A Bassist’s importance in a band is on occasions overlooked by music enthusiasts in favour of lead guitarists and drummers. I don’t know, I guess it’s in our DNA to appreciate a good guitar solo over the lower tones of a bass guitar. But anyone who knows anything about music will tell you, that the most important structure to a song, is always the rhythmic and harmonic foundations provided by the bass. Sometimes the bass is really obvious that its deep pulsating or throbbing sound truly makes a song. At other times the bass can be so subtle that it is almost lost teasing us with an array of atmospheric sounds.
That said, I am not here to give you a music lesson. I would just like to share with you my appreciation of some of the best bass players out there. A list of foremost bassists of all time put together by me would be long and extensive. Among them you would find some truly great luminaries of rock n roll, alternative and indie rock, like Michael Peter Balzary aka Flea from the Red Hot Chilly Peppers, whose innovative bass electronic and funk hooks, made me a fan for life. Standing arguably head and shoulders above most in the bass business is also the legendary John Entwistle from The Who. He almost singlehandedly brought the bass to the forefront of rock & roll songs from the mid sixties. My Generation in particular comes to mind as one of the great bass solo songs of all time. Furthermore, how can we not mention the unsung session bassist Carol Kaye, whose prolific work (with perhaps 10,000 recorded sessions) endeared her to everyone who met her. She performed on numerous records for artists such as the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers and Joe Cocker. Of course, I cannot keep rattling of name after name here, so how about I briefly talk about six of my favourite bassists of all time from here on end.
First up in the series was Paul McCartney, who successfully cut his teeth playing bass in arguably one of the greatest rock bands of all time The Beatles. Next up I paid tribute to the very talented Canadian Melissa Auf der Maur, whose alternative rock albums, in particular Out of Our Minds, inspires me almost everyday. Today, I would like to briefly talk about another one of my favourite bass players, Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam.
Some people like to argue that Jeff Ament’s first important instrument wasn’t the bass guitar, that it was in fact the piano. Okay yes, he took piano lessons early in his childhood, inspired in part but arguably forced to do so, by his mother who played piano. But it’s safe to say by his sophomore year in high school, along with playing the snare drum and singing in the choir, Ament put an early fascination with the piano to bed, when he heard Dee Dee Ramone and went out and bought a bass guitar.
It’s funny how inspiration sometimes finds us. In Ament’s case, listening to bands like the Ramones, Devo, the Clash, The Who or even Santana or Cream were mind blowing for a teenager. And so it was that in between juggling academic commitments (particularly his love for graphic design) and sports, Ament practiced really hard developing his fretting technique and minor chord changes as a teenager. He would soon become an accomplished bass musician able to hold his own, in two of Seattle’s most important early alternative rock bands, Green River and Mother Love Bone. But it was in the fall of 1990, together with Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Dave Kruse (as Mookie Blaylock, but soon to be Pearl Jam) that Ament creativity and style as a musician truly blossomed.
In a career (with Pearl Jam) that expands over some twenty-five years now, Ament has created some of the most beloved basslines. The best thing about Ament’s unique style is his diversity. At any one moment, he can drive a song like Why Go or Jeremy with his bass loud and aggressive and the next, he’ll almost disappears in songs like All Those Yesterdays or Smile with an atmospheric bass sound. In order to achieve what he does, he uses a variety of guitars, which include the fretless bass, upright bass and twelve string bass.
“I have to be able to feel the bass. I’ve worked hard with our producers to make sure that when you play our records on your stereo, you can feel the bass. You might not necessarily be able to hear it all the time, but if you turn it up you can feel the movement in the low end—that it’s moving the song. And when it’s not there, it should be creating a dynamic” – Jeff Ament.
Every Pearl Jam fan has an opinion about what is Ament’s best bass work. Everyone always mentions Jeremy without fail as his most recognizable bassline. Interestingly, like Why Go (from the album Ten), it was originally written on an acoustic guitar and later switched to a twelve-string bass that left everyone in awe of Aments abilities as a songwriter. On the subject of Why Go, it is arguably one of Ament’s most perfect bass songs that I often turn up the bass control on my stereo, so I can just simply listen to Jeff’s chord changes.
From those early PJ records, I believe Ament probably outdoes himself on Vs. on songs like Rats, Leash, Glorified G and Go. On their ‘left of centre’ No Code, the underlying feeling or influence of Ament’s bass on Hail, Hail and Smile are sublime. But it is Present Tense from the same album that really speaks volumes about just how good Ament is as a bass player. His bass work elbs and flows with that song as it rises and falls throughout almost six minutes of bliss. At the tail end, I just love how he drives the rhythm section of the song and then suddenly disappears as the song subsides with an atmospheric touch of brilliance.
For me personally, it’s clear to see the ambition of many of PJ’s albums. But it’s probably fair to say that much of their later albums aren’t talked about or appreciated as much as their early stuff. The same could be said about Ament’s bass work. But I beg to differ and would like to briefly point out that songs like Army Reserve, Inside Job, Amongst The Waves and In Hiding may not have sound as good, if not for Ament’s dynamic and characteristic input.
It is finally from the album Lightning Bolt that I am also reminded of Ament’s innovative genius. During the recording of the album, Ament tells a story how Eddie came into the studio one day with these stabbing chords that would become the song Getaway and he immediate heard this counter melody that would become the bassline of the song. Check out Ament’s Getaway bass instrumental here and check out the classic and beloved Jeremy bass here below. Enjoy!
Photo credits: The header image of a bass guitar by flickr user jadepalmer and Jeff Ament performing with Pearl Jam are both used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. I am not the uploder of the You Tube clip embedded here.