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R&B and Funk Bass

The Music Bass was Made For

Rhythm and blues sprang out of the African-American music scene in the 1940s, and by the 1960s was mainstreamed by the success of Detroit’s Motown Records. Down in Memphis, Stax Records was also making inroads. If there was ever a showcase genre for bass, it was R&B. Funk sprang from R&B in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, it defined a new way to prominently feature bass lines. Today, we will go over a brief history of the genres, and the bass guitar’s critical role in both of these great forms of music.

Rhythm and blues and the bass’s role

Bass guitar is often considered the backbone of popular music, serving as the anchor holding down the rhythm, and at the same time, locking in with the melodic instruments. Rhythm and blues, usually referred to as R&B, is a perfect example of this.

In 1948, Jerry Wexler of Billboard magazine coined the term "rhythm and blues" as a musical term in the United States. Soon after, his Atlantic Records label would be one of the prime purveyors of this music genre. It had its roots in gospel and blues. The music was rehearsed extensively to remove the edginess of what was then called “race music.” Over the next several decades, it would evolve to the point where it became a blanket term for music performed primarily by African Americans. Ironically, white bands from England eventually adopted this type of music as their own, and such bands as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Yardbirds introduced this music to a wider audience during the British Invasion.

R&B bass lines tend towards the melodic and tasteful and help to support the song. They are pushed to the front more than in other genres of music, and often act as a counter-point or second lead.

Funk bass

Funk sprang out from R&B beginning in the 1960s, and by the early 1970s, it was major force in music. James Brown, Funkadelic/Parliament and Kool and the Gang were prime movers and shakers of funk, and their influence is felt in many genres of music to this day, form metal to hip-hop.

Funk is differentiated from R&B (and most other genres, for that matter) by its extreme reliance on rhythm over melody. In a funk song, it is actually common to use only one or two chords (and unusual ones at that— 9ths and 13ths, for example). The bass is very prominent in most funk songs and is often used much more prominently as a lead instrument than the guitar is.

Funk music popularized the form of bass playing known as “slapping,”  It involves slapping the lower two strings with the bony part of the thumb and popping notes on the higher two strings by pulling the string until it snaps against the fingerboard, producing a percussive sound.

This method takes some learning, but as mentioned earlier, can be adapted to other genres of music.


Check out the works of the artists mentioned above, as well as the work of Duck Dunn and James Jamerson.

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