The Bottom Line (Devin Hannan)

After our gig at Holy Joe’s on May 28, a friend of mine, whose musical taste and opinion I hold in high regard, mentioned: “I liked your bass playing, but I really missed hearing your lead guitar stuff…”  Ah, a bittersweet compliment – because, while I still hold the guitar closest to my heart, my new passion is for the bass…

Guitar has been my “primary” instrument until recently.  I have been playing guitar since I was 12, whereas I picked up bass, mostly to supplement my sketch recordings, when I was 19.   I was a lead guitarist in a cover band for years, most of my major musical influences are guitarists, and guitar is still my primary song writing tool.

My motives to put down the guitar and pick up the bass for Lickpenny Loafer were, at first, utilitarian.  Last summer, Ron and I were in the process of writing and/or developing many of the songs you’ve heard on the website or at our shows.  At that time, it seemed more important to establish a solid rhythmic foundation on many of these songs than to concentrate on ornamenting them with lead guitar work, particularly if we hoped to play them live with drums.  Hence, I took upon the relatively daunting challenge of becoming a full-time bassist after years of lead guitar indoctrination.  I knew that I could not let my influences as guitarist fall by the wayside – but I wondered if there could be a way to incorporate my lead guitar “intuition” into my bass playing without hurting the song?

It seems that, traditionally, bass in rock music has fulfilled two important roles: 1) as a timekeeping instrument that helps to define the rhythm and tempo of a song; and 2) to define the chords being played and guide the progression.  Thus, it is the bassist’s responsibility to link the somewhat polar functions of rhythm and harmony into a logical groove – a unique and interesting task I think, and certainly different from that of lead guitar…The more I got into playing the bass, the more I started liking it because it is so different from lead guitar – kind of a refreshing new musical culture for me – it’s a less glorified role in the band, for sure, (less chance to “show off”) but on the whole, it is more substantive.  In a way, I think the glory of bass comes with the nobility of being unobtrusive, but unquestionably essential.  That is, in rock, you can have a band without lead guitar, but you can rarely have a band without bass.

Often overlooked in rock, however, is the potential for the bass to play a lead role in the creation of melody.  Particularly in a band like ours, which is, at the moment, composed of only three individuals playing drums, bass, and rhythm guitar/vocals, there is an abundant opportunity for the bass to adopt, to a certain extent, the role of primary melody maker.  It could be the lead guitarist in me, but one of the things I try and bring to most of our songs is a distinct melodic presence on the bass; somewhat of an attempt to break the stereotypical moulds within which rock bass has come to be defined.  I think this is fairly evident on songs such as “The Haunt” and “In Retrospect” where there is considerable melodic movement, particularly in complement to the vocal line (as opposed to the drum beat).

However; it is a fine and often precarious balance that must be struck between creating interesting melodic lines and staying true to the rhythmic foundation of the song.  Occasionally I find that a an archetypal approach to the bass best serves a song’s purpose – for instance, in songs like “Missed Kiss” and “Beware The Sirens”, which I feel are purposefully spare and heavily emphasize rhythmic aspects in their instrumentation, the only melodic nuances I contribute are bridging notes from one chord to the next.  While some lead guitarists may view this as “boring”, the challenge in this style of bass playing is not necessarily devising creative lines, but rather having the considerable endurance and concentration required to pulse 8th notes with mechanical precision for the entirety of a 7 minute song (as in “Beware the Sirens).

Even within the confines of one song, I think there is considerable room for both melodic and rhythmic emphasis on bass.  On the song “Paratoxic”, I begin the verse with a simplistic walk-down bassline that essentially connects the chords and gels easily with the drums.  However, for the chorus, I attempt to change the rhythm and note selection in a manner that accentuates Arunachal’s vocal line.  It was kind of tough to nail as a band at first, but when we got it right it sounded great – there’s a cool melodic interplay between voice and bass, without sacrificing some serious bottom end when the chorus rocks out…

My favourite bass line at the moment, the one I wrote for “Climbing Trees” (you can hear a version of it in the downloads section), is a combination of heavy rhythmic emphasis and some weird choices of melody.  Furthermore, it is physically quite a work out for both the left and right hand!  Take note that Arunachal wrote the song – when I first heard him play “Climbing Trees” on acoustic, my mind was ringing with bass line possibilities – the song is a great melting pot of interesting harmonies.  Apparently Arunachal didn’t have the same positive view of this song until I contributed the bass line; now I think we both agree it’s one of our best songs in our repertoire.

I look forward to the time (likely in the studio) when I’ll be able to contribute lead guitar lines to a number of the Lickpenny Loafer songs.  I certainly have some ideas spinning around in my head.  But for now, I’m happy laying back and orchestrating the groove…

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