Most of the time, if the low end is lacking, it means you fucked it up big time. Usually an arrangement is good when the whole frequency spectrum is covered more or less equally, in a balanced way. That’s the way to please the ears and the mind. At least that’s the easy way to do it. Sometimes however, you want to shake it up. Sometimes you want to surprise the living, smugly smiling shit out of even the most clueless, snobbiest listener. That’s when you go for a bassless tune. Don’t laugh. It’s doable, and for some perverted, strange reason it works. At least when it’s pulled out perfectly, with maximum confidence.
Lows without a bass track
And to be entirely honest, sometimes at least part of the bass frequencies are still covered, only not with a usual bass instrument that’s playing a usual bass line.
But let’s check out some examples.
This first one is by the Beatles, from 1967, written by George Harrison. It consists of him singing the lead vocals and playing a sitar (and a tambura and some acoustic guitar). Also, a couple of Indian musicians playing their stringed instruments as well, and… what’s important to us, a tabla, which is a pair of indian hand drums. The tabla player is not even credited, but he’s the person who lays down some bass frequencies on this song, that were left in the mix to cover some of the otherwise shallow low end.
The Beatles – “Within You Without You”
Doves don’t need no bottom end
The following tune is probably the most well known bass-less pop song, because it’s so obviously lacking any kind of bass line. It sounds like the bass will enter any second, but of course it never does. That gives kind of an anticipating quality to the song. But there are the (machine) drums again to cover some of the lows; especially the kick and the toms. Thanks Prince, I guess.
Prince – “When Doves Cry”
From thin to thick
The next tune shouldn’t be so much of a surprise, because Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are officially a duo, and they rarely play with a band or a bassist. Yet this song off of their “The Harrow & The Harvest” album is interesting, because even though most of the time when they play together, it’s Gillian’s Gibson J-50 that covers the lowest frequencies. Now on this one she plays a banjo. And it’s her voice and her lonely banjo for more than one and a half minutes that are carrying the tune. That’s when David’s Epiphone Olympic archtop enters, and adds a little bit of “warmth” to the mix instantly. Despite it being such a midrangy or sometimes even downright trebly instrument, compared to the banjo, it’s able to at least create the illusion of the presence of some lows. Smart move. When you don’t have a bass, start with the thinnest sounds and keep adding in the thicker sounding elements, gradually.
Gillian Welch – “Hard Times”
And finally a song from Bruce Springsteen‘s “Born In The U.S.A.” album. On “I’m On Fire” there’s no bass track, at all. The lowest notes are played by the kick drum (note the snare on the left side). There’s also an electric guitar playing gently in an arpeggiated way. Then there’s a synth pad that keeps coming and going throughout the song. All of these elements surround Bruce’s voice in a soft but groovy way, so you somehow don’t miss that bass line.
Bruce Springsteen – “I’m On Fire”