DIY: How to Choose Your Bass Strings
Veteran bassist and longtime PG contributor Steve Cook provides a no-nonsense guide to finding the best strings to fit your bass and playing style.
He works with varied types of bass strings, all by D’Addario, with flavors from snappy and bright to mellow and subdued. Along the way he investigates materials, coatings, and gauges. (Medium strings are probably what your bass wore when it left the factory.) Steve plays the same licks throughout the video, to be sure the focus is on the strings exclusively. And before launching into the experiment with his slightly modded Fender Precision Deluxe, he advises to always let you own ears make the judgement about what sounds right for you. (Did you hear that?)
First up: XL high-carbon steel-core strings with nickel-plated wrap wire. Then, it is warmer and fatter sounding Pro Steels, with a high-carbon steel core and stainless steel wrap wire. Those are followed by XL Chromes, with a high-carbon steel core, and a stainless steel-flattened ribbon wrap. The NYXLs that now arrive have a steel core and nickel-plated steel wrap wire. The XT Nickels on his bass have D’Addario’s XT coating and a steel core, with nickel-plated steel wrap wire. Following that, it’s XL half-rounds with a high-carbon steel core and pure nickel wrap wire, trailed by Nylon Tapewounds with a high-carbon steel core and a flattened black nylon wrap. And the next XLs, regular Nickels, have a high-carbon steel core and nickel-steel-plated wrap wire. Steve finally shifts to a second riff, to display the sounds of a slightly different approach. And then he starts snapping and popping, for the funkateers out there, followed by a walking bass line. And yes, he plays with a pick as well as his fingers.
By the time Steve’s finished, you hear all these string sets with a compendium of approaches. And then it’s your turn.
Last Call: Playing 'The Today Show'
One of my recent gigs was playing pedal steel with country artist Brooke Eden on live TV in front of millions of eyeballs. Here’s how it went.
Yesterday, I played The Today Show with country artist Brooke Eden. I’ve played Today and/or Good Morning America seven or eight times over the past 28 years: a few times on guitar, four or five on steel, and once on banjo (I’m terrible at banjo but can play a simple part under pressure). Here’s an inside look at the gig while the memory is still fresh.
Last week, Brooke Eden’s musical director, Miles Aubrey, texted to ask if I was available. I jumped on it. The band was Miles on guitar, Megan Jane on drums, Carl Fields on bass, and me on pedal steel with Brooke singing. The steel part was prominent yet somewhat simple, but the song had some keypads and a second guitar part that I tried to cover with a dotted delay trick to fill out the sound. We had one quick rehearsal at Brooke’s home, and although the five of us had never played together, it sounded great on the first run-through. We played it once more then planned to meet in New York on Sunday night.
The next day, Miles texted everyone that he was sick and should bow out. Our drummer Megan brought in guitarist Gabe Burdulis, who she was touring with, to fill in for Miles.
I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet.”
Today has a 4:30 a.m. call time, allowing bands to soundcheck before the guests and hosts arrive, which means you fly in the night before. I checked my steel (a Show Pro single-neck E9 10-string), a duffle bag with show clothes, a volume pedal, some cables, and a small steel-specific pedalboard with a Peterson tuner, Keeley Compressor Mini, Keeley Red Dirt Mini Overdrive, Ibanez Echo Shifter for weird analog delay, and an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 for a second digital delay or ’verb, tremolo, etc. Both delays have a tap tempo: I used a dotted delay on the Oceans 11 running into a trippy quarter-note delay on the Ibanez to cover a lot of space.
I checked into the hotel by 5 p.m. and then spent Sunday night walking around Times Square people watching, eating, and dreading my 4:15 a.m. lobby call. Today requested that Brooke play a second song as a teaser, so I listened to the new song and the single“Left You for Me” on a loop on my phone as I walked around, hoping to solidify my parts. We hadn’t ever played the second song together, so I was a bit nervous about remembering it under the pressure of TV.
I was so deliriously tired when we arrived at 30 Rock that I literally had trouble putting my steel together. (I miss having a tech.) Because Today’s studio is fairly small, I requested a Fender Deluxe but instead they had a massive ’90s-era, 100-watt Fender Tone-Master with a matching 4x12 cabinet. With the volume on 1, I could hear nothing but the hum of electronics. At 1.5 it was so loud it was peeling paint off the stage. I found a sweet spot just one hair over 1 that worked.
Today’ssound team are total pros—they dialed in a high-fidelity mix very quickly. We ran the song twice, then were released to wait in the green room until our performance. Brooke’s team wanted to go with a summery wardrobe of light blues, gray, and white. Gabe, who left straight from tour, didn’t have time to grab extra clothes and had only black jeans. Megan, our drummer, had some white jeans. When Brooke’s manager noticed that Gabe and Megan were roughly the same size, he suggested that Gabe wear Megan’s pants, so Gabe would be in white out front while the black jeans would be hidden behind Megan’s drum kit. They did the switch and, although not a perfect fit, those tighty-whitey pants looked hip on Gabe, who is handsome enough that it would be impossible for him to look bad.
The talent wrangler brought us on deck at 9:30 a.m. The volume had been turned down on my amp, so I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet."
We ran the teaser song twice. I was thinking this was another soundcheck/rehearsal, but they filmed it and used it as a teaser. It was literally the first time these five people had played that song together, but it sounded great. After the teaser, Today host Craig Melvin walked over to me and said, “I love pedal steel. I’m a big Robert Randolph fan.”
They called quiet on the set, and we went live. The hosts did an interview with Brooke and then we played “Left You for Me” live. I thought I was a bit flat on the first bend in my turnaround solo, but other than that, it felt good going down. Brooke’s vocal performance was killer, and the band served the song well. What more could you want?
When you think about playing in front of 3 to 5 million people live, that can get in your head. The trick is to just play, don’t think. In fact, that may be the secret to life.
Cleaning Up the Act
The stereotype of the messy artist is a tired old meme. Get it together and get organized.
It’s hard to admit that you’re a slob. Lack of organization is pretty much looked down upon in most professional arenas. It’s also hard to imagine successful people waking up on stained futons and stumbling through a minefield of snack wrappers while looking for their cleanest dirty shirt. That is unless that wealthy schlump is a famous rock star. Is it the artist’s way, or letting go of the illusion of control? Either way I think it’s a stereotype—and one that cuts both ways.
Like a child who is repeatedly told they’re not good enough, sometimes we talk ourselves into playing a part that doesn’t let us spread our wings. Maybe you think that cleanliness and order get in the way of creativity and performance. I used to think that, too. Then I read an article about Roger Penske, one of the most successful racing team owners of all time. Even from the time he was a rookie driver he was known in the paddocks for having immaculately prepared cars. Other drivers and teams were amused by Penske’s mechanics, who kept his cars sparkling clean top and bottom, inside and out, for each and every run on the track. They thought it was some kind of show or blamed it on his ego. But that fastidiousness meant that Penske’s team could spot a tiny leak or potential part failure that might have otherwise been hidden by grime. A well-maintained machine allows the driver to do what they do best—drive. You can roll your eyes, but it’s hard to argue with 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, and 16 season championships.
If you imagine that keeping a race car clean is different from organizing the wiring on your pedalboard or keeping your workbench tidy, you’re running uphill in lead boots. Concise and well-ordered workspaces allow problems to stand out and are therefore easier to diagnose. Reduction of clutter allows you to attend to the creative stuff, which is the whole point. For those who say that friction is fodder for the creative endeavor, I challenge you to write a song about hunting for a screwdriver in a cluttered drawer. On second thought, that’s something that people can relate to. Another thing we can all relate to is having our guitar cut out in the middle of a gig. It’s easier to fix quickly when the signal chain is clearly routed and marked. I know a guitarist who has an emergency bypass pedal that circumvents his entire board directly to the amp via a redundant cable for just this purpose. Maybe that’s a little over the top, but the show must go on, right?
For those who say that friction is fodder for the creative endeavor, I challenge you to write a song about hunting for a screwdriver in a cluttered drawer.
In the workshop, it’s much the same. You don’t need the headache of searching for something in a disorganized bin when you’re in the flow. Concentration is doing one thing at a time, so endlessly looking for tools or parts in a place that resembles a war zone breaks your attention. Preventative protocols can keep things on track. When I visit or see photos of workshops with piles of parts and tools everywhere, I feel sorry for the employees and the customers.
Visual systems are priceless. Whether it’s your workbench or your signal chain, it’s helpful to color code stuff. It makes things easier when you’re in a hurry, or just trying to finish on time. Wire ties come in a rainbow of colors and, aside from anchoring cables down, can serve as guides. Determine a code and start with simple things like white means in, red means out. This makes it simple to troubleshoot a problem. If you have multiple systems or paths, use more colors. Laminate a legend on the gear reminding you or a tech what’s what. In the workshop, tools and jigs can be color coded. I have small sanding block racks that have different grades of abrasives loaded on each block. The slots on the racks are colored to each grit, which is also marked on the blocks. I know which grit goes with each color, so I never reach for the wrong block. It takes a little time to get the hang of it without resorting to looking at the numbers (also stamped on each block), but guitarists are good at remembering sequences.
Musicians have often been pictured as shambolic, but the vision of a painter’s studio piled high with half-squeezed tubes of paint and rags soaked with mineral spirits is a tired old meme. The truth is that buying into the myth of creative disarray is not helping any cause. Instead, a dose of tidiness can really work to your advantage. So, stop painting yourself into a false narrative and revel in the freedom that neatness neurosis provides. Now, where did I leave my label maker?