Alcohol and the Loud Bassist: A Cautionary Tale

It is rare that you see musicians write about an aspect of playing that affects almost all publicly performing artists at some point - the role of alcohol at the gig. Booze is a very popular product around many musicians, though its affect on bass players in particular can have a dramatic effect on the overall sound of the band. That extra shot of Maker’s Mark on your set break might well ruin the front of house mix before the show is over. I shall explain using anecdotal data from my career, as well as peer-reviewed data from the field of medicine.

The venues for professional musical events are split into two main groups: discrete concerts for which tickets are sold, and concerts given in the support of food and alcohol sales, more commonly known as "bar gigs."

Generally, it is unusual to see artists play the Kennedy Center in Washington DC or the Opéra Garnier in Paris with a few brewskis on stage. In the average three-set club gig, however, musicians are commonly seen either pounding a couple at the bar during set break, or perhaps even taking a drink on stage with them. After all, a country gig featuring “Friends in Low Places” or an Irish gig requiring “Johnny Jump Up” can both dovetail nicely with a shot of Jameson’s.

Is this lyre player hammered? Did it affect his hearing?

Should you drink alcohol while performing as a musician at a bar gig? There is clearly no absolute moral against such a practice, as drinking while playing music has a tradition has stretches back to the Greek festivals of Dionysus. That said, we all know that it is musically distracting when your drummer vomits onto his drum kit or the guitarist passes out into the monitors - these events do not represent the high standards of the profession. While a drink or two may loosen you up to improvise with less anxiety, clearly there is an eventual decrease in performance quality as blood alcohol concentration increases.

Short of upchucking on your pedal board, there is a much more common risk to alcohol at the gig - you will be tempted to turn up the volume of your bass rig as the night goes along.

I can confirm this anecdotally, having played music in bars since 1990, and having played while consuming alcohol since 1996. If you are consuming alcoholic beverages throughout the night, in each successive set that fat bass sound just seems to be slipping away. You bump up the active bass EQ on your axe. You reach over and push up the preamp gain. Eventually you sound obnoxious - and medical science can explain why you do this.

A medical research paper recently published in the Journal of Ear Nose and Throat Disorders shows that, "Alcohol specifically blunts lower frequencies affecting the mostly 1000 Hz, which is the most crucial frequency for speech discrimination." Remember, 1000Hz and lower is toward the fundamental frequencies of the bass.

Here are the data of how many dB of sensitivity you lose as consumer of alcohol increases. (Upile, Sipal, et al., “The acute effects of alcohol on auditory thresholds,” Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders, September, 18, 2007, available at the National Library of Medicine.

Sound Frequency (Hz) Mean loss male n = 11 (dB) Mean loss female n = 15 (dB)
250 6 12
500 5 17
1000 3 10
2000 2 5
400 5 7
8000 9 8

Table 1: Mean hearing loss in decibels for each frequency tested.

In males, high end hearing loss is even more pronounced, but the major hearing loss is in the key frequencies of the upright bass and bass guitar.

Now check this, lady bassists - for some reason unknown to science, females actually are more affected by alcohol and hearing loss in the bass frequencies! Playing in a Runaways or Hole tribute act? If you’re playing bass à la Melissa auf der Mar, easy on the hooch. You’ll be even more tempted to blow out eardrums than your male counterparts - and nobody knows why this is.

No matter which gender you are, over time your consumption of alcohol during a gig will blunt your perception of how loud your instrument really is. Add to this the fact that low frequencies are not as perceptible right next to their source and you have the recipe for the Drunk Bassist Loudness Curve. You’ll be in a three-way volume arms race between you, the drummer and the bartender. By 12:20am, you’ll be clearing out the room because that nice mix you had at 10:16pm will have been replaced by a sound more common to a bunch of teenagers playing Green Day covers for the first time, skronking through 80 watt bass amps with the volume set on 9.

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Getting hammered at the gig can have other serious impacts on your life, most notably being arrested while driving home and/or choosing nighttime company unwisely from the available bar patrons. But maintaining a great bass sound is paramount. If you are going to drink, remember to set your rig and do not touch the preamp gain and bass EQ throughout the night, no matter how entangled you become with liquor. The audience will thank you.

And seriously, be wary of the beer goggles.

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