In his final Bass Bench, our columnist ponders what innovations will come next.
Roughly 70 years into the history of the electric bass, I find myself wondering: Is there a target in the evolution of our instrument? Are we aiming for superb playability, the highest tuning stability, tonal superiority and versatility, ergonomics and comfort, or even all of these things?
In our capitalistic world, there’s usually one thing that rules it all: money! The site ventured.com features statistics and lists relating to the value of just about anything, and that includes the most expensive basses ever—right next to the most expensive fish and banjos. So, is this list full of the most cutting-edge instruments with advanced technology, giving us a glimpse into the evolution of the bass guitar?
Well, the basses at the top of the list do not give us that impression. Instead, they’re rather old tech. In first place is a 1969 Fender Mustang played by Bill Wyman on the Rolling Stones’ 1969 and 1970 tour, which sold at auction for $384,000. Of course, the Mustang was originally designed to be a budget bass, featuring racing stripes to appeal to young students.
The second on the list is a $250,000 luxury bass made from “premium materials” by luthier Jens Ritter, featuring 24-karat gold inlays and hardware, plus knobs topped with diamonds. It might still be a good, well-playing bass, but that’s obviously not where the money went.
A Hofner 500/1 sporting Paul McCartney’s autograph is third on the list of the most expensive basses ever.
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org
In third is another collectible piece: a Hofner 500/1 Violin bass signed by Paul McCartney, followed by James Jamerson’s 1961 Fender Precision. The list continues with either signature models, ornamental inlays, or sought-after, rare custom colors. The Rickenbacker 4005 “Lightshow” bass, featuring lights all over the body that change color based on the notes played, even makes an appearance.
This list is further proof that it’s the story of a bass—its origin, rarity, who owned it, or who signed it—that drives its value more than innovation. And, of course, it’s collectors and not players that spend that much cash. But what if all those efforts would have gone right into a musician’s practical or tonal needs?
Our basses have to be visually appealing, and it’s fun for them to have a cool story, but instruments aren’t just collectibles or fashion, and a little innovation here and there wouldn’t hurt—especially since so many manufacturers’ sites praise exactly that. Every other industry accepts R&D as a cost factor that customers must pay for. The music industry instead invests in either cost savings or ornamental luxury, keeping customers amused with an ever-recurring cycle of fashionable items. And besides tradition, fashion is often the real enemy of innovation.
Besides tradition, fashion is often the real enemy of innovation.
Remember those optical pickups from “A Closer Look at Optical Pickups” [May 2021]. An evolutionary product that requires an idea and costly efforts in R&D and, finally, patents? Or how about Just L. Pauls from Spain, who, almost a decade ago, thought he invented a 3D pickup and convinced his family to spend a small fortune on the patent? In the end, there was no money for a good website or even a demo musician and the project soon folded. What innovation will come along and actually succeed at capturing our imaginations and finding an audience?
On a personal note, this is the 120th Bass Bench column, which means it’s been running for exactly a decade now. It’s time for me to take a break and focus on my main business and get down my backlog that has skyrocketed in recent years.
It wasn’t only 120 deadlines to meet, but also some details I wasn’t super-interested in and never intended to learn about, but had to, knowing it was going to meet an expert audience. In the end, it has helped me to connect a lot of dots, both historically and technologically, which I’m extremely thankful for.
A huge thanks to all the great people at PG for allowing and helping me to do this, and to all who commented and read what I had to say. I feel honored I could do this, and, who knows, maybe—or hopefully—I’ll return at some point. Thank you!
Calling all pedal lovers! You could win one of SIXTEEN pedals in this year's I Love Pedals giveaway. Come back daily for more entries, giving you dozens of chances to win! Giveaway ends March 1, 2024.
Swipe or click to see all the prizes below!
Enter here. Come back daily for more entries to win!I Love Pedals 2024 - Win Pedals All Month Long!
Does artificially breaking in a guitar by “exciting” it really work—at least in the manner we hope it will? And what does that have to do with cheese?
As musicians, we all know the effects of music reach far beyond just fun and entertainment, whether it's helping with depression, influencing our basic mood, bringing people together, or one of myriad other reasons.
But then there are those surprising finds. Swiss cheesemaker Beat Wampfler partnered with a research team from the Bern University of the Arts in Switzerland to improve the taste of his Emmentaler cheese. There are a lot of factors, like humidity, temperature, and nutrients during gestation, involved in the cheese's final taste and aroma.
However, the primary objective of this project was to determine whether one could taste what those wheels of cheese had been listening to during their six months of gestation. The choice of music for each wheel of cheese ranged from The Magic Flute by Mozart to Led Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven" on a 24/7 loop. The team also incorporated some hip-hop by A Tribe Called Quest and EDM from Vril, among other varying genres. And, of course, there was also an untreated control group.
After the aging of the music-infused cheese, the team conducted a blindfolded taste test in a standardized experimental design, performed by several specially trained food-sensory researchers. The final outcome? The experts determined the hip-hop-laced cheese came out on top, with the strongest aroma and taste. Meanwhile, the arts team learned more about the scientific field of sonochemistry, which looks at the impact of sound on chemical reactions in solid bodies and plants.
The first experiments exposing plants to music started in 1962, and the many that followed found that classical music could enhance both the growth and yield of plants. In 2004, the rather anarchistic TV show MythBusters set up a similar experiment by exposing plants to several music styles, as well as positive and negative talk. The plants apparently didn't care whether you talked nicely to them or not, just as long as you did so. In the end, heavy metal music was the victor, with the most growth.
As entertaining as these “studies" are, I hope they don't lead anyone to seriously believe any cheese or plant has any sort of musical preferences. The topic, however, shows a few similarities to musicians who believe their instruments have to be “played in" for optimal tone, or that vintage instruments are superior simply because they've been played for so many decades.
With that belief, there is, of course, a market for devices to speed up the process of breaking in basses and guitars, mainly by attaching speakers to the instrument close to the bridge. It's interesting that when devotees of the process/technology argue its merits and how it all works, they often refer to the influence of sound on plants. First and foremost, there is a huge difference between a system of living cells and a guitar's wooden body. One consists of cells transporting all kinds of fluids and nourishments—it is well known that vibration can significantly stimulate division and cell-membrane fluidity—while the other one is a dead tree, plain and simple.
One company's process suggests using white and pink noise to specifically trim it to your preferred personal sound. Pink noise covers all audible frequencies with higher amplitudes in the bass register than the equally weighed white noise. So, if you want more bass from the instrument, simply extend the exposure time to pink noise, right? But they also say the process can be even more specific if you play the music genre to the instrument you plan to ultimately use it for, and to “make it loud, but never let the signal distort." Following this logic, wouldn't that mean bad news if you plan on playing death metal? And is my instrument ruined if my band members prank me by secretly playing Wham's “Last Christmas" to my bass on a loop?
The theory behind the process is that feeding external vibrations within the resonance range reduces internal tensions, and that the applied energy remains in the material and raises even more over time. This is partially true, as all the applied vibrational energy is heating up the body, but it also implies that you can store this energy to let it drain out via the output jack once you plug in.
To me, the whole played-in idea is simply a psychological effect, where every minute spent with your instrument deepens your relationship with it. It's similar to how hugging a tree feels like reconnecting to nature for some, while the tree couldn't care less. It's not that applying vibrations to wood can't have influences on its mechanical properties. But if so, it's way more likely to be a treatment to soften the tops of acoustic instruments, which might allow for stronger movements and a more dynamic reaction to the strings. With electric solidbody basses and guitars? Not so much. That said, if you can spend the cash, feeling better might be enough of a reason to give it a try!
More on why an electric 4-string’s acoustic sound might not predict its plugged-in performance.
In last month's column [“Does a Solidbody's Unplugged Tone Matter?" December 2020], we looked at an experiment that was performed to compare the airborne- and electric-signal tone of a solidbody bass, with and without its body in contact with a box, aka a resonator.
In short, the outcome was that the body/resonator contact had a clearly noticeable influence on the acoustic tone, but close to none for the electric output. Another variation on this experiment is to put the headstock—rather than the body—in touch with the box. Can we expect the same outcome as before?
One obviously huge difference between the body and neck is their cross sections, influencing stiffness and mass, and therefore providing susceptibility for dampening, resonances, and eigenmodes stimulated by the vibrating string. (For more on how eigenmodes work, see “Killing the Bass, Part 1," from the August 2020 issue.) The main parameters influencing a neck's vibrational behavior are—of course—material, shape, and design of the truss rod, or truss rods. (Yes, dear guitarists, there are basses with more than one truss rod.) There is also the act of our hand grabbing the neck, which will both dampen and stiffen the neck.
An old trick to move dead spots up or down in frequency is to add or remove mass at the headstock—the end of its “lever arm." This is known to work on guitars most of the time, but not so well on basses. This is unscientifically spoken and without further proof, but to significantly influence low bass notes requires bigger changes in mass than most would accept as realistic. There is a bit more about this subject in my column “Bass Necks: Adjustability and Resonance," from November 2012.
Fig. 2 — Here's the spectrum of an E chord on an electric guitar recorded via microphone, with black indicating contact with a box and red without. Graphic courtesy of “Physics of the Electric Guitar" by Dr. Manfred Zollner
Back to the experiment: So, if varying the mass at the headstock can shift these resonances, so should its fixation to the box, right?
Fig. 1 shows our experimental setup. Fig. 2 represents the measured signal of a microphone, while Fig. 3 does the same for the measured signal of a pickup. Both diagrams compare neck contact with the box, and without. It's worth noting that the basic signal for the measurements was an E chord played roughly 50 times by an experienced player.
Opposed to last month's experiment with the body contacting the box—where it was hard to even distinguish the curves in the plot of the electric signal—we can now see at least a few differences in two frequency ranges. Although visually noticeable, however, it was reported that even experienced listeners weren't able to say which is which.
Fig. 3 — Here's the spectrum of that E chord recorded with a guitar's pickup, with (black) and without (red) contact to the box. Graphic courtesy of “Physics of the Electric Guitar" by Dr. Manfred Zollner
An explanation for the results of the first experiment with the body/box contact is that there is a flow of vibrations into the body. Otherwise, we wouldn't hear any acoustic difference when contacting the box. But the reflow from the body back into the strings is zero, at least practically, as we can't measure or hear any differences. On the other hand, the softer neck and its vulnerability for resonances and eigenmodes is able to make a small difference due to the added stiffness and coupling when contacting the box.
All these measurements were done with a guitar, so it would be interesting to see whether there would be bigger differences in the electric signal for a bass. Why? Because we have a higher string mass and overall vibrational energy, and a longer scale length.
There are certainly quite a few more constructional details on our instruments that will alter acoustic or primary tone, but with even less likelihood to make it into the electric signal. So, bottom line: Don't rely too much on acoustic tone when you're evaluating an instrument!
The old adage says not to judge a book by its cover—so why do we do it so much with instruments?
It's pretty common to begin assessing an instrument through its acoustic tone, but how much does this really reveal about the instrument's plugged-in tone? You see it often in reviews, where a player starts out by describing the acoustic tone of a soon-to-be-plugged-in instrument and then draws the first conclusions of what to finally expect.
Think about it: Whenever we pick up an instrument, the first thing most of us do is play it acoustically. It makes sense on many levels, since we want to get used to the neck, overall ergonomics, string spacing, and/or whatever else we need to feel at home before we start annoying (entertaining) our neighbors. The sooner we feel at home, the more likely it is that we are going to like its electric tone. But can we really use an instrument's acoustic tone as a tell for its amplified tone? Not so much! And it's not because we aren't yet familiar with its pickups and electronics.
To be clear, we're talking about solidbody instruments—not acoustics—but the lines can be blurred. With an acoustic bass, the final acoustic tone depends solely on moving the top through the vibrations of the string. With a solidbody, however, only a tiny fraction of the strings' movements or vibrational energy is transferred to the body. Hence, the longer sustain of a non-acoustic bass, since a higher portion of the vibration is kept in the strings.
So, what do we hear unplugged and what can affect it? The first thing to consider is your listening position. The airborne sound of a vibrating dipole consisting of the body and the far more influential and resonant neck will heavily depend on where your ears are. Are they in line with the body's surface in a typical player position or bent over the body with your ears almost in front of it? You can easily hear the difference by rotating the instrument's body on your lap.
Often, the impression of an acoustically loud instrument leads to the conclusion of getting a strong, aggressive, impulsive, dynamic—or whatever you want to name it—electric tone. In reality, there are a lot of construction details that blur the categorical split between an electric and acoustic instrument, so be sure to expect differences in the airborne sound. There could be a regular open pickup routing or a more generous routing that's closed with a floppy pickguard and acting as a sort of a tiny speaker. The same thing goes for a chambered body that—depending how it's done—can give us a sort of acoustic touch, sometimes even with its plugged-in tone.
Fig. 2 — The spectrum of the E chord recorded with a guitar's pickup, with (black) and without (red) contact to the box. Graphic courtesy of “Physics of the Electric Guitar" by Dr. Manfred Zollner
Luckily for us, there are measurements that can show how misleading the direct connection of airborne sound and electric tone can be. A repeatedly played E chord on a guitar is recorded with a microphone, and then via the pickup. In each scenario, the sound is captured while the guitar is in contact with a box, and then without. Fig. 1 shows the acoustically noticeable and measurable change in both the midrange loudness and low-end spectrum of an instrument when in touch with the box, which is caused by the extended radiating area of the box. The graph in Fig. 2 shows the measurements when recording the pickup's output signal with and without the box, where you have to look very closely to see any differences at all.
So, none of the acoustically obvious differences made it into the final pickup signal in a way that even an expert's ear would be able to distinguish. And if attaching a box to a body doesn't alter the electric tone, this gives us a hint of how influential the body wood is, but that's another story for another time.
There are a lot of emotions involved when playing an instrument, so there are surely some qualities one might rediscover in an guitar's plugged-in tone that relate to its acoustic tone. Maybe it's how it inspires you to play in a certain way, how it reacts to bending or different playing styles, or maybe even some of its dynamics. But it's almost impossible to fairly judge an instrument's so-called primary tonal character by just its acoustic tone.