cover image The Bastard Instrument: A Cultural History of the Electric Bass

The Bastard Instrument: A Cultural History of the Electric Bass

Brian F. Wright. Univ. of Michigan, $24.95 (392p) ISBN 978-0-472-05681-1

Wright, an assistant professor of music history at the University of North Texas, examines in his lively debut study how the electric bass guitar helped to “fundamentally alter the trajectory of popular music.” Tracing the instrument’s roots, Wright explains the technological developments in amplification in the 1930s and ’40s that led to the first generation of modern electric basses in the 1950s. Originally regarded as “at best a novelty, and at worst, a desecration,” the instrument came into its own by the end of the decade, thanks to its popularization by touring rockers and a “critical mass” of amateur musicians who made playing the instrument a “middle-class leisure activity.” Wright analyzes the cultural and musical significance of the bass guitar, and teases out the contributions of lesser-known figures, such as “top-call session bassist” Carol Kaye, who played with a “hard pick and a strong attack” for a “nuanced emphasis on groove and timbre,” and Basie Robinson, who added a “propulsive energy” to Little Richard’s live performances. The result is an enthusiastic portrait of the instrument that gave Motown, rock ’n’ roll, and funk their distinctive sounds. (July)