While the electric bass can be heard in most popular music dating back to the mid-60s, academia has paid little attention to the instrument and its origins – until now.
Brian F. Wright, an assistant professor of music history in UNT’s College of Music, is working to detail the electric bass’s early history in his book, The Bastard Instrument. The book’s title comes from jazz bassist Monk Montgomery, one of the instrument’s early pioneers, who was initially reluctant to play it.
“In many ways, it’s an apt metaphor,” Wright says. “As a combination of both a guitar and a bass, the electric bass had a murky ancestry, which meant that early on no one was really sure where it belonged or what to do with it. It also took many years before the electric bass was actually considered ‘legitimate.’”
As a bass player himself, Wright felt there was a larger, untold story to share about the instrument.
Through his ongoing research, he’s using his expertise as a musicologist and popular music scholar to reveal that the history of American popular music looks much different when viewed through the lens of the electric bass.
“Suddenly, musical cultures that we treat as entirely distinct are revealed to have many overlaps and connections,” Wright says. “And stories that maybe seem settled about famous artists – such as Elvis, the Supremes and the Beatles – now need to be revised and updated.”
As a recipient of the Society for American Music’s Charles Hamm Fellowship, Wright explored the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives as part of a two-week research residency.
“Charles Hamm was one of the first musicologists to take popular music seriously, so he directly paved the way for the kind of research I’m able to do today,” Wright says. “What I most appreciate about his work was its refusal to treat particular styles of music as more worthy of scholarly attention than others. His approach was broadly inclusive and, for his time, fairly unorthodox.”
Wright traveled to the archives in early August, where he sifted through primary sources in the collections, such as behind-the-scenes business files, contemporary music magazines and newspapers, personal papers and more.
“These types of sources are invaluable when it comes to looking for what’s been left out of the accepted historical narratives of popular music,” Wright says.
The Bastard Instrument: A Cultural History of the Electric Bass is under contract with the University of Michigan Press as part of their Tracking Pop series.
The Hamm Fellowship is given annually by the Society for American Music and is co-sponsored by the Center for Popular Music Studies at Case Western Reserve University.