The electric bass, (sometimes referred to as a "bass guitar") is the most important instrument in modern music. It's also one of the most stylistically diverse. The first basses were built by Fender in the early 1950's. The electric bass had two primary advantages over the acoustic, or upright bass. Its biggest advantage was that it did not depend on simple acoustics to produce sound. The electronic signal from the magnetic pickups is sent into an amplifier that can boost the sound to over 100 decibels. Secondly, the electric bass had frets like a guitar, so that notes were precise (Thus Fender named their first bass the 'Precision'). These factors led to the rapid adoption of the electric bass in many forms of music. Others have already documented the instrument itself, so I thought I'd try something a bit different. I'm going to attempt to trace the major innovators, and the tracks they played on. In the name of brevity, I am going to limit this to a degree, but this should be a good stepping off point.
Early Innovators: The first bassists of note became known in the mid 1960's. Early innovators included James Jamerson (All most all Motown records) and Donald "Duck" Dunn who was the backbone of Booker T and the MGs as well as playing in the Stax Records house band behind artists like Otis Redding and Albert King. Both Jamerson and Dunn have a style that is simple and to the point, but is notable for showing melody. Songs representative of this style include: "Mr. Big Stuff" (Jean Night) , "Soul Limbo" (Booker T and the MGs), and "Ask the Lonely" (The Four Tops). Many of so-called 'British Invasion' bands drew heavily on this sound, and the playing of performers such as Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones can be traced to soul records emanating from Nashville and Detroit.
Rock: The next step along the way finds us around 1969, in England. The British blues rock groups were taking the charts by storm, and many of these records are touchstones of low end groove to this day. Big names of this era included Jack Bruce of Cream, John Entwhistle of The Who, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, and Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath packed a mighty wallop. They were running their basses through giant amplifiers, and using a style full of riffs, short musical ideas that are repeated throughout a piece. Also, at this time they began playing solos, a first for the instrument. Crucial tracks from this period include: "The Lemon Song" (Led Zeppelin), "Crossroads" (Cream), "Waitin' for the Bus (ZZ Top), "All Along the Watchtower" (Jimi Hendrix), and "Fairies Wear Boots" (Black Sabbath). This style of bass playing has evolved some over the years, and it's still very common.
Funk: If there has ever been a style of music that spotlights the bass, it would have to be funk. When it comes to funk there are two people that define the genre. The first is Larry Graham. Graham was the foundation of Sly and the Family Stone. He laid down the bass to essential grooves such as "Dance to the Music", "Sing a Simple Song", "I Want to Take You Higher", "Everyday People", and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)". He was the first major player to "slap" the bass, a technique that uses the thumb to "pop" the strings creating a percussive sound. The other main innovator in funk is William "Bootsy" Collins. Bootsy defined cool for a generation, with star-shaped sunglasses and a bass to match. Starting out with a stint in James Brown's band, where he laid down the bass on classic tracks like "Sex Machine". After splitting with Brown, Bootsy was drafted into the P-FUNK army of George Clinton. This is where he came into his own, and did much to cement the bass as an instrument. Collin's style was fluid, with a wide range of odd sounds laying down the groove on many classic tracks such as "Flashlight", "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)", "One Nation Under a Groove","Tear The Roof Off (We Want the Funk)", and countless others. While many others have followed in the tracks of those giants, they're still the definitive funk bassists. Often Emulated, Never Duplicated. Dig it.
Reggae: Reggae is a microcosm all of its own. One of the few truly original musical styles to come out of the 20th century, Reggae developed out of the ska and dancehall scenes in Kingston, Jamaica. The sound is a mixture of New Orleans Jazz, Motown soul, mixed in with plenty of local character. Reggae bass is characterized by deep, booming notes, yet often reggae basslines are often lyrical or melodic. Lead innovators of the style include Aston "Family Man" Barrett (Bob Marley & the Wailers) and Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie). Key tracks from this genre include: "Sinsemilla" (Black Uhuru), "Chill Out" (Black Uhuru), "Kinky Reggae" (Bob Marley & the Wailers), and Trenchtown Rock (Bob Marley & the Wailers). In fact, the entire Wailers catalog is a goldmine of musical goodness. The styling of Jamaica have not gone unnoticed in US. Many of these grooves have been looked to by hip hop producers and other samplers.
Jaco Pastorius represents one of the most tragic stories in music. On one hand, he was a brilliant composer and arranger, and probably the best bass player to ever walk the Earth. On the other hand, he was very unstable mentally, the result of an untreated Bipolar disorder. He died a penniless cocaine addict only 11 years after setting the music world on fire. Jaco was the first to truly treat the bass as a solo instrument. He played a fretless bass, something of a hybrid. A fretless is essentially a standard electric bass, but without the frets so the neck is smooth like an upright bass. The result is a mellow, rich sound. In addition, it is possible to slur or slide between two notes. With his self-titled debut album in 1976, he turned the Jazz world on its head. The opening track, a cover of the Charlie Parker tune Donna Lee found Jaco's bass doing exactly what Parker's sax had done. This opened a lot of eyes. Later that year he was invited to join groundbreaking fusion outfit Weather Report, with whom he toured for the next several years, continuing to break new ground. Sadly, after he left Weather Report in 1980 his mental health worsened, and both his personal life and creative energy suffered. It all came crashing to a halt on September 21, 1987 when he was beaten to death by a bouncer in his home town of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His entire discography is essential listening, but highlights include "Donna Lee", "Continuum", and "Teen Town".
In the late 1970's, a fusion of Jazz and Funk began to hit the scene. These were jazz players like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who were listening to the Funk, liked what they heard, and integrated it back into jazz. The first album to really crystalize this fusion was Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. This modern masterpiece featured a number of extended workouts, the most famous of which is the 11 minute+ "Chameleon". The bassist on that record was Paul Jackson, and he set the ground rules for what was to follow. His style was rhythmic and percussive, with little attempt to form melodic lines. The other prominent player in this style is Stanley Clarke. Clarke was the first virtuoso slap player, and gained both critical and popular success with the bass anthem "School Days". A more modern entry into this category is Marcus Miller. Miller spent most of the 1980's backing up Miles Davis, and has released several excellent solo albums in recent years, including the the Grammy-winning M2
In the wake of Jaco Pastorius, there was a huge void left open in the music world. Several talented players stepped up to fill it, and perhaps the most talented of all is Victor Wooten. Victor played his first professional gig at the age of 5, and honed his skills through out his teen years. His big break came when he was discovered by banjo ace Béla Fleck, who asked him to join his new group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Several Grammys later, Victor's unique talent is known through out the music world. He comes as close as anyone to being "the total package". He has the persuasive melodic chops of Jaco Pastorius, the "groove" of Bootsy Collins, and his slap playing does for the bass what Eddie Van Halen did for the guitar. He's won about every award there is to be won, and continues to break new ground musically. There are a number of other promising new talents worth checking out, including Anthony Jackson and Steve Bailey.
The musicians and recordings named here barely scratch the surface, and I could go on for hours (Wait, I already have...), so I'll wrap things up here. If there's enough interest, I may cover some of these periods in greater detail at a later date.