When you really get down to it, punk is a particularly bass-driven genre. Whether it’s an overtly bass-driven track like Green Day’s “Long View” or The Clash’s “London Calling,” or something a which follows more of a guitar-and-bass-in-unison style like, well, The Ramones’ entire catalog, the bass serves as a crucial anchor between the rhythm and harmony, and it has an equally important role in defining the texture and substance of the band’s sound. Let’s look at a few aspects of punk bass (let’s not call them ‘rules’ cos that kinda goes against the whole point of punk), especially for those who might just be starting out in developing their punk style. Personally I find that I don’t play much punk on guitar but I love, love, love playing punk bass. To paraphrase Devin Towsend, what I like best about playing bass (and especially in punk) is that the rest of the band can play whatever chords they like, but until the bass changes notes, we’re playing in E.
First up, punk bass is typically a very organic and direct style, and you’ll need a bass that minimizes all the fuss and maximizes directness and economy. That’s why you don’t see too many punk bass players using five-string basses (or six-string, for that matter) and why you don’t tend to run into players who use active pickups (which require a battery and are often paired with multiple EQ controls), at least until you start crossing over into metalcore territory. Many punk players find that a four-string bass with a rosewood fretboard gives them a big, full sound without being too ‘hi-fi’, and an instrument like the 2014 EB Bass 4 String and 2014 EB Bass 5 String give you humbucker pickups with the option of splitting them to single coil mode if you’d like to go for a fat sound on one track and a more direct, snappy one on the next. The 2014 Thunderbird is another very punk-friendly bass, with huge-sounding T-Bird Plus pickups, with huge sustain thanks to its neck-thru design, which pairs a mahogany-walnut center strip with mahogany wings and a rosewood fretboard with 20 cryogenically tempered frets.
Defying the convention for more and more distortion, a lot of punk bass players stick to a relatively clean tone, which helps their bass to punch through the mix a lot more clearly than if they covered their sound in oodles of overdrive. If your amp has as graphic EQ or even a simple bass/middle/treble EQ section, try dipping out a bit of the low end - not too much because you still have a responsibility to rattle a few teeth - and punching through with a little extra midrange instead. This keeps you from clashing with the kick drum and will allow your bass to ‘speak’ in the most audible frequencies (midrange seems to really jump out at our ears). And again, if you’re going for more of a metalcore kind of sound, go for the opposite: scoop out the midrange, pile on the distortion (perhaps with a pedal that allows you to mix in some totally clean tone too for punch) and have at it, preferably with a pick for extra attack and control.
While there are some punk players who use their fingers, you’ll find that the majority of players will use a pick because it gives them more punch and definition - in other words, it just sounds harder, meaner and more direct. And here’s where you have to make a choice: do you use alternate picking (up-down-up-down) or all downstrokes? Alternate picking will give you a smoother, steadier ‘one-two, one-two, one-two’ attack at high speeds, where as if you pick with all downstrokes you’ll get a harder-edged attack and maybe a bit more ‘string noise’ - the clatters and clanks that happen when the string slaps back against the frets. Both certainly have their place and there’s no rule that says you can’t mix it up from song to song or bar to bar, but often the decision comes down to “What is the rest of the band doing?” If the guitars and drums are chaotic, you can basically become the pulse of the music by maintaining a steady alternate-picked attack. If the guitars and drums are locking in tight, it’ll leave more room for you to filth things up a little with some heavy down picking.