At her site Ari’s Bass Blog, bass player and teacher Ariane Cap shoots down many of the arguments against solo bass music—that is, music played solely on bass guitar. To the objection that “basses have a job to do in a band context,” she writes, “what this ‘job’ is can vary greatly!” To another complaint, she responds, “even when imitating guitar techniques on the bass, it is still bass playing.” Her defenses of solo bass (and her fine instructions on how to play it well) work equally for the bass solo, when the often least-noticed member of the band steps out and takes the lead for a few moments.
The idea that bass players are all wallflowers or invisible, less-talented members of the band is, of course, a bad rock and roll stereotype. Naturally, the best bass soloists in rock are some of the players who have drawn the most attention to the instrument and shown how critical it is.
But not all great bass players are great soloists. The solo requires a particular combination of power and agility. The bass soloist is something of a musical athlete.
A guitar solo can coast, so to speak, on tone, on perfectly-chosen notes played with just the right vibrato and sustain. A bass solo is another monster. Whether plucked, picked, or slapped, bass solos usually involve a lot of notes attacked very hard and very fast, up and down the neck—a feat anyone who’s held a bass guitar will know requires a lot of dexterity and strength.
Marvel as you watch the shoulders, arms, and fingers on left and right hands of these players move with uncanny precision, in clips from some of the all-time bass solo greats here. At the top, John Entwistle wins top prize for succinctness. His bored expression may seem to give away the pre-recorded TV game, but even live onstage he never seemed to raise an eyebrow when pulling off licks like these.
Below him, Geddy Lee stretches out, and makes your arms tired from watching him move all over the fretboard, building from one figure to another before a final explosive shred. Further up, Stuart Hamm, onstage with Joe Satriani in 1988, gives a solo bass performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, moving effortlessly from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to a series of gorgeous arpeggios to some genre-hopping theatrics the crowd devours.
Though he made his bones as one of the fastest bass soloists on the block, Fleas’s solo bass performance uses delay and echo effects to slow things down significantly and expand the possibilities of solo bass, bringing it into the tonal realm of the guitar while still demonstrating the tremendous physicality bass playing requires. Just above, see Bootsy Collins pull off a similar feat in a full band context, proving that bass solos can be made of slow, soulful melodicism and heavy, fuzzed-out licks.
Collin’s tour-de-force performance is hard to top, but for contrast, and to reemphasize the incredible versatility of the bass as a solo instrument, whether playing all alone or taking a brief turn in the spotlight, see Queen’s John Deacon pull out a flawless, short and seriously sweet bass solo live on “Liar,” just above, looped for ten minutes straight so you can memorize every note.