As a bass guitarist for nearly 10 years, I value that thick, heavy low end the bass provides more than most. Bass is one of the most crucial (and paradoxical) elements of music: It can melt into the furthest recesses of a song, yet it often simultaneously anchors the whole ship.
Because of my musical background, I’m often skeptical by default of bands who choose to forego bass as a musical component. But The Doors didn’t have a bass player (keyboardist Ray Manzarek provided the group’s bass lines), and they’ve always impressed me with the fullness and power of their sound.
Today, we look at 10 bands formed in the last two decades, who work wonders despite their lack of a traditional bottom end.
10. Federation X
Combining diverse styles like punk, folk and lo-fi into a chaotic, raw and ultimately unsettling package, Federation X, with its minimalist, heavy aesthetic and aggressive lyrical content, have earned the title “extreme rock ’n’ roll” — with just two guitarists and a drummer. Ben Wildenhaus and Bill Badgley have achieved their heavier-than-average sound by often playing tenor guitars, which have four strings like a bass guitar.
Instrumental math-rock band Hella features Zach Hill’s complex drum patterns juxtaposed with the angular, schizophrenic guitar work of Spencer Seim, and the two dexterous musicians have carried Hella’s mantle as a duo for the majority of their career. In 2007, Seim and Hill briefly expanded to a quintet (including not just a bass player but a singer), and recorded one album, There’s No 666 in Outer Space. Two years later Hella was back to its original two-man lineup, creating plenty of chaos with guitar and drums alone.
8. Matt & Kim
Unlike the soft, mellow stylings of many guy-girl pairings in music (Stars, Beach House, etc.), Matt & Kim sport an endearingly happy, excited style rooted in pop, punk and dance music. Kim Schifino plays a very minimal, cymbal-less drum kit while Matt Johnson holds down the low end on the keyboard. The couple aren’t so much concerned with being as loud as possible when playing live as they are with having the time of their lives, and their exuberant personalities are damn near contagious.
One of the principal groups of the “riot grrrl” movement, Portland, Ore.-based trio Sleater-Kinney played a raw, basic style that was still heavily influenced by punk and heavy music. Though Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein both played guitars, they often played in lowered tunings, with Tucker in particular providing a deep, stripped-down tone that functioned in the songs’ framework like a bass guitar would.
6. The Dodos
Experimental rock band The Dodos make up for their lack of bass with their uncharacteristic and bizarre combination of sounds and styles: Multi-instrumentalist Meric Long plays mostly acoustic guitars in fingerpicked style, drummer Logan Kroeber plays as much on the rims as the drumheads and foregoes the bass drum altogether, and occasional auxiliary member Keaton Snyder’s chief instrument is the vibraphone. Kroeber in particular provides much of the band’s aural bombast, melding explosive, progressive metal-influenced beats with the eclectic instrumentation.
5. The Kills
A duo composed of American vocalist and occasional guitarist Alison Mosshart and English guitarist Jamie Hince, The Kills choose to augment their live shows by performing their strung-out, dark blues-rock over looped electronic beats that provide plenty of bass—not to mention a steady, driving pulse that allows the two to truly cut loose on stage.
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Karen O’s distinctive fashion sense and fiercely individual persona is enough to carry the energy of Yeah Yeah Yeahs alone, but combined with co-founder Nick Zinner, the art-punk band’s strengths are doubled: In addition to his usual role as lead guitarist, Zinner often plays keyboards and synthesizers, providing some bass-heavy left-hand melodies. To add sonic depth to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ live shows, former Slint guitarist David Pajo occasionally joins up as a second guitarist.
3. Explosions in the Sky
In a lot of instrumental post-rock bands (e.g. Mogwai or Do Make Say Think), the bass is often the clearest melodic element in songs, giving the airy guitar atmospherics a grounded direction. It’s all the more impressive, then, that Austin quartet Explosions in the Sky manages to achieve such a level of cinematic grandeur and dynamism without one. Made up of three guitarists and a drummer, Explosions’ methodical, majestic music really does explode in a big way despite having virtually no low end: One moment the’re playing so quietly you could hear a pin drop and the next they’re unleashing thunderous layers of impenetrable distortion that seem to fill every corner of the universe. Though guitarist Michael James has been known to occasionally substitute his guitar for a bass guitar, the default Explosions configuration is a triple-guitar attack.
2. The Black Keys
Perhaps the most purist-minded of the blues-based rock groups, The Black Keys’ no-frills live show has enough backbone to make the listener forget there’s no bass. Much of this can be chalked up to Dan Auerbach’s thick, rounded guitar tone, crisp enough for the trebly chords but meaty and deep enough to shake the ground and rattle your bones. Though the duo have sometimes included extra musicians in their live shows, the typical bare-bones lineup of Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney is more powerful in a sense, underscoring the two’s visceral power and energy on their instruments.
1. The White Stripes
The White Stripes were one of the first bands of the modern era to show in a very real way that less could be more: With their lo-fi recording methods and sloppy, dirty vibe, Jack and Meg White quickly carved a niche for themselves in the alternative rock scene. It’s ironic that “Seven Nation Army,” the duo’s most successful single, is driven by a distinct bass line because they don’t even have a bassist in their band — in fact, the riff was often re-created live by Jack White on a detuned guitar. As the White Stripes evolved, Meg White’s simplistic drumming became a renewable source of energy for the music and kept it direct and immediate, while Jack White began to incorporate a fuller bass tone with the use of keyboards, grand piano and organ in addition to his snarling, rough guitar work.