Bass Tone Guide

by Dave Gagnon

For many bass players, the quest for a perfect bass tone is met with both passion and frustration. While a great tone can really ignite a band and inspire everyone to play better, a less than ideal sound has the potential to cause distress.

There are many different aspects that can affect the timbre of a bass guitar. Whether one focuses on the instrument, the player, the electronic equipment being used, and/or the room being played in, there are a plethora of things that can affect the tonal properties that will ultimately be heard and felt by the listener.

With all of that said, I feel that there are some concrete steps that can be taken on the journey to finding your favorite bass tone. I will write about some of these steps below. Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong ways to go about it, just some different things to think about and try for yourself.



Instrument:
If you already have an instrument, great. If not, or if you are thinking about getting a new bass, hopefully this article will give you something more to think about.

Choosing an instrument for it's tonal properties can be daunting task but once you understand what you are looking for, it can be fun. The tonal characteristics of electric basses are affected by many variables. From the wood to the pickups, string tension, action, hardware, finish, and electronics, everything has an influence on the final tone of the instrument.

Wood:
Let's start with two traditionally used wood combinations:

  • Alder Body with a Rosewood Fingerboard

    With all other parts being equal, a bass consisting of an Alder Body and Rosewood Fingerboard can be described as sounding warm and will lend itself to playing a variety of different bass tones in a wide array of styles.

  • Ash Body with a Maple Fingerboard

    A bass with an Ash Body and Maple Fingerboard will tend to sound more like a 70's bass and get closer to the sound that Marcus Miller is famous for using. People who play a lot of funk and slap bass tend to like this sort of sound. Keep in mind that this is different than the Victor Wooten sound. The Victor Wooten bass setup is completely different.

Always find out what the body and fingerboard woods are before buying an instrument. There are a plethora of wood varieties that are used in electric bass construction. Be sure to do your homework and keep an eye out for all of the various wood combinations out there. They do sound different.

Pickups:
Jazz basses and Precision basses are a good starting point when thinking about different pickups. Both of these basses have been industry standards for a long time. This means that the sound of these instruments has been used on thousands of recordings and has been heard on the radio since the 1950's. A Music Man bass is also an industry standard, so check that one out as well.

There are many types of great sounding bass pickups out there. The goal is to find out exactly what it is that you like.



Fingers:
In my opinion, this can be the single most important thing to work on when developing great bass tone. From palm muting to playing with a pick, slapping, fingerstyle, and everything in between, there are many different ways to make a bass sound without buying any extra equipment. Fingerstyle, whether played with one finger, two fingers, or three fingers, can all sound different. Playing with the thumb and not slapping can also create a completely different sound too and therefore give the music a different feel.

Things to think about:
Are you accomplished enough with your fingerstyle technique to play buzz free at any volume? Can you draw more low-end out of your bass with the use of your fingers? Can you draw the high-end out of your bass without turning any knobs? Can you do everything in between?

I strongly suggest practicing with your fingers to all the extremes (be careful). I also recommend finding a happy medium within it all.



Amp Setup:
Have you ever noticed that your instrument sounds completely different when you are playing alone in your practice room compared to performing with a live band? Have you ever dialed in a stellar tone at home only to add drums and guitar to the mix and all of a sudden you just can't hear yourself anymore?

Your amp setup has the potential to make or break your sound. Ideally, the primary function of an amplifier is to strictly amplify the signal coming from your bass without adding too much "color". If you can set all of the controls "flat" on the amp, plug in, and have the bass sound roughly the same as it is does unplugged, good work. Some amps inherently have way too much low-end, and others make a hissing sound that comes from a harsh high-end. I think that a good amp should sound "flat" and give the user a chance to define their sound through the use of a good pre-amp, such as an on-board pre-amp or an external one.

One problem I used to run into with crappy amps was distortion. When I would crank the amp up to play loud, things would get distorted because the amp did not have enough clean power. This problem can be remedied a few different ways (playing quieter) but keep in mind that the end goal should be to have a clean and transparent sound at any volume. Once this is achieved, any effect can be intentionally added to the mix; including distortion.

If you are aiming for a clean bass tone at any volume, a 500-Watt, 800-Watt, or 1,000-Watt amp-head can be a good starting point in terms of having enough power to keep up with a band. 400-Watt amplifiers seem to be less than optimal for competing with louder drums and guitars, although when paired with big speaker cabs such as 4x10's or larger it might be okay.

Keep in mind that I am not suggesting to play louder. Believe me, if you turn up, the rest of the band will too. Also, be sure to wear earplugs whenever there is a chance that something like this might happen. I am suggesting, however, to have enough headroom to amplify a signal cleanly to whatever volume is appropriate.



Room:
One of the biggest obstacles that bass players run into when playing in public is a room that is too boomy sounding. This will often make a certain frequency of the low-end sound overpowering or muddy.

A simple solution is to find what the frequency is that is sounding boomy and remove it. A parametric EQ setup on your amp can be the most effective way to do this.

  • The first step is to find the frequency: Take a guess at what it might be; 300 Hz? Set the frequency selector knob to 300 and turn the volume of that frequency all the way up. If the boominess gets worse, congratulations, you have found the offending frenquency. If the boominess is the same and another frequency gets louder, select a different frequency. Be sure to accurately pinpoint the offending frequency for best results.

  • Once you have found the offending frequency, all you have to do is cut it by turning the volume of that frequency down. Turn the knob down until the boominess disappears but be careful not to cut the frequency too much.

  • Take note if your instrument sounds weird without the presence of the newly removed frequency. The high-end might be too prevalent or the sound might be too thin. You may need to cut or add different frequencies just to compensate. Use your ear and walk around to different parts of the room to make sure things sound okay.



Instrument Cables, Power Cables, Speaker Cables, New Strings, Instrument Setup, etc...
Some of us might care more than others about these things but if the basic principal is to have the clearest possible signal, everything in the chain should be considered to have an impact.

New strings will probably make the biggest difference to your bass tone. If you like the sound of clunky, dead, old strings, more power to you, but if you like the brighter sound that fresh strings will provide, than you are going to want to change them from time to time. With daily playing, you can probably expect the sound of your new strings to decline within a month or two. It's up to you when you want to change them. Touring musicians will change them as often as once a week or even every day, depending on their preference.

Instrument setup can also drastically change the sound of your bass, not to mention the playability. Higher action (string height) can end up sounding too punchy and bulky, while lower action has the tendency to flop out and/or create more string buzz (which can be perfect for funk).

With all of this other stuff, it's completely up to you to decide how far you want to go and how much money you are willing to spend for the best equipment available.

Here are some great instrument cables, power cables, and speaker cables that are built to transfer the signal of your bass as cleanly as possible.




Keep in mind that finding your bass tone is all about getting in touch with your own unique artistic expression. It's about reproducing that sound that already exists in your mind. Good luck finding your tone!



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