How Low Can a Punk Get? A Short History of Bass, DIY’s Least-Loved Instrument
Posted on June 30, 2015
June 30, 2015 | by Joel Tannenbaum
Playing bass in a punk band is kind of like being the co-pilot of a helicopter. No one is going to pay you much mind, but if you screw up, things are going to go south real quick. I should know; I’ve been playing bass in a punk band on and off for two decades.
My first bass was a loaner from Coebourn Elementary School in Brookhaven, PA. I used it to accompany our school band, badly. The first bass I actually owned was a J.B. Player, a long-extinct Japanese entry-level brand, modeled loosely after the Fender Precision. It actually wasn’t bad. I played it in high school jazz band and it followed me into the punk band I co-founded during my senior year with some other rejects from the sadistic private school that we all attended on scholarships. After a few years of touring and following me from punk house to punk house, the J.B. Player was basically destroyed, but the band was actually making a little money by then, so I was able to move onto a Mexican-made Fender. It did the job a bit better. Good thing too, because by then I had stopped obeying the unwritten rules of how to play bass in a punk band. I’d started playing chords, rapid modal runs on the G and D strings, and walking lines I’d learned as a high school band nerd playing Real Book standards. I even ditched the pick, and started playing with the index and middle fingers of my right hand, the way I’d learned as a kid. This is all perfectly normal when you are plucking your way through “Autumn Leaves,” but in a punk band it led to some pretty gruesome onstage bleeding (and still does sometimes, for that matter). The irony, of course, is that no one noticed. I was literally bleeding for my own amusement. Anyone reading this who has played bass in a loud, fast band will know what I’m talking about: Nobody comes to a punk show to watch the bass player. I’m not complaining. It’s just the way of things.
I guess you could argue though, as I’m about to, that this is kind of too bad, because punk rock has produced some of the coolest bass players in the history of the instrument, or even of recorded music.
The Birth of Uncool
When Leo Fender developed the prototype for the first electric bass guitar, he probably thought it would be used mostly by country session players, who would value it for convenience, or jazz musicians who would use it to play fluid, complex lines, locking in with a trap-set drummer and perhaps a rhythm guitar player, designed to support the punchy melodies of horns and woodwind players. It was 1950: Jazz and swing had begun to branch away from each other. Rock and roll hadn’t quite happened yet.
Jazz went bonkers in the 1960s, and jazz bass playing right along with it. Whether in the free-form accompaniments of Paul Chambers or the hyper-orchestrated, high-concept compositions of Charles Mingus, jazz players generally eschewed the electric bass, at least until guys like Stanley Clarke came along in the 1980s and plugged in their chorus pedals.
Meanwhile, the early rock music of the 1950s split into off into soul and rock and roll by the 1960s, with the former producing Motown session bassist James Jamerson, easily the greatest electric bassist of all time. Jamerson played some of the most locked-in supportive bass lines ever committed to tape, punctuated with spastic melodic flights, way, waaaay up the neck, almost higher than his P-bass could handle.
Rock music, on the other hand, thudded into the 1970s with bass lines getting less imaginative by the minute. Rock and roll belonged to guitarists and drummers. Bassists became an afterthought, pedaling away on the tonic like Cliff Williams from AC/DC, and giving rise to jokes like these:
Q: What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a bass player?
A: The vacuum cleaner needs to be plugged in to suck.
Q. Why couldn’t the bass player get through the door?
A. They couldn’t figure out the key, or when to come in.
Sure there were exceptions, like John Paul Jones, or Steve Harris, or prog dudes who overplayed to the point of embarrassment like Geddy Lee, but the bottom line is that by the time punk came along, bass didn’t have much to lose.
Now, listen, I would seriously rather beat myself to death with a Rickenbacker than get sucked into a debate about [shudder] what is and isn’t punk, but for the purposes of this article, I think we can pretty much all agree that punk in North America in the 1970s, as a music/art movement, was about ignoring rules, substituting chaos for order, and elevating whatever was arbitrarily deemed ugly and unpleasant over whatever was arbitrarily deemed beautiful and desirable. When it came to musicianship, this could cut in a couple of different directions. On one hand, you could get bands like the New York Dolls, who started out literally not knowing how to tune their guitars, and on the other hand you could get obsessive, jazz-influenced maniacs like Greg Ginn. What did both sides have in common? A total, categorical hatred of bloated, turgid hard rock, the kind that was selling out stadiums across the U.S. in the mid-1970s.
Take a musical movement in which musicianship was considered optional, a built-in response to a musical genre where the bass was considered unimportant, and you basically get three types of bass players: the type that did not even know how to play, but maybe owned a van or something (Jerry Only of the Misfits); the type that could play their face off, and was attracted to the punk scene because in it they sensed a void where they could operate unconstrained (Mike Watt of the Minutemen); and the type that started out with no idea how to play but, through creativity and total immersion, ended up reinventing the instrument (Gina Birch from the Raincoats. I’ve been trying to keep the Brits out of this, just for the sake of conceptual coherence, but she’s too good not to mention.)
What follows is a list of punk bass players, mostly but not exclusively drawn from the American DIY scene, who played (or continue to play) the shit out of the electric bass guitar and, in doing so, have made both the genre and the instrument a lot cooler and more interesting. I guess this is my way of thanking them – for playing cool stuff on the most thankless of instruments.
I think the bass players on this list fall into three categories. I’ll call them scalers, weavers and toners. Scalers play a lot of notes, usually very rapidly. They “walk” between chords in the chord progression of the song, the way jazz players are taught to. This usually means they’ve absorbed a great deal of music theory, which is how they know which notes will sound good and which won’t. Weavers are “pocket” players. They stick very tightly to the drummer, using rhythm more than melody to distinguish themselves, often playing around the beat rather than directly on it. Toners first and foremost obsess over the signal coming out of the amp. They spend hours obsessing over how their bass sounds. And although toners tend to spend a lot of time and resources on gear, it’s really not about money. Awesome bass tone is way too complicated to simply buy, especially live. I’ll let you decide who on this list falls into which category, or who falls into more than one. Also, I’m relying mostly on YouTube links here. along with some from Bandcamp. In each instance I’ve tried to go with the most exemplary instance of that person’s bass playing that wasn’t behind a paywall.
A quick note before we get started: This list is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive. I didn’t include every single awesome bass player I know of in this article, and I’m sure there are even more that I haven’t heard of. So DO use the forum at the end to hip me and others to great punk bass players/performances that I didn’t mention. DON’T freak out and be all like “HOW DARE YOU NOT INCLUDE _____” because, again, say it with me, the list is not supposed to be definitive.
Oh, and I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order, because there is seriously no point in trying to rank these people. They are all great in different ways.
Frank Abruzzo (Ma Jolie)
Karl Alvarez (All, Descendents)
Allegra Anka (Cayetana)
Kevin Cooper (Thee Nosebleeds, Wally)
Audrey Crash (Pushin’ it 2 Tha Limit)
John Darbey (The Flatliners)
Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag)
Arun Farm (I Farm)
Rachel Feldmann (Lipstick Homicide)
Klaus Fluoride (The Dead Kennedys)
Matt Freeman (Rancid, Operation Ivy)
Joe Keller (Night Birds, The Ergs!)
Dave Rochon (Flag of Democracy)
Kira Roessler (Black Flag, Dos)
Pete Rypins (Crimpshrine, Tilt)
Mike Scott (Econochrist)
Jared Warren (Karp, Big Business)
Mike Watt (The Minutemen, fIREHOSE)
Sue Werner (War on Women)
Audrey Zee Whitesides (Worriers)
Eric Wood (Man is the Bastard, Bastard Noise)
Robb Wright (Nomeansno)