Subscribe

Credit: Alamy

Music

What's That Sound? The "bass" on the classic White Stripes song 'Seven Nation Army'

@TylerGolsen

Jack White had an obsession with pairing things back. In The White Stripes, the band’s stripped-down aesthetic was more than just a gimmick: it was entire philosophy, rooted around White’s obsession with the number three. “I always centred the band around the number three,” White told David Fricke in 2005. “Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums”.

Famously, that meant no bass player. While White would occasionally augment his studio work with his own bass overdubs, he preferred to keep the foundation of the band in the minimalist realm. To White, overdubbing bass was akin to cheating, or being lazy, or trying to be something that he wasn’t. The White Stripes didn’t have a bass unless Jack White did something to play the bass.

Another major tale spun about the band involves White’s commitment to old-school equipment. Plastic guitars from Sears catalogues, vintage amps, and decrepit barrelhouse pianos were commonly cited, but the reality was that White was happy to augment his sound with newer technology. Pedals, keyboards, and even occasionally guitars and amps could be new if they served a song’s purpose. Most of that time, that purpose was to be as true to the Whites as possibly without masking them behind trickery. Authenticity was always the key.

And yet, the most famous song that Jack White ever wrote involves a fair amount of trickery, or at the very least a somewhat deceiving sound. When most people hear the opening notes to ‘Seven Nation Army’, the unkillable riff rocker to end all unkillable riff rockers, the logical assumption is that it’s a bass. Guitars don’t go that low, and it’s a distinctly deep sound. But White never brings a bass out on stage. What gives?

This is where the old and new technology work in harmony. White plays the central riff on a Kay semi-hollow body electric guitar from either the late 1950s or early ’60s (White was given the guitar for free). In order to drop the riff’s sound into a deeper register, White reached for the DigiTech Whammy pedal, a favourite for players like Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Know Your Enemy’ and Audioslave’s ‘Like a Stone’) and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd’s ‘Marooned’).

The Whammy pedal has an option to drop the signal’s sound down an octave (or two, if you want some really indiscernible mush). This was perfect for White, who would use the effect on the verses and turn it off when he went to full guitar chords in the chorus. The “bass” is just White’s Kay guitar, tuned to open D, and dropped down an octave thanks to the Whammy pedal.

White’s love of the DigiTech Whammy extended beyond ‘Seven Nation Army’. On the same album, Elephant, White used the “octave down” thump on ‘The Hardest Button to Button’. He would later use the pedal, with the octave doubler function, for the central riff of ‘Blue Orchid’, while the “octave up” feature found use in the solo to ‘Icky Thump’. Even as he moved beyond The White Stripes, the Whammy pedal still had a permeant place on his pedalboard, giving some signature sway in the final ascending guitar notes of Blunderbuss‘ ‘Sixteen Saltines’.