Let’s start with a joke:
Hey, what do you call the worst guitarist in a band?
I like that joke, not just because making fun of bassists is eternally hilarious, but because there’s at least a little truth to it. I don’t think it’s fair to say every bassist secretly wants to be a guitarist, but conversely I don’t think it’s unfair to say a lot of bassists have a bit of middle-child syndrome- We may not want to actually play guitar, but we sure wouldn’t mind some of the acclaim and attention lavished upon our six-stringed colleagues. I think that’s what draws so many to the slap style: it seems, at least on the face of it, like an easy way to stand out more in your band and be more than just a background character droning out root notes. It was definitely what compelled me, in an act of staggering hubris, to attempt at one point to spruce up a cover of Jack Johnson’s “Upside Down” I was enlisted to play on with an aggressive, funky slap-bass line (To be fair, I was 14 and pretty new to playing bass at the time, but also to be fair, it sounded terrible).
Put simply, slap bass is one of the flashiest and most powerful tools in a bassist’s arsenal, and in the right context it can take a song from good to fantastic. But in the wrong context, it can easily turn into a clunky, obnoxious addition to a song that just doesn’t need it, and getting a sense for which is which was definitely one of my first big lessons as a bassist.
Maybe it’s a little too obvious to talk about Larry Graham here, but sometimes the obvious choice is obvious for a good reason. The man is a titan in the history of the bass guitar, and he’s widely credited with originating the slapping technique. A song like Graham Central Station’s “Turn it Out” is a fantastic example of slap-bass songwriting for one major reason: the bass is the star of the show here, and everyone knows it. If you want your song to have some crazy slapping bass part, every other instrument needs to adjust accordingly. Listen to the drums here: leaning hard on the hi-hat, while the kick is barely there, giving the bassy thumps room to dominate the low end. Meanwhile, the guitar acts more as an embellishment, filling things out around Graham’s sharp, trebly pops. Contrast this with, say, 311’s “Come Original”, where the funky bassline is fighting with brash, distorted guitar and a much more prominent drum pattern. Here, the slap-bass scans as less of a foundational element of the song and more as a hasty addition, and the composition feels more slapdash as a result.
Of course, as with any aspect of music, what works and doesn’t work is ultimately a matter of opinion, and one musician’s Flea-wannabe trash could be another’s funk-rock treasure. But I think it’s worth pointing out to young bassists eager to stand out from the crowd that slap-bass is like mayonnaise: delicious if you use it right, but you can’t just slap it on anything and call it dinner.