1984) he states that he bought the instrument with the frets already removed, badly, with the slots where the frets once were not yet filled in.

Further reading[edit]

  • Forward Motion by Hal Galper: An approach to Jazz Phrasing.

External links[edit]

See also[edit]