Over the course of a year, I get quite a few vintage basses either traded in or sent for repair due to a common complaint: “My bass has lost its oomph.” Vintage basses lose their oomph for one of three reasons: Something is broken, something changed in the signal chain, or you’re doing something different to the instrument. In this column, we’ll deal with the last two items on this list.
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.
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