The Sound of Bass

Good friends are ones that tell you when you are wrong.  They don’t do it in a mean way, but rather they just subtly point you in a different direction.

My friend John Goulter is one of those people.  “So, what did it SOUND like”, was his comment about a bass posting I made.  It made me realize that the whole point of writing about basses was not how pretty they are (visual) or how nice they felt to play (kinesthetic), but how they sounded (auditory).

I guess when I’m playing a bass I get caught up in a lot different aspects of the instrument, but I need to remember that the most important thing is, ‘how does it sound?’

Frankly, I find this the hardest thing to verbalize.  It’s like those people that write about wine.  A kind of Niles Crane overuse of intellectual terms.  Check out this website to see how many words you can use to describe the taste of wine.

But I guess like the taste of a fine wine, there are characteristics of the sound of bass that need to be described.  “The bass had a fruity sound with just a hint of french oak.”

For me, there are a bunch of things that affect my impression of the sound of a bass that have little to do with the bass itself…

The Amplifier: Every amp has its own sound and they all have tons of ways to shape the sound.  Many are solid state and the better ones have varying degrees of vacuum tube circuitry.   Amps that are all solid state tend to have a more sterile sound where amps with tubes have a warmer sound to them.  This warmness is more pronounced as the amp is over-driven.

The Strings: Instruments pulled down off the music store wall are notorious for having worn strings.  Not physically worn, but mostly because the oil in the hands of those playing the basses gets on and into the windings of the strings.  Over time those strings start to get that “rubber band” sound.  That’s the sound you get when you pluck a rubber band that has been placed around an empty tissue box.

Ages ago I had a friend that could literally play a new set of strings a few times and they would start to look rusty and corroded.  Recently I started to pickup a bass in a store and stopped.  The neck was covered in some kind of grunge.  Like somebody had been working in a bakery or something just before playing the bass.  The clerk in the store, who was also grossed out, was very nice about it and gave the bass a good go over with some kind of polish.

In my opinion a new bass purchase should always include a new set of strings.

String Type: There are lots of kinds of strings and they all have different sounds.  In general there are two basic string types:  flat-wound and round-wound.  Up until the 1960’s virtually all bass strings were flat-wound.  They have a deader thunkier sound.  Round-wound strings have a much brighter sound and sound more like the bass strings of a piano.  In fact The Who’s John Entwislte was a pioneer of round-wound strings.  He got the idea by putting piano strings on a homemade bass.

There are lots other kinds of strings such as tape-wound and and half-rounds.  They all have their sound and it’s a matter of personal preference as to which bass suits which strings.

Control Settings: Almost all basses have some form of controls: volume, tone, EQ, pickup selectors and such.  Many bass controls are very intuitive.  For example, you can easily figure out where the volume and tone controls are.  Some basses have fairly complex electronics.  There have been a few basses where I turn the knobs until I get some sound, but I’m not really sure how to tailor it to my liking. These basses might have a great sound, but I just haven’t figured out how to get it.  Yet.

Descriptive Nomenclature:

The following are terms that I might use to describe the sound of a bass…

Alembic Listening to those old Stanley Clarke records, he always had this particular sound.  I can’t explain it other that to say it sounds like an Alembic bass.  There is a brightness, but not twangyness to this bass.  It is so well suited to jazz.

My Warwick has a bit of this sound.  I imagine it has a lot to do with the wood used in the instrument.  And the lack of finish on the wood.  This sound, I find, is not well suited to classic rock.  When I’ve recorded rock with this bass I find myself trying to EQ out that Alembic sound.

Vanilla or P-Bass To me the sound of a Fender Precision is the most ordinary sound you can get.  That’s probably because the “P-Bass” has likely been used on more recordings that any other bass in history.  The old P-Bass sound utilized flat-wound strings, but over the years most Precisions are played with round-wounds.

With my ’75 Precision I played it for years with Rotosound Swing Bass 66 strings This was because I was trying to get that Ric sound out of it.  When the strings were new and I set my EQ to a “U” shape, I could get close to that Chris Squire sound.

Ric – Chris Squire Growing up, Chris Squire from Yes was my bass idol.  I spent countless hours learning to play Yes songs.  Squire played with a Rickenbacker RM1999 (an English import version of the 4001).  He also played with Rotosound strings and played with a pick.  Squire would replace the strings for every performance to maintain the brightest possible sound.  When playing, he would pick between the bridge pickup cover and the bridge.  Playing here gets a brighter sound.  Squire would play the Ric stereo.  This meant that the neck pickup could be routed to one amp and the bridge pickup to another.   This allows for separate EQ and effects on each pickup.  Squire’s bass had also been refinished a number of times and he claims that reduced the size of the body and changed the sound from how it originally sounded.  The Ric – Chris Squire sound is bright, slightly distorted and has lots of attack and chunk.  Because of his sound he could play more melodic bass parts than were popular to that point and he was often referred to as being a “lead bass” player.

Ric – McCartney Paul McCartney also played a Ric.  His was a one of the first 4001s’s built.  McCartney would have likely played with whatever flat-wound strings  it came with and it appears he played with either his thumb or a pick.  The best examples of this bass can be heard on Sgt. Pepper.  This bass has a rich sound on the low end and a more fundamental (no harmonics) sound when played up the neck.

Hofner On the early Beatle albums McCartney played a semi-acoustic Hofner 500/1 again likely with flat-wounds and likely with a pick.  On some of the Anthology recording you can hear him playing this bass without the band.  It has a definite hollow thunk to it with very little sustain.  In fact the instrument, by today’s standards, would not be too popular except to replicate that early British sound.

Jazz Bass A Fender Jazz Bass has a sound all it’s own.  Full and rich with lots of bottom end.  Check out Tal Wilkenfeld’s solo with Jeff Beck.  (Tal plays a Sadowsky.  But you get the idea.)

Fretless A fretless bass has a subtlety all to itself.  Sometimes you can’t tell that a bass is fretless until the player slides from one note to another.  Such a smooth silky sound.  But if you hear a fretless on its own, they normally have this warm buzzy sound.  I think this is caused by the string vibrating against the fretboard.  It almost sounds like distortion, but its not.  I have two fretless basses.  Both have flat-wound strings.  One is solid body.  The other is a Godin A4 with a semi-acoustic body.  This bass has an incredibly warm sound that comes close to the sound of a double bass.

Double Bass A double bass is sometimes called a stand-up bass.  (It is actually a member of violin family)  This bass has a dead thunky fundamental sound.  The lack of sustain has a lot to do with the size of the body.

I could go on with this.  There are also a whole range of sounds that come from right hand playing style.  These include playing with the first two or three fingers, playing slap with thumb and forefinger, playing with a pick, playing over the neck or closer to the bridge, muting the strings, tapping, pick harmonics, tapping pull-offs and probably a lot of other techniques.  Perhaps this will be the subject of a future article.

Summary:  My lesson learned… It is not sufficient to say, “This bass sounds GOOD!” ;^)


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