Posted: 7 May 2019
At some point or other every player has been left bamboozled by their bass. Sometimes the tone you strive for simply just isn’t there and trying to figure out why can leave you even more confused.
Be it your playing or your equipment, there’s lots of variables that you need to control to achieve the tone you want. Some may be obvious, whilst some may have never crossed your mind, so we’ve put together this handy list of ways for you to shape your sound.
The most common style of playing on the bass is finger picking, which usually creates a warm sound and offers a lot of versatility as you can alter the strength with which you hit the strings or the angle of your fingers. Alternatively you can use a pick, which provides a more defined, harder sound and also allows you to palm-mute the strings.
Other options are playing slap bass or even introducing bass chords, which when done right can support multiple harmonies at once. Slap bass is a difficult technique to master but adds a funky groove and percussive thump to your sound. You could even go wild and follow in the footsteps of Tony Levin by introducing ‘slap sticks’. Each technique has its own pro’s and cons but being equally adept at multiple styles means you can interchange between them to subtly craft the exact tone you’re after.
Type ‘bass guitar strings’ into amazon.com and you’ll get back over 6000 results. SIX THOUSAND! So what’s the big difference and how do you decide what strings are right for you?
The sound of your strings is defined by the material used. Most strings are stainless steel or nickel however copper and nylon are also common, with each material offering its own sound, style and lifespan.
Another differentiator is the gauge, or diameter, of your strings. Generally speaking, heavier gauges produce richer tone but demand more strength in your fingers. Some bassists even choose to buy strings individually so they can create a custom set that suits their style, for example combining heavy bottom strings that provide plenty of resonance with lightweight top strings that allow for maximum flexibility.
Additionally, another debate that has rumbled on amongst bassists for years is flatwound vs roundwound strings. As the name suggests flatwound strings have a steel core that is wound with a flat wire surround, whereas roundwound strings utilise a round surround. Typically, flatwound strings sound quite similar to an upright bass; soft and mellow. On the other hand, roundwound strings are usually brighter and have much more sustain.
Other contributing factors are the number of strings on your bass, the length of your fretboard, and how often you change your strings. It all comes down to the sound you’re after and what brings out the best in your playing.
Since the early 60’s overdriven bass has slowly crept into more and more music, bringing a distorted fuzz that increases the sustain and also moves the bassline to the forefront of a song.
Produced by either a distortion pedal or an overdriven amp, this technique provides a new palette for a bassist to use. By creating a thick, uninterrupted buzzsaw sound you can lay down a mean low-end backdrop that powers along a song, like Buddy Guy’s ‘Baby Please Don’t Leave Me’. Alternatively you could use this heavy gain to push an in-your-face snarl that’s more along the lines of the Muse track ‘Hysteria’.
But beware, this fuzz can also hide the lower frequencies and lose a lot definition, potentially leading the bass to get lost in the mix. Knowing when and where to utilise the gain is key, and this is something that only comes with plenty of trial and error.
A compressor is one of the most commonly used effects by a bassist, and is usually used to tidy up your sound and squeeze the signal produced when playing.
Functionally a compressor can boost the quiet parts of a song and prevent the loud bits from blowing your eardrums, which is especially useful for songs with rangy dynamics. Creatively however compressors are used to add a punchy sound whilst also giving a smooth, even tone.
Using compression is a balancing act though. Just a little compression could make a big difference, but use just a bit too much and your bass tone might sound lifeless and squashed. However, use way too much and artistically it could come full circle and compliment your sound, for example like Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’.
Another factor to consider is what pickups your bass has. Pickups can be split into two categories: passive pickups and active pickups. Put simply the difference is that active ones are battery-powered while passive pickups are not.
Let’s look at passive pickups first. Listen to recordings from Motown or the Beatles and you will notice the bass sounds round and punchy because of the passive pickups used. Typically they tend to have a warm, round tone, but the downside is that you have less control as you can’t boost the treble or bass that’s picked up. Passive pickups also use large magnets so can carry more noise and interference than active pickups.
Active pickups usually sound brighter and snappier than passive pickups. This is because they use a pre-amp that allows you to both cut and boost bass and treble frequencies, and in some instances even control mid-range tones too. Active pickups also have a hotter signal output than passive pickups, meaning there’s less signal loss between your bass and your amplifier, however the ability to boost frequencies can sometimes cause a hiss.
Beware that we are generalising here though. Some active pickups may actually sound warmer than passive pickups. It’s all down to the combination of player, bass and the model of pickup used, so our recommendation would be try as many variations as possible to get the sonic impact that you’re after.
There’s lots of elements that make up your bass sound and tiny tweaks can help you take big steps when it comes to crafting your overall sound. By experimenting with each technique you can slowly but surely mould your tone and take your bass playing from no treble to no trouble in no time.