This boat of basses covers all the categories with the exception of a fretless. Having these bass choices all on hand will please even the most particular requests from a producer.
Working guitarists often have at least one version of each of the classics: a Les Paul, a Tele, a Strat, etc. As bassists, we don’t necessarily have to have specific basses, but we need to be able to nail specific tones if our ambition is to do sessions for people other than ourselves. Yes, skilled hands can coax many tones out of one great instrument, but it’s a necessity to show up to a session with whatever is required to nail the bass tones that clients want on their projects. Each of the following categories of basses comes with a variety of price ranges, but in my experience, the price and the amount of use I can get from a bass in recording situations do not necessarily correlate.
The Vintage 5
In Nashville (where I do most of my session work), this type of instrument is ground zero for me. It’s a 5-string bass strung with half-round or nickel strings for a Fender-type tone with a fair amount of attack and sustain, preferably with passive pickups or a very subtle-sounding onboard preamp.
The goal with this type of instrument is to be able to cover most applications with a tone that’s somewhat vintage by retaining the semblance of a Fender-style instrument, without sounding too dead, old, or muted. I refer to these instruments as “Cadillac Fenders,” which is essentially saying they take the traditional Fender tone to a place that’s slightly different, but still recognizable. The prices are often a little bit higher and the manufacturers are usually smaller-scale operations that incorporate more of a handmade approach. Instruments in this category include offerings from Fender (of course), Sadowsky, Sandberg, Mike Lull, and Alleva-Coppolo.
The Modern 5
This bass starts its tonal-versatility spectrum where the Vintage 5 ends in the brightness, punch, and sustain departments. The main characteristics for this type of bass are a very modern and silky hi-fi top-end and a focused, quick low-end response. Active electronics are a must with an instrument like this and “soap bar”-style pickups are a popular choice. Steel or nickel strings are also a necessity. This type of bass will cover modern gospel tones to synth-bass-type doubling applications, and can be used to venture into modern metal or smooth jazz alike. Basses in this category often come with exotic woods and can also be quite pricey. Some of the manufacturers offering options in this category include Yamaha, Ken Smith, Fodera, Spector, MTD, Ibanez, and Warwick.
The Visually Comfortable 4
Most albums throughout history have been recorded with a very short list of bass models. During the peak years of production for a lot of these instruments, particular paint jobs were very popular (and still are). Be it conscious or subconscious, engineers and producers—and even your fellow musicians or the artist you’re working with—have a comfort level with a bass that just looks the part and reminds them of the basses they grew up looking at and listening to.
What I’m saying here is that bringing a sunburst, natural, or cream-white 4-string Jazz- or Precision-style bass to a session is never a bad idea. People won’t be as concerned about the logo on the headstock as much as they’ll be about the bass as a whole and the sound of it. Aftermarket pickups are no problem as long as they’re passive. For the very few session guys who only bring 4-string basses to a session, it doesn’t hurt to have the bass equipped with a drop-D tuning mechanism.
The “I Refuse to Play a 5-string” 4
The name of this one is pretty self-explanatory. The guys that simply don’t want to play 5-string basses sometimes get asked to play notes lower than possible with traditional D tuning. But when digging in, string tension and pitch can become issues if you tune down the 4th string lower than D. You can string one of your 4-string basses B through D instead of the traditional E through G, but if you’re playing a bass with a P-style pickup, the E and A strings will be picked up by the different “halves” of the pickup. This can compromise the evenness of the tone and sound pattern your ear is normally tuned to for those strings. For this reason, I recommend a Jazz-style pickup setup if you decide to go this route.
The Motown Sound
You’re probably thinking this simply means a Precision bass strung with flatwounds. It is, of course, a good way to achieve the tone, but there are other ways. Personally, I usually achieve this sound with a Gibson EB-3 replica strung with older roundwounds and use a sock (sometimes even a clean one) as a dampener placed under the strings right in front of the bridge. A very short, soft but punchy low-mid attack is at the core of this sound. This bass also sounds fantastic with a felt or regular pick and can substitute for an upright when needed.
The Fretless Bass
The onesession where you don’t think you’ll need a fretless—and don’t bring one—is always the session you end up needing it! Trust me—I learned my lesson the hard way. The sound of a fretless can’t be reproduced by another bass, so if the producer wants it, you simply have to have one with you. A well-played fretless track can make a ballad into something lyrical and fluid, and that will get you called back every time.
So there you have it: Make sure your bases are covered by showing up to a session with whatever basses are required to deal with the tones that might be needed. That said, ifI’m facing a recording situation where I’m only able to bring one bass, it’s always going to be a Vintage 5. See you next month!