Deciding to pick up the bass usually
follows some sort of inspiration—be
it from school, popular music, a friend, or
family member. And getting to the point
where the instrument is actually in your
hands is often preceded by lots of letters to
Santa, mowing acres of grass, or just begging
and pleading your case to mom and
dad. At age 13, my folks let me buy my
first bass for the handsome sum of $110,
deeply denting the savings I had amassed
from birthday gifts and the aforementioned
yard work. There was no greater feeling in
the world than the feel of my first bass in
my hands. At the time, that bass was my
That was until I started looking at gear
magazines and going to an independent
music store near my school that had a great
selection of used gear. I began to realize there
were other options, and it was soon recommended
to me that I move on to the “next
level” of bass. Now at the ripe age of 14, I
was standing in a showroom with bass guitars
from Fender, Alembic, Aria, and more
towering over my head. But I was simply
lost. Even if I could have afforded one of
them, I didn’t know the first thing about
each instrument’s tonal characteristics or
which one would best fit into my big picture.
You may be at the point where you
have been in practice/bedroom mode for
a while and want to branch out and play
equipment more suited to your level, or are
working with other musicians and starting
to book gigs. Before you sell your soul
to the credit card companies and get into
something you may not need, let’s start by
breaking down the essence of what you do
need for an upgrade—one that best suits
your current and future situation. To do
this, we’ll address the three basics for tailoring
your custom needs in an off-the-rack
world: tone, playing situation, and budget.
Big Tone, Big Deal
Back in the day I took the fast track to
finding decent tone. I just turned knobs
until I thought my bass sounded good (not
too muddy, not too bright), but beyond
that, I had no idea what “having tone”
But we know there’s a better way ... quite
simply, tone should be the first order of
business and it’s something you can easily
figure out by asking yourself some questions.
What genre of music are you playing or
want to play? Do you like the flatwound
stylings of old R&B, or are you a modern-rock
junkie looking for an edgier sound?
Are you going to be playing this genre for
a while, or are you in a short-term phase?
Do you have three or more different bands
you play with, all with a different approach?
Whatever your answers, we have solutions.
So first, we pick tone. I realize some
would say budget first, but stay with me on
this and let’s pretend the sky is the limit.
If you could pick any tone from any make
of bass, what would it be? Now ask yourself
why you picked it. If it’s because your
favorite bassist plays a particular instrument,
make sure you’re listening rather than
looking, because you can’t see tone. I saw
Sting playing live with a white Spector in
1983, not knowing that it was a Fender I
was hearing and loving on his records. You
may have to dig a little, but you need to
find out exactly what makes your favorite
bassist sound so good to you.
Most bass (and amplifier) manufacturers
have been pigeonholed into a specific tone,
and often, rightly so. There was little variation
for many years. If you wanted P-bass
tone, then you bought a P bass. You bought
a StingRay if you wanted a StingRay tone,
and the list goes on. They all still have their
very distinctive flavor, but there are now
dozens of other companies making basses
that can emulate the classic tones and more.
You don’t necessarily have to buy the brass
ring when making a move up. You just
need to make the smart move. And that’s
where your goals come in to play.
What’s My Scene?
Are you playing in a modern rock band
on Tuesday, a country band on Friday, and
then church on Sunday? You, my friend,
are not alone and you probably don’t have
enough money for a three-bass arsenal. So
what do you do? Check out all your options
and find a workhorse—your workhorse.
Don’t let yourself get talked into a one-trick
pony of a bass. Your bass should be constructed
well, properly sized to you, tonally
versatile, and at home in the places you’ll be
playing. Get into the stores, get online, and
do your homework. Sure, pawnshops and
Craigslist are cool if you know what you are
looking for, but if not, you will find yourself
buying something that will need to be
replaced sooner rather than later.
At What Cost, Man?
And now for the fun part: the budget. What
can you afford to get your tone and situation
under control? I learned early in life
to save up and always pay cash for gear. If
you start counting the number of gigs you
“are going” to play—even if they are already
booked—something will inevitably happen
and the money may not be there.
It amazes me how many great basses can
be had in the $300–$800 range today. In
just a quick search for used gear online, I
found a number of amazing and versatile
basses for about $400 each. I paid that
much 25 years ago when I upgraded from
practice to practical and got only half the
tone and features you can get now!
A lot of gear decisions can be made with
common sense. Get the right bass for you—
not for the masses—by simply spending
your money on a reliable, good-sounding
instrument. I can’t make decisions for you,
but if you need some assistance here, feel
free to email me. I’m happy to help.
in the back of a tour
bus, awaiting the low-end
revolution. He can
be reached at email@example.com
coast is clear.