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more... GearBass GearSeptember 2008

Zen & the Art of Bass Tone

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It’s the age-old quest for better and better tone, one that goes from the scientific approach to the mystical. Can the idea of “tone” be held up to strict laboratory analysis – waveforms and the atomic components of wood and metal? Is it in the equipment, the hands of the player or in the connections between – cables, strings, DI boxes, amplifiers and speakers? Is it a purely philosophical concept? My experience tells me that the answer lies in a combination, to greater and lesser extent, of all of these and I hope to point to some solid advice from manufacturers and from the New York bass community to help shine a light on this somewhat controversial inquiry.

About once a month, I host a lunch gathering of some of New York’s most experienced working bass players at the Rodeo Bar in Manhattan. We usually number between 20 and 30 and it has become somewhat of an established means of networking and exchanging ideas in the bass community. Discussions are usually informal, but talk invariably turns to the latest gigs, tours, recording sessions and equipment. It is a way to take part in a valuable community experience while gleaning important information about the current state of affairs in the bass world. When Premier Guitar asked me to write a bass-related article for them with the theme of “getting a great bass tone,” I thought that a more moderated discussion at the “Bass Brunch” would be an ideal forum. We met on May 26 and I’d like to refer to some of the comments, which I think will clarify our path to a getting better bass tone.

THE COMPLETE CREW
1 - Hashim Sharrieff
2 - Jeff Kerestes
3 - Brian Murphee
4 - Nick Sullivan
5 - Jeff Ganz
6 - “Cricket” Cohen
7 - Tony Conniff
8 - S.A. Sebastian Gnolfo
9 - Bradley Wegner
10 - Frank Canino
11 - Ivan “Funkboy” Bodley
12 - Mike Visceglia
13 - Bruce Gordon
14 - Mas Hino
15 - Jimmy Coppollo
16 - Paul Nowinsky
17 - Chris Anderson

Let’s start with the instrument itself. My personal feeling is that you can tell a lot about the amplified tone of a bass guitar by listening to it acoustically. Since most basses are made primarily of wood (some are carbon fiber and composite parts), we’re dealing with organic substances, whereby each combination of neck and body, along with the variable of age, can result in dramatically different acoustical properties. When talking to Jimmy Coppolo, luthier and CEO of Alleva Coppolo Basses and Guitars, Jimmy – a frequent bass brunch attendee – spoke of the differences in quality of shipments of wood, moisture content and finishes. We’re talking primarily about alder and ash, as these woods make up the most common types of consumer-oriented bass bodies (there are boutique builders like Fodera, Alembic, Ken Smith, and a host of others, who use more exotic woods, but for the purposes of this article I’d like to talk about the more commonly used varieties).

According to Jimmy, wood with less moisture content tends to sound better and is more stable, be it alder or ash. Wood that holds moisture tends to cover or inhibit the tonal qualities of the instrument. This is one reason why older, vintage instruments are coveted. Jimmy also prefers nitrocellulose finishes, like those found on basses from the fifties and sixties. According to him, they allow the bass’s wood to “breathe” more quickly, which is an asset to good tone. The poly finishes are harder, and, if not applied correctly, can tend to smother tone. The preferences for maple or rosewood necks are personal. Maple necks, like Marcus Miller’s Fender Jazz bass, tend to be brighter while rosewood necks, such as James Jamerson’s Fender Precision bass or my Lakland Joe Osborne Jazz bass, tend to be a bit darker or “warmer” sounding.

If you listen to the bass acoustically, you should be able to determine the relative balance and consistency of the tone. Play all the notes up and down the neck. The bass should be loud enough acoustically and resonant enough for you to be able to hear the definition and duration of each note. There are customary “dead spots” on bass guitars – usually on the G string between the 5th and 7th frets – but this is normal. Any other pronounced dead spots are not normal and should be detectable by scrutinizing the instrument acoustically. Logic then follows that amplifying these unwanted and aberrant properties will result in a decrease in tone.

When the topic of pickups came up during the brunch, veteran bassist and former Johnny Winter sideman, Jeff Ganz, made a cogent argument, saying that an important factor in choosing pickups is the ability to adjust the polepieces individually. Several major manufacturers make pickups with this feature; the advantage of this design is the ability to even-out the response of the pickup to the individual string as desired. Pickups that do not have this feature might have a bias toward one string or another, creating inconsistencies in tonal quality.

Another aspect of pickup choice would be humbucking or non-humbucking configurations. The humbucking setup exists in the Fender Precision -style split pickup configuration, or in active pickups. This does not occur in a passive, two single-coil pickups unless both pickups are turned up all the way, as rolling off the volume of one pickup results in hum that would obviously interfere with your tone.

I prefer a passive setup, as do many other professional bassists. On my 1962 Fender Jazz and my Lakland Joe Osborne Jazz basses, I leave both pickups turned up full (in humbucking mode) and rely on preamps to fine tune the high, middle and low frequencies.

There are three types of strings to consider when thinking about tone. If you’re a fan of old funk and roots music – think James Jamerson or Duck Dunn – then you probably want to play with flatwound strings. These have less sustain and a stronger fundamental – the primary note before any overtones meld with the sound. If you’re into more modern bass sounds, like Marcus Miller or Anthony Jackson, then you might consider roundwound strings. These are brighter, have more sustain and provide overtones as part of their sound, making them more suitable for slap-style playing. A less commonly used string is the half-wound, which as you might guess, gives a sound somewhere between flats and rounds. The brunch crowd was mixed in terms of personal preferences; my personal choice is D’Addario roundwounds, which I find dependable, long lasting and rich in tone.
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