This week’s question, in our MD’s guide to doing more with less, is: to bass or not to bass? That’s a good question. With the electric bass, it’s tempting to think of this as an instrument whose sound is already electronically processed (through amps, effects, and the instrument itself), so why not just as well have it done on a keyboard? After all, that only takes up one of your keyboard player’s hands, leaving one hand free to cover other stuff. You could even channel the synth bass patch through various virtual effects modules, and it would sound identical to the real thing, right?

Maybe, but that’s often not the point. Remember that many shows written for electric bass are rhythm-section heavy, and usually highly dependent on groove. And like it or not, no matter how awesome a keyboard player we think we are, we are not going to groove as well as a real, solid bass player. (Go ahead, try to imagine The Wiz or The Full Monty or Jesus Christ Superstar with a keyboard bass!) We can’t easily mute or ghost notes, slap a string, or execute convincing bends and slides in real time.

It’s next to impossible to play behind or ahead of the beat in one hand (at least intentionally) while doing something completely different in the other, and even a keyboardist with impeccable rhythm will still have his attention divided. A good bass player and a good drummer are constantly listening to each other, working together to maintain the feel of the music, taking that responsibility almost entirely off of the synth player’s shoulders—or at least, the one shoulder he has available to devote to the task.

The important consideration on this type of show, then, is whether it’s enough to replicate the instrument’s sound, or if what’s really needed is a bass player’s technique. In the end, while it may seem more efficient to use half of your keyboard player for the bass, in hopes of getting some extra mileage out of his other half, you’ll often find there’s even more mileage to be gained by using the real thing.

As for acoustic bass, it’s still true that you can get a reasonably good pizz sound from a synth, but again, if there’s a lot of jazz, or country, or bluegrass in the show you will lose much of the style by playing it on a keyboard. The acoustic bass also offers an advantage for one important reason: synths are impressive and can make a lot of different noises, but an acoustic bass is a huge, hollow chamber that physically moves air in the room. This movement of air is a huge part of what makes an orchestra sound full, and six real instruments creating real vibrations, vibrations that feed on and interact with each other, gives you a lot more presence than a synthesizer emulating thirty instruments. And for sheer movement of air (especially if there’s a lot of arco), it’s hard to beat a real acoustic bass.

On the other hand, perhaps your pit isn’t open to the audience, being in another room or on another floor of the building. In that case, moving air in the room isn’t as big a factor- but still is to some extent, as the mics on a real instrument are propagating real physical vibration, rather than creating it by transforming an electrical signal. Maybe the show you’re doing is pretty contemporary, and has a straight-ahead, very “theatre-y” score, in which case using a real bass might not add quite as much stylistic value as using a keyboard instead and opening up another chair. (Or cutting one entirely: there are a number of small-scale shows that have been originally scored for keyboard bass, though it’s probably worth noting that subsequent productions of these often end up adding a real bass.)

There are even shows where, if a piano is prominently featured and you’ve got a nice, full-voiced, well-miked concert grand, you might not even need any bass—consider the optional bass book in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which becomes a lot less optional if you’re using an electric piano, but isn’t nearly so critical if you have a Steinway D.

Overall, I’m optimistic that the keyboard bass tactic has passed its prime, as more and more MDs and arrangers seem to be appreciating the value of the real thing. But the question still comes up, so I hope this week’s installment helps in answering it. Next week, to continue the theme of getting a lot of mileage out of a player, we’ll be diving headlong into the reeds!

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  • SteveDisque

    I’ve not had to deal with many of the situations Nathan describes. But, in productions of “traditional” musicals (more or less pre-1968), I have found that, in any sort of small mixed ensemble, an acoustic bass adds a foundation to the dance numbers, in particular, that no keyboard — acoustic or electronic — can properly simulate. To my ears, it’s better to have the acoustic bass and, if necessary, relegate a second “trumpet” or “reed” to the synth.

  • Markus Hauck

    Terrific article, Nathan. I found several arguments I have long held to be true, as well as some others I had never thought about.

  • Joe Klein

    A piano cannot properly cover the bass part. Move heaven and earth to get a bass
    player. I most often use electric bass which takes less space, and except for a few
    pizz passages, adds greatly to the depth of the sound.

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