LEFT: If a gig calls
for a large tone with
a slower attack that
focuses on the sub-low
sound from the neck
pickup on this short-scale
a vintage 6x10 cab
should do the trick.
RIGHT: But if the
gig needs a punchier,
tone, you may want
a setup like the Music
from this Sandburg
bass, along with a
4x10 cab with extra
for clean lows.
What is the sound you hear in your
head when you think of the word
“bass”? For some, it means a huge tone
containing the entire frequency range and
all the overtones and vibrancy of a grand
piano’s low strings. To others, it just means
massive low end—like the enormous, pillowy
sound that Aston “Family Man”
Barrett got with Bob Marley & the Wailers.
There are also players who consider bass to
be the punchy sound in the low-mid register—that tone many of us affectionately
refer to as “the Jaco sound.”
But while the ideal bass sound varies
from player to player, in every context
there’s a correct sonic space that requires
personal tone preferences to be put aside.
Fortunately, the setting will dictate the correct
space for the bass, as long as you listen
and look at what’s going on around you.
When I arrive at rehearsal for a show or
a session, I consider a few factors before
estimating the space of the bass. I try to
estimate the sonic size and placement of
my bass tone. My primary focus is always
the kick drum, because it’s the only instrument
that should be anywhere near me,
in terms of frequency. If the drummer is
playing a large kick drum with a big, slow,
warm attack, I will often go in the opposite
direction, sonically picking a more
modern sound with plenty of low-mid
attack and high-end crispness. I’ll also take
out some of the sub-lows to further separate
my sound from the drummer.
On the other hand, if the drummer is
playing a modern kick drum that’s smaller
and tighter, I’ll fatten up my lows, carve out
my mids, and make the highs sound slightly
mellow. One way to easily achieve this type
of tone is by favoring the neck pickup and
using a vintage-sounding amp.
The next thing to consider is the
guitar situation. Are there two guitarists?
Are they using large, closed-back cabs
that put out a lot of low end, or are they
using smaller, open-back cabs with less
bass? Lots of low end from the guitars
means you’ll have to create a sub-low frequency,
as well as dial in some high, cutting
tones. Using a plectrum and playing
through a large stage rig with the amp’s
lows boosted will help you get heard in
this type of situation.
A few years ago, my good friend Jim
invited me to check out his show. He
plays bass with a 15-piece band that ends
up on the top-five list of highest-grossing
tours in the U.S. every summer. Jim asked
me to give my honest opinion about the
mix, and needless to say, I expected it to
be top notch. He’s a world-class bassist
and was playing a $5,000, custom-made
bass with a huge tone that would light
up many frequencies on a sonic-spectrum
analyzer. It’s the kind of instrument that
would make a solo bass piece sound stunning.
But, at the end of the night, I had
to tell him I had trouble hearing him—even though I saw him play his butt off.
In order to be felt and heard in a band
that large, the bass tone can’t be too big.
The sound has to be punchy in a very
specific register. Since Jim is a professional
with 30 years of experience, he had his
amp adjusted perfectly onstage—boosting
only the critical frequencies and cutting
the others to get out of the sonic space
belonging to his 14 bandmates. But the
front-of-house (FOH) engineer took the
bass signal from a DI, which is certainly
very common. In this case, it didn’t work
to Jim’s advantage and the whole mix suffered.
While FOH engineers should be
experts at knowing the sonic space for
every instrument, sometimes they are not.
We can make it easier for them to get the
bass tone right in the PA by knowing the
space of the bass for that specific band
and venue. The decision is as much technical
as it is artistic.
A few weeks later, Jim and I went bass
shopping. We decided he needed a bass that
barked in the mids—to the point of almost
sounding “honky.” The bass also needed
to have a natural absence of sub-lows. Jim
could have purchased any instrument in
the store, but we decided on a $700 J-style
bass because it had a pronounced bump in a
sonic space that would work for his tour.
The FOH engineer ended up being
thrilled with the sound of this inexpensive,
factory-made instrument. Previously, the
engineer had failed to dial in a great tone
from the DI because the $5,000 bass gave
him too many unusable frequencies. The
bump in the mids provided by the budget
bass ended up solving that problem before
the sound even reached the soundboard!
If you listen to and observe the players
and equipment around you, you will have
the tools you need to find the right space
for the bass. The resulting tone may not be
what you love at home or in the store, but
it will be the right tone for the gig. And the
wisdom and discipline required to make
those choices is every bit as important as
that cool bass part you’re playing.
Nashville bassist and producer Victor Brodén
has toured and recorded
with more than 25 major-label
LeAnn Rimes, Richard
Marx, Casting Crowns, and Randy Houser.
His credits also include Grammy-winning
albums and numerous television specials
on CMT and GAC, as well as performances
on The Tonight Show
and The Ellen
. You can reach him at