Even good habits can be hard to break, but if you occasionally try, you might discover a better bass modus operandi.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a column about things I do as a bassist that might not be standard practice [“Low-End Life Hacks,” December 2016]. And believe me, there are quite a few other things that are brought up often during my get-togethers and marathon nerd-out sessions with other bassists. Let’s explore a few.
To each bass its own. I’m pretty obsessed with buying instruments. Sometimes I want to experiment with a bass longer than a music store visit allows, or I fall madly in love with a bass right away and feel I need it in my arsenal immediately—even if it’s not financially feasible. I’m not endorsing this kind of behavior, but I believe this habit allows me to discover more things about bass in general, and about the soul and individuality of different instruments—rather than sticking to playing the same bass (or the same few basses) all the time. A 4-string Jazz I recently acquired illustrates this point.
Like many players, I have a go-to set of strings I put on every instrument I buy. For my 5-string basses, it’s .045–.130 D’Addario ProSteels. I’ve preferred this specific brand and gauge for a long time simply because they make me sound like, well, me. My 4-string basses get slightly heavier strings (.050–.110) since—thanks to my metalhead youth—I tend to tune down frequently when playing a 4-string. Sometimes, however, an instrument gives me a gut feeling that something else is required for it to reach its full potential, or to feeland sound better.
I recently bought a 4-string Jazz from a secondhand store while on tour in Japan. The bass sounded so amazing unplugged that I almost bought it without even plugging it in. When I got back home and strung it up with my go-to strings, I immediately felt the way this bass wanted me to play it—some hammer-ons in my solo phrases and, yes, even a little slapping—in combination with its skinnier neck required me to try lighter-gauge strings. Also, the 4th string was slightly louder than the other three, and I figured a thinner gauge might even out the string-to-string balance. Well, going with a .045–.100 set worked like a charm. I haven’t played strings that light since I started playing bass, but the instrument specifically told me that’s what it needed, so I had to abide.
If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Last year, I picked up a bright powder-blue Warwick Star Bass. This hollowbody beauty hung on the wall at the Warwick showroom in Nashville for a long time, so the factory roundwound strings were fairly broken in from other people testing it. I took it home and couldn’t wait to put my strings on it, but after spending a couple minutes playing it through my own amp, I started doubting myself.
I’m not claiming to be a “bass whisperer” here, but this is what the bass told me: “Maybe this slightly less-bright tone will set me apart from your other basses. And maybe having a bass brighter than your flatwound-strung basses—but warmer than your regular tone—will mean I get more playing hours.” You know what? The bass was right. I’m more than a year into owning this instrument, and the same strings are still on it.
Fluctuating strap length. As an active player for a few decades now, there is photographic evidence that my strap length has gone through several phases. In my first rock bands as a kid, my bass was slung quite low to look cool (or so I thought, at least). After a few years, when the eight-hours-a-day practice routine started, my bass was positioned way up high to facilitate more technical playing and better accessibility to the higher register. (I thought a pot of gold might be found if I played enough blazingly fast high notes.) From my late 20s until present day, however, my strap length has gotten progressively lower and lower, to the point of my bass being almost back to its preteen, low-slung position.
Why all this talk about strap lengths? It’s because I now tend to apply different strap lengths to accommodate the type of playing I normally do on a specific instrument. If I’m playing heavy metal with a pick, it feels good to use some arm strength and not just my wrist. And because I don’t have to bend my arm much when plucking the strings, the bass hangs low. Alternatively, on the occasions I slap, I’ll have the bass positioned so I can bend my arm and use more wrist strength to give my thumb more power when striking the strings.
I also have basses that are designed very differently than most Fender-style instruments—that just fit better ergonomically against my ribs or hipbone at a slightly different height. I know this goes against what is recommended for the sake of muscle memory, but I continue to let playing style and the instrument dictate where each bass hangs on my body.
I challenge you to experiment with things other than those that have always worked for you—even if it’s only based on a slight hunch that a different approach might be called for. You might just shock yourself, and that’s a good feeling.