From Out of the Shadows: Bass Guitar in Gothic Rock

In terms of genres where the bassists really get a chance to shine, gothic rock is quite possibly second only to funk. While pretty much every genre has its fair share of virtuoso bassists and fantastic, memorable basslines, early gothic rock bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Siouxsie & the Banshees gave rise to a whole sub-genre of bands using the bass as a full-on lead instrument. Today, I’d like to take a look at the role of the bass guitar in goth music, and hopefully dissect how and why it became such an indispensable part of an entire genre.

Much the same way that it’s impossible to talk about funk bass without mentioning Larry Graham or Bootsy Collins, any discussion about bass in goth rock would be incomplete without talking about Peter Hook. The bassist for Joy Division (and later New Order) played a massive role in shaping the sonic palette of goth music. Interestingly, Hook has chalked up the origin of his influential playing style to little more than economic circumstances: when he started playing with Joy Division, his amplifier was so cheap and weak that he had to hit higher notes and play more aggressively to even hear his own playing over Bernard Sumner’s guitar. After the band had gotten a bit of money and Hook could afford a nicer amp, his driving, trebly bass lines stuck around, and Sumner’s guitar and keyboard parts grew more atmospheric and ethereal to compensate. Thus, almost by accident, the band stumbled upon a sonic formula that was the perfect match for frontman Ian Curtis’s gloomy, melancholy lyrics and vocals. By allowing the more rounded, thicker sound of the bass guitar to carry the lion’s share of the melody and relegating the sharper, punchier guitar and keyboard tones to a supporting, atmospheric role, Joy Division took on a more subdued, moody sound than the more brash, aggressive punk rock that initially inspired them, and that moodiness would soon become the basis for scores of goth bands.

The other crucial piece of goth bass is the ever-present chorus effect. For those unaware, a chorus effect, when applied to an instrument’s signal either through a pedal or an amplifier, repeats the signal over itself two or more times, with each signal being slightly delayed and slightly pitch-shifted. The resultant effect is that of multiple basses playing the same notes all together. The role of the chorus-bass effect in goth rock is exemplified in many classic ‘80s goth songs like The Cure’s “Fascination Street” and The Sisters of Mercy’s “Lucretia My Reflection”, where, in combination with reverb-soaked percussion and swirling keyboard effects, it creates an expansive, cavernous feel that lends itself extremely well to the morbid imagery both bands trafficked in. Whether it’s Robert Smith’s more emotional, sensitive delivery or Andrew Eldritch’s tougher, hard-rock edge, that chorused bass plays a crucial role in providing the melodramatic scope that is gothic rock’s most reliable calling card.

Today, goth music persists largely in a cluster of derivative forms and subgenres, from gothically-influenced metal bands like Cradle of Filth to more acoustic-leaning neofolk artists like Tony Wakeford and Slim Cessna. These artists undoubtedly deserve their seat at the metaphorical table, and I personally enjoy a lot of them, but often I do also miss that powerful, front-and-center bass attack favored by their forebears, the sound that provided so much gravitas and power to the founding fathers of the genre. There are many ways to make great gothic music, but if those bold, heavily-chorused basslines ever do make a comeback, you certainly won’t find me complaining.

1 Comment

  1. Alex on October 13, 2020 at 6:13 pm

    This is cool! This is a pretty specific area of music where I don’t see enough focus on the bass playing. Thanks for highlighting it.

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