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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 entire universe.
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” even meant.
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.
Steve Cook is currently fortifying himself in the back of a tour bus, awaiting the low-end revolution. He can be reached at email@example.com until the coast is clear.