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!
The silky smooth slide man may raise a few eyebrows with his gear—a hollow, steel-bodied baritone and .017s on a Jazzmaster—but every note and tone he plays sounds just right.
KingTone’s The Duellist is currently Ariel Posen’s most-used pedal. One side of the dual drive (the Bluesbreaker voicing) is always on. But there’s another duality at play when Posen plugs in—the balance between songwriter and guitarist.
“These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package,” Posen told PG back in 2019, when talking about his solo debut, How Long, after departing from his sideman slot for the Bros. Landreth. “Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs, and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs, and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.”
And in 2021, he found himself equally expressing his yin-and-yang artistry by releasing two albums that represented both sides of his musicality. First, Headway continued the sultry sizzle of songwriting featured on How Long. Then he surprised everyone, especially guitarists, by dropping Mile End, which is a 6-string buffet of solo dishes with nothing but Ariel and his instrument of choice.
But what should fans expect when they see him perform live? “I just trust my gut. I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar centric. If you want to hear me stretch out on some solos, come see a show. I want the record and the live show to be two separate things.”
The afternoon ahead of Posen’s headlining performance at Nashville’s Basement East, the guitar-playing musical force invited PG’s Chris Kies on stage for a robust chat about gear. The 30-minute conversation covers Posen’s potent pair of moody blue bombshells—a hollow, metal-bodied Mule Resophonic and a Fender Custom Shop Jazzmaster—and why any Two-Rock is his go-to amp. He also shares his reasoning behind avoiding effects loops and volume pedals.
Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard.
Blue the Mule III
If you’ve spent any time with Ariel Posen’s first solo record, How Long, you know that the ripping, raunchy slide solo packed within “Get You Back” is an aural high mark. As explained in a 2019 PG interview, Posen’s pairing for that song were two cheapos: a $50 Teisco Del Rey into a Kay combo. However, when he took the pawnshop prize onstage, the magic was gone. “It wouldn’t stay in tune and wouldn’t stop feeding back—it was unbearable [laughs].”
Posen was familiar with Matt Eich of Mule Resophonic—who specializes in building metal-body resonators—so he approached the luthier to construct him a steel-bodied, Strat-style baritone. Eich was reluctant at first (he typically builds roundneck resos and T-style baritones), but after seeing a clip of Posen playing live, the partnership was started.
The above steel-bodied Strat-style guitar is Posen’s third custom 25"-scale baritone. (On Mule Resophonic’s website, it’s affectionately named the “Posencaster.”) The gold-foil-looking pickups are handwound by Eich, and are actually mini humbuckers. He employs a custom Stringjoy set (.017–.064 with a wound G) and typically tunes to B standard. The massive strings allow the shorter-scale baritone to maintain a regular-tension feel. And when he gigs, he tours light (usually with two guitars), so he’ll use a capo to morph into D or E standard.
Another one that saw recording time for Headway and Mile End was the above Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt ’60s Jazzmaster, made by Carlos Lopez. To make it work better for him, he had the treble-bleed circuit removed, so that when the guitar’s volume is lowered it actually gets warmer.
"Clean and Loud"
Last time we spoke with Posen, he plugged into a Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature. It’s typically his live amp. However, since this winter’s U.S. run was a batch of fly dates, he packed light and rented backlines. Being in Music City, he didn’t need to go too deep into his phone’s contacts to find a guitar-playing friend that owned a Two-Rock. This Bloomfield Drive was loaned to Ariel by occasional PG contributor Corey Congilio. On the brand’s consistent tone monsters, Posen said, “To be honest, put a blindfold on me and make one of Two-Rock’s amps clean and loud—I don’t care what one it is.”
The loaner vertical 2x12 cab was stocked with a pair of Two-Rock 12-65B speakers made by Warehouse Guitar Speakers.
Ariel Posen’s Pedalboard
There are a handful of carryovers from Ariel’s previous pedalboard that was featured in our 2021 tone talk: a TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Noir, a Morningstar MC3 MIDI Controller, an Eventide H9, a Mythos Pedals Argonaut Mini Octave Up, and a KingTone miniFUZZ Ge. His additions include a custom edition Keeley Hydra Stereo Reverb & Tremolo (featuring Headway artwork), an Old Blood Noise Endeavors Black Fountain oil can delay, Chase Bliss Audio Thermae Analog Delay and Pitch Shifter, and a KingTone The Duellist overdrive.
Another big piece of the tonal pie for Posen is his signature brass Rock Slide. He worked alongside Rock Slide’s Danny Songhurst to develop his namesake slide that features a round-tip end that helps Posen avoid dead spots or unwanted scratching. While he prefers polished brass, you can see above that it’s also available in a nickel-plated finish and an aged brass.
From the giant, hefty beasts of yore to their modern, ultra-portable equivalents, bass amps have come a long way. So, what's next?
Bassists are often quite well-informed about the details of their instruments, down to the finest technical specs. Many of us have had our share of intense discussions about the most minute differences between one instrument and another. (And sometimes those are interrupted by someone saying, "It's all in the fingers.") But right behind our backs, at the end of our output cables, there is a world of tone-shaping that we either simply ignore or just don't want to dive into too deeply. Turning a gear discussion from bass to amp is a perfect way to bring it to an abrupt end.
Since the beginning of our instrument's history, bassists have faced the fundamental and existential problem of trying to be heard. It's solved now, but too many players don't seem to be interested in how we got here. And it's not just bassists. Even some amp manufacturers haven't been concerned with the details. A few readers might remember that in my September 2019 column, I discussed class-D amp technology. As part of my research, I called a very respected amp manufacturer to get his insight into class-D technology. His stunning response was: "We simply checked some Asian-made modules and chose the one we thought sounded best, but I don't know and never cared how they work." Even the offer of a short technical introduction was met with blissful ignorance. So, if anyone thinks they don't need to know how their amp works, at least you're in good company!
Over the course of the last 80 years or so, the fundamental technology used in our amps has been replaced—and not just once. The technological changes came in several waves and another might be on the way.
Here we are now after this last wave of amp-tech: down from 300 watts at 40 kilograms or 88 pounds in the 1970s, to 500 to 1000 watts at 1 to 3 kilograms or 2 to 7 pounds today.
For the greater part of the last century, bass amps relied on tube circuitry, and it took until the middle of the century to make decently powerful, but heavy and fragile, amps. Unfortunately, guitarists used the same technology—and sometimes even the amps that were initially made for us. (Remember that our low-end needs about 10 times the power of a guitar amp to cut through!) So, as their volume increased, our need for more power just became greater. Our problem remained until the 1960s when amps like Ampeg's B-15 Portaflex and SVT entered the scene. High-output amplification manufacturers sprouted everywhere, enabling loud rock bands to move from clubs to stadiums.
Though the transistor quietly altered the landscape of radios and small solid-state amps during the early 1950s, it took until the late '60s before this technology made it into our rigs. The first companies to make solid-state amps were those who possessed a higher engineering background. Vox, for example, released one of the first solid-state bass amps, thanks to their prior experiences with solid-state circuits from their organs. Many smaller companies soon followed, although most earned a reputation for unreliability. But the technology developed at a breathtaking pace.
This Ashdown Little Giant is more powerful than the mighty SVT at less than 1/10th the weight!
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.com
During the 1980s, clean and powerful hi-fi-esque synth sounds became trendy. This benefitted bassists with the development of clever tone-shaping options, hybrid circuits with tube preamps, bi-amping, internal DIs, and even more power.
Once we were sure to be heard, it was time to look for other advantages, like reduced weight and size, and along came another wave of new amp technology: class D. (See my column "Signal Processing in Class-D Amps," September 2019.) The basic principle behind class-D technology is pulse width modulation (PWM), which sounds as if those with higher engineering skill would once again be in the lead. Instead, there are just a few manufacturers building class-D power modules, and amp builders can use those as the foundation of their own amps. Just get one of the modules, which come in different power ratings, add a power supply and a tone-shaping circuit, and you're done. With several competing manufacturers offering identical power amps, the individual strengths have fully shifted to the qualities of their tone-shaping circuitry and other add-ons or gimmicks.
Here we are now after this last wave of amp tech: down from 300 watts at 40 kilograms or 88 pounds in the 1970s, to 500 to 1000 watts at 1 to 3 kilograms or 2 to 7 pounds today. What could be the next move? It looks as if the power-to-weight ratio has reached an end for quite some time, but tone-shaping capabilities in preamps might shift from classic circuitry to profiling or modeling amps as a fourth wave. And this time it's clearly engineering competence that will make the difference. Can you imagine what instruments we'd be playing today if our basses had made similar progress?
A rumination on the history of bass speakers and how they compare to their guitar-amplifying kin.
Musicians rarely see the huge effect a speaker or cabinet has on their sound, as our relationship to our instrument is way more emotional and intense than with what comes after the output jack. In 1915, Peter Jensen perplexed those who attended his Magnavox speaker demonstration with the amplification of a human voice. The construction of that speaker—a conical membrane and a voice coil in a magnetic field—is principally the same as what we use today, although the Celestion speaker from 1924 looks quite different to what we are used to seeing (Photo 1). The tonal goals in the world of hi-fi speakers are pretty clear: a wide frequency range and high linearity, which is far from what our rigs require.
While the membrane of a guitarist's speaker is almost always made from paper or cellulose, bass speakers also sport carbon, Kevlar, or polypropylene for enhanced stiffness. Added mass and stiffness contribute to frequency response in the bass range. Extra ribs on the conical membrane and chemical coatings can further enhance stiffness and rigidity. And, as opposed to our instruments, where we often have tonally dominating parts like the pickups, almost all parts of a speaker are interacting.
On a guitar speaker, the shell of the voice coil is most often made from paper, making it both light and sensitive, with a detailed upper range, but highly sensitive to heat. The bass version sports bigger voice coil diameters, for better thermal flux, and Kapton or fiberglass shells. As guitarists initially swore on alnico and, later, ceramic ferrite magnets, the bass world has now moved on to neodymium—which is 10 times as powerful and more lightweight than a ferrite magnet—as the norm. As we know, compared to guitar gear, ours is typically bigger, heavier, and way more powerful.
As guitarists initially swore on alnico and, later, ceramic ferrite magnets, the bass world has now moved on to neodymium—which is 10 times as powerful and more lightweight than a ferrite magnet—as the norm.
Another common difference is that guitarists mostly rely on one speaker size for their whole rig—mainly 12". Bassists, on the other hand, are used to mixing several sizes, using crossovers, or even bi-amping, mainly because of the hard realities of reproducing a good low end.
In the heyday of our instrument, those huge and heavy Ampeg SVTs and their 9x10 cabinets were at the heart of many a bassist's dream rig. The 300W SVT came in around 88 pounds, while a modern 300W class D head might be just a mere 3.3 pounds. The evolution of speaker cabinets is quite similar, with lighter cabinet enclosures sporting highly efficient speakers. If we want to quantify efficiency or sensitivity per watt, we have to look at their sound pressure level (SPL) and remember what logarithmic scales mean for perceived loudness and necessary wattage: Raising SPL by 3 dB requires twice the wattage. Or, similarly, a speaker's 3 dB of higher efficiency is like doubling an amp's power.
Image 1: Here are two almost identical SPL and impedance plots, despite their fundamentally different magnet materials, with neodymium shown in blue and ferrite in red. The SPL plots are the wild upper curves, while impedance curves have just one peak.
Copyright SICA/Jensen Speakers, Italy
SPL measurements are most often shown as frequency response curves in the audible range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, with decibel (dB) versus frequency (Hz). Image 1 shows a comparison of two 12" guitar speakers with an additional impedance plot in ohms (Ω). The two speakers use different magnet materials, with neodymium shown in blue and ferrite in red. Since neodymium is 10 times as powerful, that means a speaker's heaviest part, the magnets, can be 10 times lighter without much of a different tone and efficiency. Notice that both materials create almost identical results.
While frequency response curves are a common way to compare speakers, they can be misleading. Once SPL ratings are just given as one value in decibels, they are either measured as the level resulting from 1 watt at 1 kHz in 1 meter distance from the speaker—an old and not very helpful standard from the days of portable transistor radios—or as an average of a frequency range. Some manufacturers use complete audible range or parts of the prominent midrange in their spec info. So, as valuable as these frequency response curves can be, keep in mind that, without knowing the details, comparability between manufacturers has its limits.
Wireless technology is thriving in all parts of the techno-sphere and it's time for bassists to catch up.
What were the most dangerous times for bassists, guitarists, and singers? Surely the '60s. Not because of wild backstage parties, drug abuse, or high-risk early international travel, but simply because of electrocution caused by amateurish electrical installations with missing grounds.
That's exactly what inspired Leo Fender to develop the TR-105, the first "Wireless Remote Unit," as they called it, back in 1961. Unlike the P-bass, this was really a world's first, but unfortunately a rather unsuccessful one. The unit was directed at guitarists, bassists, and accordionists, and had a radius of 50 feet—enough distance for those pre-arena stage dimensions. It looked surprisingly similar to modern units: a set-top box and a belt pack. Its transmitter, which weighed only 5 ounces, had an impressive frequency range of 20 Hz–75 kHz, while the receiver covered 20 Hz–20 kHz, with 100 to 150 hours of operation on one mercury battery. The system came with a hardcase, weighed 15 pounds, and cost $269.50—roughly $2,500 today. For whatever reason, it didn't catch on and Fender only offered it for around a year.
It wasn't until 1976 that Nasty Cordless, Inc. (later renamed Nady Systems) and Ken Schaeffer's Vega Diversity successfully entered a broader market. Both were analog devices and used a process called companding: a word-mix of compression at the sender side and expansion on the receiver side.
The specialty of the Vega was an integrated audio circuit that was known to colorize tone. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, as AC/DC's Angus Young is still using his today, even in the studio, and sees it as a central device for his signature sound. (See PG's AC/DC Rig Rundown from September 2016.) These systems also had greater operation ranges, so they were good for stadium stages.
Today, wireless technology is thriving in all aspects of electronic products, with cables nearly a thing of the past, except among—astonishingly—many musicians who still like to knot and tangle them.
Wireless systems got a bad reputation because of their early teething troubles, which included dropouts and problems picking up radio transmissions. Some guitarists really look down on them because of these initial foibles. Today's budget analog wireless systems can have companders with a fixed ratio, and this can make them sound unnatural. Better ones have more natural sounding companders that make it much harder to tell the difference between wired and wireless sounds. And the newer digital systems are even topping these, with their high-quality A/D converters.
In the foreground of today's discussions about wireless systems are most often things like tone, dynamics, range, energy consumption, bandwidth, and dropouts, while electrocution isn't that much of an issue. Although it should be for anyone touring exotic places with lesser-controlled electrical environments.
Today, wireless technology is thriving in all aspects of electronic products, with cables nearly a thing of the past, except among—astonishingly—many musicians who still like to knot and tangle them. As with all things mechanical, cable breakage isn't such a rarity and one might even be tempted to say that newer wireless devices excel in reliability. And—opposed to many early transmitters—they've switched to USB-equipped accumulators and far lower energy consumption. Choosing a system is almost a no-brainer, even though the sheer number of models is vast. With the exception of low-end budget models, almost all units fulfill the criteria of reliability, tone, ease of use, and operational range.
Fender was first in the wireless game with its unsuccessful TR-105 in 1961.
For us bassists, there are a few extra points to keep in mind. Our signal is pretty dynamic, so our wireless system should be as well. Analog wireless systems need to compress the dynamic range of the audio before it can be carried on a radio wave. Not only can this have an impact on tone; it also limits dynamics. Therefore, digital is the way to go, especially since these have a better low-end range.
All those owning basses with active pickups or preamps should check compatibility before buying, plus keep a few other things in mind. It's sometimes not mentioned in a system's spec lists whether it will work with an active instrument's stereo output jacks, due to a TRS-related connection issue that can occur. Output levels of active pickups can be another issue, which is why many devices come with a gain-adjustment at the transmitter. And finally, there can be whining and noise caused by insufficient shielding of the preamp on your bass, once the transmitter is plugged in and close to the electronics housing. To solve that, just look for a cable-equipped belt pack to keep the receiver's antennas farther away from it.
Some other common features to look for are capacity-load cable simulations, which are more directed at guitarists, and durable metal body packs, for the touring artist. Multiple transmitter supports could be nice to have, but are not essential.
Some research will help you find the right system. Don't be afraid to cut the cable! You might enjoy your new freedom to roam the stage.