When it comes to disco, the Jazz bass is hard to beat, and the EBMM ranks as a close second. The EBMM wasn’t launched until 1976, so it only witnessed the latter half of the disco era but it was good enough for Bernard Edwards to shift from a P bass to a Music Man Stringray.
However, most bassists in the pure disco era preferred the simplicity of a P-Bass, which didn’t need too much tone-shaping and could provide the basic thump for Disco.
While history has evidenced that the P-bass can work in any configuration in the hands of a good player, the inherent growl of the Jazz and Stingray is better suited for rhythm-driven genres.
Janice Marie Johnson (A Taste of Honey), one of the most formidable vocalists/bassists of the disco era, rocked the J-bass for most of her career. In general, people preferred the J to the MM because the octave playing, which is an important part of disco grooves, can sound more strident and harsher on a Stingray.
The Jazz Bass is more versatile than a Precision. You can roll the tone off the J and make it work for Disco and Motown, but it is hard to make a Precision cut the mix like a Jazz.
In the studio, however, all this changes drastically because the right hand attack can be combined with EQ and amplification (we are talking about the 70s). This opened up the use of the Fender Jaguar, P+J, Rics and Alembics – all of them have made brief appearances in disco music.
Bear in mind that these are period-perfect representations of tone and instruments. The choices of the players in that day were limited, but today something like the Ibanez ATK and Steinberger bass can also do a great job for recreating that vibe. Although to some, they may not sound completely authentic.
Disco bass evolution
Disco bass is characterized by a groove with a steady pulse over a strong four on the floor beat. The bass always plays on the one, as it does in most dance music. The lines often use embellishments like b7 to octave hammer on, major walkups, or dominant walk downs.
Slap bass is also common to the genre although it became more ubiquitous towards the end of the disco era.
Disco bass started in the early 70s and Fender Precision basses were used for a majority of the studio recordings and concerts. As it progressed to the mid and late 70s, the P-bass started getting replaced by the Fender Jazz and EBMMs, although the P-bass was still seen commonly in live performances.
The P-bass with flats had been the Jamerson-style disco and funk standard, and many iconic disco songs were recorded using flatwound strings. Ronald Baker (The Trammps) was also one of the major proponents of the style. He was omnipresent in the tracks coming out of Philly in the 70s, and he was an out-and-out P-bass disco guy.
However, as slap and pop mushroomed under the likes of Curtis, Sly and Graham Central Station, the right hand technique ushered in a new era of needs. Players started leaning towards bright and snappy round wound strings, and J-basses became the new weapon of choice.
Bass players found that they offered more dynamics and timbre, and were ostensibly better for disco players who loved digging hard or slapping the bass.
The other big reason was the predominance of playing smaller venues without an FOH. Disco lines were thumping and energetic and the single split coil pups and amps of the era were not cutting it.
The players didn’t need the low-mid goodness of the P-bass and found the J-bass and MMs to provide better dynamics, louder volumes and more articulation in the highs.
Disco music allowed the bass to come forward unlike ever before. The disco bass sounds better with the snap and bounce rather than thud.
Active amplification was the need of the hour and everyone shifted to it willingly because it had more sensitive EQ options and allowed them to cut the mix rather than sit in the mix.
Though you can see some players with Alembic (Larry Graham, Parliament), Spector (Doug Wimbish), Danelectro (Carol Kaye – briefly) and Travis Bean (Status Quo) instruments, the MM Stingray was the ultimate answer in the late 70s and early 80s. Once it hit the scene, it rapidly penetrated all levels of disco and funk playing – and for a good reason too.
Thus by 1980, which would be considered the end of the disco era, you can see either J-bass or SR in most disco bands, all set to escort the new grooves of disco-funk and 80s funk.
The P-bass wasn’t totally written off though (and never will be), it found favor among the R&B and retro-Funk bassists like James Alexander (Bar-Kay’s), and Bobby Watson (Rufus).
Disco vs. Funk Bass
It can be tricky to make a distinction between funk and disco because they blend into each other beautifully. For the sake of clarity, “disco” in this article, refers to the music from 70s that was four on the floor at 120bpm – with an accented offbeat on the hi-hat. The bulk of disco tunes can be found between 1973 to 1980 (the disco era).
This was the period when the P-bass was still around but the J-bass and MM basses had made inroads into the scene. So, the songs and sounds have a good mix of these three tones scattered across albums. For instance – I’ll be good to you (’76) uses the P-Bass and Stomp! (’80) uses a Music Man Sabre.
Ironically, a lot of 70’s disco artists like Commodores played a Peavey bass, as evidenced by the videos of live performance videos. Even Bernard Edwards (Chic) was often spotted with a BC Rich on the album covers. However, he later admitted in an interview that he used a P-Bass in the studio and the BC Rich in photo shoots because it looked ‘cool’.
As “pure disco” made way for Disco-Funk, the J-Bass and MM became more dominant because many players enjoyed the growl and focused highs that were more conducive to a slap tone bass.
Then, the 90s eventually saw the Jazz bass become synonymous with the hi-fi modern tone in the hands of artists like Marcus Miller.
Basses used by famous disco players
Bernard Edwards, Verdine White and Nile Rodgers helped define the disco genre. Verdine was a P/J guy and Bernard Edwards aka Mr. Disco Funk played a Precision and SR for most of his career.
Robert Wilson (Gap Band) is a highly underrated bass player who played a big role in shaping funk bass playing. You can see him funkin’ it on a Fender P-bass in this video (see the 4 min mark).
Chic was unquestionably the best band to represent 70s disco, and Edwards’ unique playing style was a key reason for that. However, Donna Summer ruled the charts and is considered to be disco’s principal act. Les Hurdle, Giorgio Moroder and Bob Glaub played on her tracks with Glaub (another P-Bass guy) being the most recognizable of the lot.
Artists like Diana Ross (Love Hangover) or Hughes Corporation (Rock the Boat) offer a true representation of pure disco played on P-Basses. As mentioned earlier, towards the late 70s groups moved on to active and J-style bass guitars.
Maurice Gibb (Bee Gees) played a huge role in disco bass with tunes like Jive Talking, You should be dancing, Stayin’ Alive and Saturday Night Fever. He has a very McCartney-esque style of playing and preferred to use his trusty Ric 4001 bass.
Best bass setups for disco
In the 70s, there was no reverence for the low-action and light-touch playing we see today. It was all about digging in hard and having a formidable right hand attack. This is the ‘secret sauce’ that can bring you closer to the tone of those days.
The disco era bass was mostly direct, and sometimes a combination of direct + amp. The most famous amp in studios at the time was the Ampeg B-15, so they have a big role to play in the disco tone.
There were no OD pedals; there were pre-digital era board channels, but it sounds like the overdrive was a result of the amp & EQ, and the compression varies in every record.
Bernard (Chic), Verdine (EW&F), Ronald (The Trammps) and many others would play pretty hard when they needed to get some fret rattle, and because they mic’d the amps it sounded a lot like overdrive in the mix, especially when you roll off the highs and play through a B-15.
Bernard Edwards had one of the most memorable disco tones in that era. In Bernard’s own recollections, he says that he preferred to record direct for the most part and sometimes added a B-15 if the studio had it lying around.
Amp settings and strings
If you are using a J-bass, you can roll down the bridge pickup and max out the volume and neck pup to get that old school hollow tone with the J-bass growl. In general, Sly’s We are Family and Chic’s Good times are a good ‘benchmark’ to use as a tone guide as you configure the tone on your bass guitar.
For a P-bass, you can use tapewounds or flatwounds and crank up the tone knob. Add an HPF and dig in hard with your right hand and you will have a shag disco tone going right away.
In Rushen’s Forget me nots, you can clearly hear the slapped P-bass tone which seems to have little-to-no EQing and a HPF around 90-100Hz to make room for the kick drum. The J-Bass will work better with bright roundwounds but La Bella styled flats (more tension, more bite) will also sound great for a disco tone.
In the 70s, it was all Dean Markleys, Fender, Ernie Ball or D’addario – mostly flatwounds. Once the roundwounds started showing up, the GHS Boomers and RotoSound were used regularly.
Occasionally, you can hear some half rounds tone on the Ojays, Teddy Pendergrass and others. Among the modern offerings, the DR Bootzilla are worth checking out. The strings are made using a distinct stainless steel wrap with a unique coating. They last fairly long and sound super crunchy but manage to fly under the radar for some reason.
The quest for a good Disco bass will eventually lead you to a P-bass, J-Bass or MM ‘Ray – or something along those lines. If you are hunting for a bass that is period perfect then the P & J-bass are still great options.
The J works for those who want grit and versatility, and the P-bass for those who value simplicity. You may seriously consider a maple-neck P-Bass for a Forget Me Nots style tone. Some of the greatest disco records use a P with a maple fretboard.
Featured image: “Disco!” (CC BY 2.0) by tuppus