Why Do Hot Chicks Always Play Bass and Why Do I Love Them So?

The other day I was perusing the all-knowing "Just for You" feature on iTunes and heeded its advice to check out Band of Skulls, the new British blues-rock threesome touring in support of its debut album, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey.

I liked what I heard. Yeah, they sound a lot like The White Stripes — especially on the lead track, "Light of the Morning" — but that's hardly a hanging offense in my musical kangaroo court. Besides, their devotion to the Stripes-style porch-stomp isn't exactly fanatical. On the tuneful, beautifully harmonized "Fires," they betray a wistful side, too; sort of like the Cowboy Junkies after extensive testosterone supplements.

Still, I didn't resolve to see BOS live until accessing their page on MySpace. Then, I learned something about the band that whetted my interest to a razor-sharp edge.

Band of Skulls: Anchored by the quintessential "comely female bassist."
courtesy of Band of Skulls
Band of Skulls: Anchored by the quintessential "comely female bassist."

Hot-chick bassist.

Or "comely female bassist," if you prefer. I have a fetish for them. Nothing unsavory, mind you — just a low-grade obsession that traces back to my early teens. In the mid-'80s, I remember feeling vaguely scandalized (and excited) the first time I saw the Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth lay down that throbbing arterial bass line on "Psycho Killer," but that was just the beginning. Kim Deal of The Pixies. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. D'arcy of The Smashing Pumpkins. Melissa Auf der Maur of Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins. And on and on.

And, now, Emma Richardson of Band of Skulls — the latest in a proud tradition of ax-girls who've managed to carve out a niche in an industry where female anythings are traditionally under-represented.

To be sure, the female rock bassist is a legitimate phenomenon. Which is to say, you see a lot more ladies rocking the bass than you do pounding the skins or playing guitar. I'm not talking about all-girl bands, necessarily. I'm talking about mixed-gender bands and the ranks of session musicians, in which you would reasonably expect to find an equal number of female drummers, bassists, guitarists and what-have-yous. But that's not the case. There are many more bassists, at least in alt-rock. And why is that?

Let's get one, indisputable, scientifically verified fact out of the way: Female bassists are sexy. They just are. There's something about a woman standing tall, brandishing a hefty piece of crafted wood, conjuring a low-octave foundation, that's just a little kinky. It's like seeing a girl ride a Harley or strafe the target range with an AK-47. By contrast, the female guitarist seems tame, almost prosaic — just another babe in a Ferrari.

Obviously, that's a personal aesthetic preference, but it underscores what Kyle Rose Stokes, bassist for the Tempe-based garage-rock quartet The Love Me Nots, calls the "eye candy" factor.

Stokes is a musical polymath who learned the electric bass as a teenager, but she admits that the instrument can be effectively misplayed, to some extent: "You can't ever have a bad drummer, but pretty much everything else is negotiable. The band can get by if everything else is played competently. So if you want some eye candy, you might put him or her at bass."

This principle doesn't apply strictly to female musicians; after all, what was Sex Pistol bassist Sid Vicious but a charismatic, under-skilled piece of punk scenery? Ditto for Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz. And it certainly doesn't apply to old-pro trailblazers such as Carol Kaye, the Beach Boys/Phil Spector sessionist whose unassailable talent blasted a bass-shaped hole in the music industry's glass ceiling.

Still, the supplementary nature of the bass does allow for a certain degree of creativity in band staffing. Band of Skulls singer/guitarist Russell Marsden met bassist Richardson when both were students at the Winchester School of Art near his hometown of Southampton. He liked her style. He also liked the way their voices harmonized together. Subsequently, he and drummer Matt Hayward enlisted her to join the band — with the proviso that she learn the bass, which she had never played previously.

"We had a gig the very next week," Marsden remembers with a suave Hampshirian mumble. "But she owns it now. She uses bigger amps. Bigger sounds."

Deal, the legendary Pixies bassist, adopted the instrument under similar duress. An acoustic guitarist and songwriter since her teens, the Ohio native moved to Boston in 1986 and answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix newspaper for a bassist who was paradoxically "into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary," according to Pixies lore. She had never played bass but was the only person in the greater Boston area to answer the notice. Impressed, Pixies frontman Charles "Black Francis" Thompson lent her airfare so she could fly to Ohio and retrieve an old Aria Pro II owned by her sister.

Indeed, the bass guitar is arguably more responsible for the gender desegregation of rock 'n' roll than any other single instrument. The keyboard? Too fey, ambient. The tambourine? Please. There are even some bands where the bass is a female-only proposition. In their 21-year history, The Smashing Pumpkins have had three distaff bassists — Auf der Maur, D'arcy Wretsky, and Ginger Reyes — but none of the male persuasion.

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6 comments
Pg1735
Pg1735

Check out Holly Wood from Love Stricken Demise!

galeinphx
galeinphx

what about tal wilkenfeld ?? ...... world class .....

Gimme A. Break
Gimme A. Break

I didn't see that other comment before I wrote mine. Glad at least one other person saw it my way. :) And here's the missing quotation mark: '

Gimme A,. Break
Gimme A,. Break

FCCing ridiculous. What year is it? This warrants an 'article'?

ugh!
ugh!

What a disgustingly sexist article! Dude, come on it's 2009.

Eric
Eric

Maybe you ought to tell that to the female sociologist who wrote a paper on this very subject (When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music).

 
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