Bass instruments have always fascinated me. They sound awesome, of course, but they’ve interested me because of their importance to music as a whole.
Bass forms the foundation of all music and is important in every major element of music – melody, rhythm, and harmony.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand the importance of bass. I aim to dispel that underappreciation by making an extensive bass instruments list.
But before looking at that list, we need to understand why bass is important. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- Why Do We Need Bass?
- Stringed Bass Instruments
- Brass Bass Instruments
- Woodwind Bass Instruments
- Synthesizers Bass Instruments
Why Do We Need Bass?
Most of the time, bass doesn’t get as much attention as melody and harmony. However, even if it’s not always obvious, bass is always doing important things in the background.
First, it’s essential for creating a full, rich sonic landscape. Second, it ties all the elements of music together. We need to understand this information before we look at the instruments.
When you make any sound – music or not – you make the sound with vibrations. Slower and bigger vibrations create lower sounds.
When you make bass vibrations, they actually create other vibrations too. These vibrations actually produce other notes. Since these notes are higher and quieter, we call them “overtones.”
Those other notes create unique chords that form the basis of Western harmony. If we didn’t have the bass note, we wouldn’t have any harmony or notes at all! This is why we call them “fundamental tones.”
In a nutshell, bass notes tell us how a song “works” – they’re like its source code. Plus, since they produce so many overtones, they actually fill the “spaces” between the other instruments. This results in a richer, fuller sound.
Tying the Musical Elements Together
Since bass forms the fundamentals of a song, it makes total sense that it’ll influence the three main elements of music: rhythm, harmony, and melody.
For rhythm, bass instruments often play in a way that emphasizes repetitive beats and beat-keeping. We’ll see that with some of the instruments below.
For harmony, bass instruments often play the “root” of each passing chord, which is the most important note in a chord. By playing the root notes, bass outlines the structure of a song.
Lastly, bass instruments can be incredibly melodic in their own right.
Now that we have a better understanding of how bass works, let’s check out my bass instruments list!
Stringed Bass Instruments
Within the last hundred years, stringed instruments have become the go-to instruments for playing bass in popular music. Even before that though, we had a gigantic boss called the “upright bass.” We’ll start there!
1. Upright Bass
The upright bass is the violin’s gigantic, intimidating big brother. At four feet tall, it weighs 25 pounds and has to be played standing up. Some of its strings are almost the size of your pinkie!
As one would expect, its massive body creates an astoundingly rich, full tone. You can literally feel the air vibrating in the hollow body.
While not as popular today as it was a hundred years ago, the upright bass remains essential to classical music and jazz.
In classical orchestras, its resonant tone was used to create the rich “sound bed” that the rest of the orchestra played above.
In jazz big bands, it was plucked rhythmically to the tempo of each song. Infectious by nature, they’re basslines were enough to get the crankiest curmudgeon on the dance floor!
2. Electric Bass
In terms of popular music, the electric bass is hands-down the most popular bass instrument. I would venture to say that over 90% of the pop songs you hear have use the electric bass.
The electric bass was invented in the 1950s as a bass alternative to the electric guitar. It has four strings and a really long neck. Compared to a normal electric guitar, the strings are larger and the frets are wider apart.
In terms of tone, electric basses are often played with a punchy, bold sound, but they can also be mellow and smooth. Whatever the mode, their use is widely varied between genres.
If you want a taste of how virtuosic and groovy an electric bass can be, check out any classic funk tune. If you’re into classic rock, you have to hear Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
3-5. The World Music Rabbit Hole …
Even though this list is very comprehensive when it comes to Western music, one fact remains: when you take every music tradition into account from around the world, you just can’t name every single stringed instrument out there. There are approximately 300 kinds of string instruments around the world today!
While a full exploration is beyond the scope of this article, here are some interesting ones you can check out on your own: the kora from West Africa, the oud from the Middle East, and the surbahar from the Indian subcontinent.
Brass Bass Instruments
Brass instruments are wind instruments made out of metal (hence the name). They usually have three valves, and require a tremendous amount of air.
Back in the days when classical music was hip, they were used all the time. Nowadays, they may not be as prominent. However, they remain crucial to certain genres around the world.
The tuba is the granddaddy of all brass instruments. Put it alongside the upright bass, and you could consider them the granddaddies of all bass instruments we know today.
The tuba is almost as tall as an upright bass and weighs a bit more. Unlike the upright, you have to put it on your lap to play.
In terms of sound, they are loud, resonant, and “silky-sounding.” While mellow compared to higher instruments, they can still have a bright-sounding edge to them.
Tubas are often used in the same ways as upright basses. They are especially prominent in marching music and New Orleans-style jazz.
This guy won’t take up much space, but is interesting nevertheless! Sousaphones are portable versions of tubas, wrapping around you so you can play standing up.
They take their name from John Philip Sousa, who wrote some of the most famous marches in history. While he didn’t create them himself, they were invented specifically for his band.
There’s no getting around it: trombones are the weird guys of the brass family. Instead of valves, they use a slide. To play different notes, you have to slide it just right.
They aren’t quite as low as tubas. Instead, they fill the gap between bass and higher notes, while still favoring low notes.
They are a staple in modern orchestral film scores. If you ever hear low brass in a Hans Zimmer score, it’s probably trombones!
Woodwind Bass Instruments
When you think of bass instruments, woodwinds might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, the woodwind family has always been a diverse and intriguing clan.
Match this diversity with low notes and timbres, and you have some surprisingly compelling instruments!
9. Bassoon: the mysterious guy
Bassoons are an everyday occurrence in classical music but remain relatively unused in other styles in general. This is a real shame because they have one of the most unique sounds out there!
Bassoons look like thin, smooth logs that stand upright on the floor. A mouthpiece with two reeds back-to-back is attached via a windy, narrow, metal pipe.
If you want to hear the bassoon for yourself, check out its iconic solo in Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
10. Bass clarinet: the guy that everyone mistakes for a saxophone
Bass clarinets play an octave lower than their soprano counterparts. Like the bassoon, you have to set them on the ground to play them. It is curved like a saxophone, although the middle part is longer.
Despite similar looks, they don’t sound at all alike. The bass clarinet has a rich, somber tone that I like to say “sounds like dark chocolate.” It’s often used in brooding, somber music.
For classic examples of bass clarinet, check out the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, a lifelong collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. His score for Vertigo features it prominently, and it provides the film-noir-like edge to Taxi Driver’s score.
11-12. Bass and Baritone Saxophones
Just like the clarinet, the saxophone has bass counterparts. Both are quite large and heavy.
Whatever opinion you have of them, one thing is undeniable: they conjure up some seriously funky grooves! For a classic example, check out “Moanin’” by the Mingus Big Band.
13-15. The Contrabass Woodwind Rabbit Hole …
Just like string instruments, there is a fascinating rabbit hole in the woodwind world too. Back in the day, companies were obsessed with creating the biggest, lowest instruments possible.
The woodwind family created the weirdest offspring of these strange experiments. If interested, check these out: the contrabass saxophone and clarinet, and bass flute.
Even if you don’t know a whole lot about music, everyone knows that bass and drums are connected. There’s a reason why bass instruments make such effective rhythm instruments.
Low frequencies can physically shake their surroundings, meaning you can physically feel it when they’re played loud enough. Since rhythm is innately tied to the physical body, this works out perfectly.
16. The Bass Drum
This guy needs no introduction. You see him everywhere, from marching bands and classical orchestras to metal bands and hip-hop concerts.
Because the bass drum makes the biggest vibrations of all, it makes sense to use it to keep beat. Ever since rock and roll in the 50s, pop musicians have been profiting off its big sound.
The bass drum is great, but it has one flaw: it can only play one note! The timpani, on the other hand, is several drums put together. Each one is as low as a bass drum but can be pitched to a specific note.
This allows for the drums to get some nice harmonies going! While it might be cliché, the introduction to Richard Strauss’s Thus Sprach Zarathustra is a classic example of timpani awesomeness.
The marimba is the wood bass version of the xylophone. It’s actually based on the West African balafon, which can also be just as low. As a melodic instrument laid out like the piano, it can comfortably function as a melodic instrument as well as a rhythmic one.
Synthesizers Bass Instruments
Now we get to the weird, wacky, and wonderful world of electronic instruments! When it comes to bass, synths have certainly carved a formidable path for themselves in pop music.
While I could list lots of bass synths, here are several iconic ones.
19. The Minimoog
Robert Moog and Don Buchla invented the synthesizer independently of each other. While Buchla’s instruments were more groundbreaking, Moog eventually became more popular. With the Minimoog, he wanted to create a highly portable, endlessly tweakable bass machine.
He certainly succeeded, as the Minimoog continues to be used today. Using three different oscillators, which produce customizable sounds from scratch, it can make endless bass sounds. It found considerable use in West Coast hip-hop and funk music.
For a classic recording, check out Parliament-Funkadelic’s “Flashlight.”
20. The Sequential Prophet V
The Sequential Prophet V is technically a full-range synth, but it’s well-known for its rich, mellow bass sounds. It may not always “pop” as much as the Minimoog, but it’s very beautiful.
For a masterclass on the different sounds it can make, check out the music of Radiohead and Thom Yorke. Those guys use it all the time.
21. The Roland TB-303
Now we’re getting really niche. I’m not including the Roland TB-303 because of widespread use, but to illustrate how interesting and obscure electronic bass instruments can get.
The 303 was invented as a basic synth that could play pre-programmed drum beats and note-sequences. It failed so badly that Roland discontinued it.
But then something interesting happened. A bunch of “acid” DJs in Chicago found them for dirt cheap at second-hand stores. Before long, their unique “squelching” bass lines were heard at clubs everywhere. The rest is history.
And there you have it, a comprehensive and interesting history of 21 bass instruments across five families! As you can see, even bass instruments can be diverse in usage, tone, and appearance.
If this article piqued your interest, I encourage you to keep on learning about other bass instruments – and instruments in general! There is a fascinating world out there beyond conventional Western instruments.
Until next time, enjoy your musical journey, and always, ALWAYS have fun!