The Low Down on the Down Low: Slap bass’ NOLA origins.
The technique of ‘slap bass’ which involves plucking the strings to produce a strong rhythmic click as well as the tone has a surprisingly long history. Although
the technique has not been attributed to one player it seems that the sound developed and spread in the dance halls of New Orleans around 1916.
The string bass had become a part of the ‘jazz’ sound and was replacing the tuba and
sousaphone (except on the street where brass still reigned supreme.) In the late 1890s the bass was still predominantly bowed but as popular music became more driving the bass was made to adapt.
Bill Johson was born in 1872 and was touring the vaudeville circuit when, legend has it, his bow broke. He claims to have invented the slap technique that night. Wether or not that was the case he was an early master of the style and spread it north when he relocated to Chicago in the 1920s.
Part of the difficulty in pinning down the origins of this technique is that early recording
technology was very poor at capturing low frequencies. As the band gathered around a seashell like horn to capture the sound and transfer it to a needle to cut the master, the string bass player might be asked to sit it out and be replaced by tuba for the recording. With advent of the electric microphone bass was able to be captured much more accurately but home devices were still unable to reproduce it properly for many more years.
During the first half of the 20th century the slap bass style began to show up in country swing and rhythm and blues eventually finding its way into rockabilly and early rock and roll. Modern offshoots of rockabilly have continued to use the slap bass sound as part of an aesthetic even though the bass can now easily be heard through amplification.
Once again we see that from the swampy mix of people and culture in NOLA a piece of the musical puzzle is created and then goes on to effect art well outside of where it began.