If there’s any one idea I’ve consistently championed throughout these blog posts, it’s this: context is everything. At the end of the day, music is an art, and in art there are no unconditionally bad ideas. Whether it’s a wonky progression, a weird EQ setting on your amp, or even a cheap, low-quality instrument, there’s nothing that can’t be the right tool for the job when paired with the right musical ideas. This is true right down to the most specific chord phrasings or technical gear aspects, but it’s undeniably and especially true when it comes to the broad strokes: “What brand of instrument is best?” “What amp should I buy?” And, here’s a big one: “Do I need pedals?”
Maybe it’s just me, but over the years, I’ve seen a tendency amongst a certain population of more traditionalist, rock-oriented musicians to kind of scoff a bit at bassists employing any kind of elaborate effects setups or expensive pedal boards. After all, if there are going to be fancy technical doohickeys interfering with your raw, uncut rock’n’roll, they’d better stay on the guitar side of things, so as to not interfere with that all-important, rock-solid rhythm section, right? Surely, as conventional wisdom holds, there’s no real place for effects-heavy bass playing in rock music, right?
Well, as you might have guessed, my answer to “do I need pedals?” lands somewhere around “it depends,” and my answer to “is there a place for effects pedals in rock bass playing?” is an unequivocal “of course there is.” Even within the narrow confines of rock music, there are a huge variety of aesthetic goals, and whether or not you want to use a lot of pedals for your bass playing is largely going to depend on which ones you’re going for. That being said, the kinds of rock music that can accommodate effects-laden basslines are a lot more numerous that you might first expect. Of course, the elephant in the room here is that the variety of effects pedals on the market is so enormous that before you can even ask that question you need to figure out what kind of pedals you’re even using: distortion? Delay? Chorus, compression, reverb? The list goes on and on, and each type of pedal has its own distinct set of advantages and drawbacks. Delay is good at creating hypnotic, circular basslines that can really enhance a psychedelic tune like Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” or Tool’s “Disposition”, or it can muddle up the rhythm of an off-kilter experimental piece like Primus’s “The Carpenter and the Dainty Bride”. Distortion pedals are great at giving even more crunch to aggressive punk or metal material like The Dwarves’ “I Will Deny”, but it has a lot of uses outside of that as well: Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme has often used heavy bass distortion to give a meatier heft to his band’s dramatic sci-fi arena rock, giving the spacier guitar and keyboard tones some nice contrast. And, especially if you use them with a light hand, chorus and reverb pedals can give slower, moodier fare a more spacious-feeling sonic palette, to really give the emotions of the song room to breathe. Also, one of the great things about pedals in specific is that you can switch them off and on mid-song, so you can do some nifty things like punctuating a Nirvana-esque quiet/loud transition with a switch to a grittier tone, or adding a bit of reverb to your last few notes so they really ring out over the end of the song. These are just a few examples, but the point is that there is a lot you can do with pedals as a bassist.
This isn’t to try and turn anyone’s scorn on bassists who prefer a direct, no-frills setup. There’s something to be said for using an unfussy, basic bass tone that gets in and gets out in an orderly fashion, and plenty of great bassists have done just that. But don’t let that fact discourage you from getting a couple pedals together and playing around with them, seeing if you can’t use them to add something to your playing. Like any other piece of gear, pedals are just tools, and with a little practice, they’re tools you can use to build more dynamic, colorful and creative bass parts.