Shaping your sound

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.

1. Transform your technique

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.

3. No pain, no gain

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.

4. Compression to make an impression

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’.