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The search for the UberBass. (ie. What makes a P sound like a P?)

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by SUBass, Oct 21, 2005.

  1. SUBass


    Oct 21, 2005
    First off...An introduction.

    HI...I'm James and I'm addicted to playing bass.

    Next...An apology for the rambling nature of this post. It's more like me thinking aloud.

    Like many others I'm on the quest for (my) uber-bass sound. Being a recording engineer and a player I've come to know two things as core to making great sound.

    A great player.
    A great instrument.

    That's where it starts. While my playing is far from stellar, I by no means suck as a player. Besides...I can always fix that. What I can't fix is the instrument and that's what leds me to this post.

    Currently at my disposal is a MM Stingray 5, a MM Sterling 4, MIA P-bass 4, The Tobi Pro-4, and the Ibanez 6. The sad thing is that none of these instruments nail it for me. The good thing is that the P-Bass is close to where I want to go. It's not perfect...But it's close.

    So I start my quest here with the question...What makes a P-Bass sound like a P-Bass? Is it the wood itself? The body shape? The pickups?

    I've played MANY P-basses over the years and there've only been a few that I thought were really good. So that begs the question...Why is there such a variance in the tone of a P-Bass? For the most part they all sound like P-Basses, but some have more mojo than others. Why is that??

    To give a couple of examples...My original '72 P-Bass was a painted black body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard. The MIA P-Bass that I have here right now is a tobacco burst, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard. The 72 was a bit more chimey and piano-like than this MIA P-Bass. The MIA P-Bass is a bit more warm and round. The 72 handled Drop-D better though where as the MIA P-Bass falls to pieces detuned like that.

    I guess I'll stop here....I'm gonna go play a few basses today. Some P's and J's. I really need to figure out just what the "J" sound is...as I've mainly not played them for one reason or another.

    "then back to scrutinizing, watch to see the water slow."


  2. quallabone


    Aug 2, 2003
    The variance has a lot to do with the grain of wood in the neck and body. I have 3 identical (specs) basses that all sound totally different. One has very large growth rings in the body and neck and sounds open and agressive. One has many small growth rings and sounds a lot more laid back and subtle. One is in the middle of these 2. My guess is that your 70's P has a very young slab of wood for its neck/body and your newer one has an older piece.
  3. Juniorkimbrough


    Mar 22, 2005
    Mississippi / Memphis, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Lakland Basses
    I would say the pickup is mainly what gives it that Pbass sound.

    I would def. try and get a hold to a Jazz bass, I've played many Precisions and I've liked most of them but they didn't really give me the sound I was after. AFter buying a jazz I have finally found my sound, the neck pickup somewhat gives you that P bass sound, yet the bridge pickup give you a little more clearer and brighter sound and when mixed it sounds like heaven. :)
  4. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Between bass models, pickup variations have a big impact. Great example is P vs. J, the construction is pretty much identical.

    For the same model, the wood has the most impact.

    That said, Fender has changed how they wire pickups over the years, pre-CBS Ps tend to have mellower sounding pickups, 70s can be very in your face, recent ones seem to split the difference. If you want to go nuts you can try pickup swaps till the cows come home to get the "perfect" P tone for you.

    BTW what you noted between the 72 and your current MIA Precisions is pretty common in my experience, 70s Ps sound brighter and snappier to me (though often to the point of harshness). Part is the pickup, part is the wood (heavy ash on many of the 70s basses vs. alder today and in the pre-CBS days).
  5. Paul_C

    Paul_C Builder: Arrowheadguitars Basses

    Mar 5, 2005
    Northampton, UK
    get a Bongo ..

  6. Dan1099

    Dan1099 Dumbing My Process Down

    Aug 7, 2004
    See if you can try out an Ash P-bass. That may be the difference you are experiencing.
  7. narcopolo


    Sep 12, 2005
    richmond, va
    i learned recently (though i'm sure everyone else already knew) that harder woods sound brighter, and softer ones sound darker.
    that's why ash has such a dark tone, and maple is much brighter. this makes perfect sense if you know much about physics - vibrations travel more quickly through denser media.
  8. phxlbrmpf


    Dec 27, 2002
    I have to disagree with you a bit, narcopolo. Ash, too, is a fairly hard wood and also sounds pretty bright, although not as bright as maple. Perhaps you meant alder, which is a bit on the soft side and is said to sound fairly "airy".
  9. narcopolo


    Sep 12, 2005
    richmond, va
    that's entirely possible - i'm new at the whole wood thing, but this is what the les paul website says about ash: "The swamp ash body and special finish give the Voodoo Les Paul a lighter feel. Swamp ash is 10 percent lighter than mahogany and more porous."
    although maybe swamp ash is different.
  10. Dan1099

    Dan1099 Dumbing My Process Down

    Aug 7, 2004
    It's not about weight, it's about hardness. They are not necessarily related. Mahogany, for example. is a warmer, rounder tone, even though it is heavy. Swamp Ash is a bright tone, although not as bright as maple.
  11. phxlbrmpf


    Dec 27, 2002
    Yeah, swamp ash is supposed to be pretty light and more similar to alder whereas regular ash can be extremely dense and heavy. Most Fenders from the 70s have ash bodies and weigh a ton.

    By the way, I always thought it was a combination of heaviness and hardness, i.e. hard and heavy = bright sound, light and soft: darker/softer tone.
  12. narcopolo


    Sep 12, 2005
    richmond, va
    so is alder the archetype for dark tone?
    crap - now i want an alder body :meh:
  13. Dan1099

    Dan1099 Dumbing My Process Down

    Aug 7, 2004
    Alder is the "vintage" jazz and p-bass tone. Think 60s Fender. Ash is the 70s fender style. Alder is more of a "medium," IMO, while ash leans towards bright.
  14. narcopolo


    Sep 12, 2005
    richmond, va
    so if alder is medium, what is the darkest wood i could find for a bass?
  15. SUBass


    Oct 21, 2005
    Most of this seems to be talking about the body wood and the different time eras for P-Basses and the woods used. Which is kinda my gut reaction to things...It's gotta be in the wood...But I feel there's more to it than just that.

    So what difference does the body shape make in tone? Assuming the same wood (type, density, moisture content, etc. preferrably even same tree) with different shapes, would there be a noticable difference in sound?

    I'll go a bit further and describe the tone that I'm seeking. I'm looking for something with a solid fundamental, very tight and responsive, lots of harmonic content. Something with that piano-like chime. Something that when I hit a note there's no lag or bloom...It's just there.

    The closest thing I've found to that is probably this one particular Nikki Six Blackbird bass that I played. It was a bit too far in that direction but was very cool. Smackin' an "E" on that thing 'bout knocked my nuts off. I seem to recall it lacking the "complexity" of the P-Bass though.

  16. AGCurry


    Jun 29, 2005
    Kansas City
    A big part of the P-bass (or any) sound is simply WHERE the pickup is mounted. Strings vibrate differently all along their length.

    But... I don't think Fender has changed the pickup location since 1957, so other factors include

    neck rigidity
    neck wood
    body wood
  17. Nedmundo

    Nedmundo Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2005
    I think you've just described something like my 2003 Am. Ser. Jazz, which has a maple fretboard and Lindy Fralin Split Jazz pickups. Try some maple fretboard J's, including the Marcus Miller sig.
  18. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    I think what you're missing is the sound of a Jazz. If the P is close, then I think what you may be missing is a bit of brightness from near the bridge. It's conspicuous by its absence of basses at your disposal. The P does sound slightly different from the J when you solo their neck pickups, but not so different to where it makes you want to smash it. Or maybe you'd like to just add a bridge pickup to your P. They have a couple models like that as well if you can't mod the one you have (and I certainly wouldn't mod a Fender).

    Personally, I like the sound of alder Fenders the best. Mahogany (seen a couple custom jobs with mahogany) makes them sound too dark, and ash makes them sound too bright. Alder is just right, just like the baby bear's bed!