It’s All About What You Hear

So, somebody asks me, “How do you get your sound?” As I fumble through my thoughts, something silly usually comes out of my mouth that really means, “I have no earthly idea.” Apparently the answer lies somewhere between, “The grass is always greener on the other side,” and, “You always want what you don’t have.” Good bass tone is truly a science as well as a gift, but it’s a continuous journey, arduously chasing the perfect bass tone.

I certainly have not heard every preamp, stomp box, or bass amp in the world, but one thing I do know is that no two bass players sound exactly alike, no matter what bass they are playing or what toy they are playing through. This is simply because no two people have the same finger shapes, nerves, or muscles that pluck a string or fret a note in an identical fashion. If 10 different bassists play the same 5 notes on the same bass, no two players will sound the same.

Another thing that I’ve realized is that when I’ve had an occasion to meet another bass player who loves to talk about himself, how many basses he has (dropping some pretty expensive bass manufacturer names), or how often he buys the latest amp, preamp, or pedal(s), by the time I hear him play I suddenly realize why he’s not working very much: he doesn’t understand how to get decent bass tone. I’ve come to the conclusion that some guys just don’t know what sounds good or what sounds bad. They can’t hear the difference because the tone that they hear inside of their head is probably not very good, and they recreate it. The really frustrating part is that they do this with the same gear that the rest of us are using because THEY probably think that their tone is great!

The more great players (with great tone) that you listen to, the better you’ll be able to hear great tone in your own head to get from your own bass.

The key to getting good bass tone is actually being able to hear what great, fat, warm, smooth, punchy, not-too-rumbly bass tone sounds like. But, if you can’t hear it, you can’t get it. Good tone is born out of good taste. The only way to acquire good taste in tone is to listen to guys who have great tone, then obsessively learn how to imitate it. You can’t learn how to do that that just by playing notes on a page out of a book. You have to listen and imitate. The more great players (with great tone) that you listen to, the better you’ll be able to hear great tone in your own head to get from your own bass.

The bad news is that it also may require a bit of obsession. For example, when I was almost 12 years old I was given my first bass, but it wasn’t even a year before I became dissatisfied with my tone. I got new strings. I begged my parents for a new amp, etc. The problem was that I wasn’t hearing my bass sound like the bass I was hearing on records, and of course, being 13, I couldn’t possibly have known why or how. Being self-taught didn’t really help that either, and I had no one to ask for help. I really was not able to begin to “connect the dots” until I heard a great bass tone on a record on the radio and instantly knew that if it was the last thing I ever did, I was GOING to have that tone in my own little hands! As it turned out, it was a pretty expensive tone for that time (an Alembic Series One bass), so I saved up my money and bought one, along with a parametric EQ and bi-amped combination bass amp. I constantly listened to bass tones and wrote down EQ settings that made my bass sound like the one on every record that I played along with. I became obsessed with imitating bass tones. OBSESSED, yet it paid off over and over through the years. What’s even more scary is that I am STILL never completely satisfied (I’ve bought at least two pedals in the last month). Quite honestly, I never really want to be.

Also, you might ask other musicians about tone. Ask people who their favorite bass player is, or what groups they like. Then go home, listen, practice, and try your hardest to imitate them with your own gear.

Another good thing to do is find a pair of ear monitors that you like and that have great reviews (do your research!). Then listen and practice with them as much as you can so you will be super familiar with the way they sound. Having a consistent point of reference is key when you are becoming more aware of what sounds good or what sounds bad. You must have something truly accurate to call your reference. For example, just about every engineer that I know listens (at some point) to their mixes in their own car. Why? Because not only is it “real world,” but it’s where they listen the most; the place where they spend a lot of time listening. If you have a decent set of ear monitors that you are used to, then you will naturally have a more dependable point of reference.

There are many words I could use to try to describe a good bass tone, but the best thing you can do is listen to great music with great bass players on it, and try your best to imitate their sound. Blessings on your “journey!”


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