I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. For my younger self, bass guitar was all about stunts. I approached it a bit like skateboarding. Every note had to be about intensity and surprise. I couldn’t figure out how Tina Weymouth could get away with bass lines which seemed so monolithically simple. In some songs, whole minutes go past on what seems like a single note.
On a TV show called Family Trees of Rock she observed that in their early days, she and her drummer lover Chris Franz worked hard to achieve a clock-work precision, laying a foundation over which singer David Byrne could go as crazy as he liked. Look up any early, live version of Psycho Killer and you’ll see it’s not an easy trick to pull off. David Byrne goes apeshit. Franz and especially Weymouth approach it more like engineers: calculated, exact, solid (this one starts at about 40 seconds in).
If only seems dull and repetitive if you ignore everything else in going on in the song. As David Mamet said of movies: the scene doesn’t have to look like a movie. The movie has to look like a movie. It’s the same for any kind of ensemble: the whole thing has to be interesting. Each individual bit doesn’t have to be interesting. The bass (or anything else) doesn’t have to sound like a band. The band has to sound like a band.
And, the more complex the band became, the more Weymouth stripped out her technique. So by the time they got round to the prog rock thing with Brian Eno, one and two-note bass lines were almost the default.
OK, it’s not that simple. I’ve allowed myself to be taken in by smoke and mirrors, and there are plenty of subtle fills and passing notes. And sometimes there are two bass guitars, but still, even that can be more about sound & harmony than melodic complexity.
Anyway, lately, whenever I’m jamming with my musical collaborator Ross Cunningham, and we find ourselves with a decision to make, or in need of an idea, I’ve found myself asking: what would Tina do? Usually the answer is to remove about 80% of whatever it was I was doing.