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Vintage basses don’t sport preamps or a set of super-hot passive pickups, so relatively minor changes can result in a major alteration of your tone or volume. Here are a few things you can try to bring your old girl up to snuff, or possibly find the extra five percent of goodness you didn’t even know you had!
Anything regarding your amp is a story for another day. Your cables, however, play a major role in your tone. Don’t believe me? Test a $5 cable against a premium one. Your instrument will immediately come to life with the latter, and that’s why I highly recommend quality cables for both instruments and speaker cabinets. Also, if you have a removable amplifier power cord, confirm that it meets or exceeds manufacturer spec. If your bass has single-coil pickups and you play in clubs with “dirty” power, consider purchasing a power conditioner. My conditioning unit has a digital read-out and cost less than $150.
Many folks are dissatisfied with their sound because they have the wrong type of strings on their basses. Strings typically are made from a nickel-steel alloy or stainless steel. Nickel strings have a mellower tone and stainless strings offer more zing. You may have wanted one or the other and simply put on the wrong set.
String gauge is also a major culprit when it comes to bad tone. Ninety-nine percent of bass string sets are gauged between .040 and .105. A .040-.095 set may sound okay on a Mustang bass, but your P-bass? I’m not so sure. The opposite also holds true when it comes to a .045-.105 set. Some folks routinely use .045-.105s for everything, but you might be surprised at how well a .045-.100 set would work on the same bass. You may find the bass sets up a little better, some of the wolf tones may dissipate, and the tone may be a little airier.
String Action and Pickup Height
It’s all a balancing act when it comes to your string action. I’ve seen many basses with crazy low action that played really well, but also sounded really thin. Raising the action on such an instrument definitely gives it more pop. Some of my super-pro friends keep a bass with the action set on the high side and use it solely for recording—they swear it makes a difference in the studio. Readers, I’m curious as to what you have found regarding high action and recording.
When it comes to pickup height, it’s a similar story. The closer the pickups are to the strings, the higher the volume. Conversely, when the pickups are too deep in their cavities, you’ll lose volume. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot for balancing volume and tonal clarity. Fire up your amp and spend a little time with a screwdriver, playing and experimenting with pickup height. A quarter-turn here and a half-turn there can make a difference. Remember to really dig into the strings as you’re doing this. You don’t want them to hit the pickups when you vigorously attack a note.
All Wound Up
This generally drives me nuts. I have repairs coming in from 40-year players who cannot wind strings correctly. There are four typical errors, and I guarantee each one will alter your tone.
Having too many windings will have a compression affect and "choke" your tone a little bit. Not enough windings will result in a thinner tone, and you will be out of tune in one song. Overlapping windings prevents solid contact with the tuner post, and will again result in going out of tune quickly. This last error really drives me crazy—you must wind your strings down the post to where the last winding is just about touching the ferrule! I have seen strings wound correctly around the tuner post, but riding high on the post or worse, wound from bottom to top! Your string needs the correct break angle over the nut. If you are wound too high on the post, your string will "ride" in the nut slot, diminishing sustain and tone, and resulting in rattling. The greater the break angle over the nut, the better!
And as long as we’re discussing tuners, tighten all of your tuner screws. You have mounting screws, post screws, and you may have paddle screws. This will provide a more solid contact for your strings and help you stay in tune.
Bridge and Fretboard Tips
There are a few things that can be done at the bridge. For Gibson guys, this is the tip your momma never taught you. Most guys will keep the bridge level when using a 3-point bridge. Screw down your back anchor screws and raise the front pivot to adjust your height. This will provide a greater angle on the saddle, resulting in more sustain and tone.
Also, when was the last time you cleaned your saddles? A string riding on your saddle produces optimum tone—a string sitting on finger funk does not. Speaking of guitar hygiene, you should also clean your fretboard and your frets. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten repairs from customers saying, "My bass won’t stay in tune, the intonation is out, blah blah blah," and I think, "Buddy, your neck is disgusting!" Your instrument will play and sound better with a clean fretboard.
This is all common sense. Yes, a few items we’ve discussed require spending money, but other than experimenting with strings or cables—and perhaps investing in a power conditioner—these tweaks don’t cost a dime. They’re also within everyone’s tinkering ability. Let me know how you make out!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975 and is currently the principle and co-owner, with "Dr." Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works: kebosbassworks.com. He can be reached at: Kebobass@yahoo.com. Feel free to call him KeBo.