Playing a bass like it's a regular guitar
December 7, 2021 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I'm slowly making my way through the "Get Back" documentary series. In the first episode, there's a scene where Paul McCartney is strumming his bass as if it were a regular guitar. I'm curious about this technique.

I'm not a musician, and certainly don't know any musical theory – but I've never seen anyone strum chords on a bass guitar. Is this a "thing"? In the documentary, Paul was just messing around, working on a song (sorry, I don't remember which song it was). But is this technique ever used in real, recorded songs? Did Paul ever do this on a Beatles album? I did some Google searches, but it seems that when people talk about playing chords on a bass guitar, they're usually referring to playing the notes separately (which I guess is called an arpeggio).
posted by alex1965 to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm a bass player. This definitely isn't common. I do play chords occasionally, but with my fingers, not a pick. Peter Hook from New Order and Simon Raymonde from Cocteau Twins do play chords on their basses, but usually just two simultaneous notes, not full chords like you'd play on a guitar. My guess is that it was easier for Paul to play the chords on the bass he had than get it up and grab a guitar.
posted by jonathanhughes at 9:40 AM on December 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also a bass player here. This is definitely not a thing.

But bear in mind that despite Paul McCartney being one of the best bass players in rock history, he DID start as a guitar player. He ended up on bass when Stuart Sutcliffe left the band in the very early days. So I think his brain works both as a bass player and as a guitar player and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that he did this kind of strumming on his bass while composing other songs.
posted by nayantara at 9:51 AM on December 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh and he didn't do this on any songs they recorded. (And the song he was working on was Get Back. I'm a big Beatles nerd, they occupy my mind rent-free, as the kids say.)
posted by nayantara at 9:54 AM on December 7, 2021

one of the best bass players in rock history

she's so heavy is the last track on side one of Abbey Road. Wait for the outro. Turn down the highs on your eq. Crank it.

i dunno how to do the 'isolated bass track' trick, but if anyone is looking for a project...
posted by j_curiouser at 9:59 AM on December 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

One thing that might not be clear is that chords in low registers sound bad and muddy, just because of the physics of acoustics, and how our human ears and brains work.

Plonk out four-note chord up high or in the middle of a piano and you can tell it's four notes that sound good together. Try it on the bottom end and it's a muddy mess.

There's a lot more to be said and details get difficult fast, but I think it's uncontroversial as a general phenomenon of humans hearing music made by humans. And this is why you don't generally play or hear chords strummed on a bass guitar. I haven't seen that bit, but I'll bet a donut it's pretty high pitched for a bass, if it sounds good.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:04 AM on December 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've been playing bass for about 40 years now and I do this, mostly upper strings or with a capo. While it's not a common thing, it's definitely done - Lemmy from Motorhead is probably the most significant example of someone who built a large part of their sound on strummed chords (though I believe finger strumming, no pick).

I always play bass with a pick (or bow, or serrated knife) but never use one with guitars, electric or acoustic.
posted by remembrancer at 10:14 AM on December 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

Yeah It is a thing, although not all that common, and I have no doubt that upright bass players even sometimes did it even before Leo Fender made an electric bass.
posted by thelonius at 10:19 AM on December 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I play bass and cello, on both instruments you are likely to eventually learn some chords but generally to make arpeggios or certain other techniques easier to execute. Any time I see someone strum a chord on a bass I think “ah, guitarist.”

Which is not to say that it can’t be cool, and two note bass chords are not uncommon in tons of different genres.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:22 AM on December 7, 2021

5-minute video of Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr.) demonstrating how he plays chords on bass. mentions Lemmy. generally high on the neck. started as a guitarist.
posted by mean square error at 10:27 AM on December 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Another bass player here. It's not super-common in recorded music, but I've found that I do it a lot in songwriting in the same way that Paul does in that clip. And yeah, it is much more common in specific genres - particularly heavier music (e.g. Lemmy from Motorhead, Al Kizyis from the Swans) and also some jazz.

Also, one of the limiting factors is that bass necks are longer scale and wider than guitars, so it's physically more difficult to play chords. The bass that Paul uses in that clip (his famous Hofner Violin Bass) is a short-scale, narrow neck bass, which is much easier to play chords on, so he didn't really need to switch to guitar just to bang out a few ideas.
posted by googly at 11:04 AM on December 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Here's Lemmy demonstrating.
posted by remembrancer at 11:05 AM on December 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: googly beat me to it--Paul played the short-scale Hofner for a lot of the Beatles years, and it's easier to play chords on that shorter neck. There's a moment when George asks Paul if he wants his Rickenbacker instead (which was a full-scale bass) and he makes a strumming gesture with his left hand while explaining that he doesn't. (Clip here.)
posted by miles per flower at 11:13 AM on December 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Another example.

Note 1) the chords are on the high frets, 2) they're mostly just 2 or 3 notes, 3) he's playing a 5-string tuned EADGC. (Standard 5-string bass tuning is BEADG, which adds a low B to the standard EADG 4-string tuning, where he's instead adding a higher string tuned to C).

Or watch Victor Wooten playing "Isn't She Lovely" with bass and loop pedal. Again, the chords are sparse and high. He's not playing big open chords across all strings the way a guitar player might.
posted by bfields at 11:41 AM on December 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

There's also the late Mark Sandman of Morphine - he strung his bass with only two strings, and used a slide (making for a more guitar-like style).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:18 PM on December 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Seconding Morphine but his playing is definitely not an example of standard bass technique.

Les Claypool, also not a standard bass player, uses a strummed technique sometimes IIRL.

A bunch of the jazz players I worked with did as well but I can't think of a famous example.
posted by Candleman at 12:45 PM on December 7, 2021

(the clip I posted is a short-scale bass as well, and tuned A-D-G-C I think (tenor bass?) - but Clarke used to play this on standard tuned basses in the 70's, and he's not using short-scale basses because his hands are not big enough.....)
posted by thelonius at 12:48 PM on December 7, 2021

can't think of a famous example

Steve Swallow plays quite a few chords on this old live John Scofield tune.
posted by thelonius at 12:51 PM on December 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Most bassists don't, but I do. It has to fit with the style and arrangement. General rule of thumb is to not layer too much in the bottom, but I use EQ & distortion for a fuzzy sound.
posted by ovvl at 3:37 PM on December 7, 2021

I think of pinback's Armistead Burwell Smith IV as the master of this technique.
posted by umbú at 1:12 PM on December 8, 2021

steve swallow is the man.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:38 PM on December 11, 2021

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