A bass can be deeply telling about its owner

You know the way dogs look like their owners? I believe that, likewise, a bass can be deeply telling about its owner. This month, I’d like to try out that brain flash by looking at five different categories of bass and the people who play them.

The Student Model
This is typically an import clone of a Fender Precision Bass, usually with a little thinning out of the body’s horns and a solid color paint job. It has the potential to be a good player, but hasn’t ever been set up beyond the factory. Its sound is on the bright side and one knob feels loose. There are two dings on the body, plus one on the headstock. The strings are dull and tarnished— one is wound incorrectly.

The owner of this bass lives life a little tentatively, not quite ready to commit to bass playing, never going out in public with the bass. This person plays quietly in the bedroom with a little practice amp—door closed. They are not quite reckless with musical gear, but not overly cautious either.

The Trusty Workhorse
On first glance, this bass appears just like the basic Student Model—nothing too fancy, probably just one pickup and a couple of knobs. But looking closer, there’s some loving wear on the back of the neck, on the upper bout of the body, and near the pickup. Unlike the Student Model, the action on the Trusty Workhorse is tweaked for excellent playability. There are no rattles or intonation problems. It is made from good materials—but not exotic woods—and features a sunburst body finish.

The owner of this bass is a dependable player. He stays in the pocket, plays the groove, and generally holds things together. The owner only plays fingerstyle, and never uses a pick or slaps. The Trusty Workhorse will likely be a gigging partner for life.

The Feature-Packed Mediocrity

The Feature-Packed Mediocrity has it all, at least in form: two pickups, four knobs, a switch, a shiny finish, and onboard electronics. The bridge is a big chrome job, and the headstock logo screams out for attention. When you look below the surface, the Feature-Packed Mediocrity has a maze of wiring stuffed into its control cavity, some plastic faux-chrome, and position markers that leap off the fretboard in their gaudiness. The setup is playable, but nothing spectacular, and its tone mixes with a few crackles and buzzes.

The owner of the Feature-Packed Mediocrity is a transplanted guitar player who quickly learned that bass players often blend into the background and hopes this bass will remedy that. He plays with a pick, wears the bass slung low, and always runs with a full stack of giant cabs. Most likely, he’ll be back to guitar by the end of the year.

The High-End Super Bass
This bass is built from exotic woods topped with a thin oil finish. All the components are top notch, with excellent hardware, name-brand pickups, and a quality 3-band preamp. The body wood has comfortable curves, and the neck feels wide and flat in the hand. The setup is tweaked for low action and the strings are light gauge. The sound of this bass is clear, piano-like, and full, with miles of sustain. It comes with strap locks.

The owner of the High-End Super Bass likes the finer things in life. He sips Macallan 18, likes to wear soft cotton clothing, might have a short ponytail, and works in IT support. This player fits well into the band, but tends toward slap playing and often ventures into the upper registers—he likes hitting harmonics in the quiet spots, too. The High-End Super Bass owner has boutique amp and cabs that match the level of the instrument.

The Understated Artisanal Bass
This bass is like a stealth version of the High- End Super Bass. It costs just as much, bears the same high-quality components, the setup is superb, and the finish is exquisite. But to the uninformed eye, this bass looks just like the Trusty Workhorse. Its quality is the little secret its owner bears but won’t tell, gloating quietly about the 15 coats of nitro finish that will never be detected. The case similarly looks understated and vintage.

The owner of this bass is a little harder to describe. Sometimes it is a doctor or a lawyer, neatly groomed in a button-down shirt. He might not be much of a player, but enjoys owning the highest quality. Some owners of an Understated Artisanal Bass have scrimped and saved for a long time, selling off a Trusty Workhorse to help pay for it. It’s precision, tonality, and reliability that count, and what caused this person to part with a sizable pile of hard-earned dough. In either case, the Understated Artisanal Bass gets played through equally high-quality amplifiers—maybe something one-off and handwired—and a high-end, studio-grade preamp.

All the Rest
This list could easily go on, matching other styles of basses to their owners’ personalities. I can easily imagine what the owner of a vintage, early ’60s Precision Bass might be like, or how the owner of a Franken-bass built from parts would go through life, or the kind of car driven by a fretless fan. In any case, I’m convinced there’s a link between people and the bass they play—what kind of bass are you? As for myself, my bass of choice is a Trusty Workhorse.

Dan Berkowitz
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in blues, jazz and pit settings.

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