Thoughts on tone, bass selection

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Alder P Ashman, Aug 28, 2013.

  1. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
    Like many of my fellow bass players, I tend to get obsessed with certain things to do with tone production for a while, then get hooked on investigating some other aspect. It's a rewarding journey to be on.

    I have found it to be true that the tone of a bass is, obviously, the sum of a its parts. It always surprises me which of those parts have more or less influence. Here's my list:
    Pickup type
    Pickup position
    Pickup height
    String type
    string height
    fingerboard wood
    body wood
    Wood density
    Wood stiffness
    Wood weight (and yes, I hear a HUGE difference between lightweight and heavy basses, and hear sonic benefits and downsides of each)
    Fret material
    Fret size
    String thru vs non-string thru body
    Tap tone of neck, unattached from body
    Tuner weight/density
    Headstock mass/shape
    Pots (250k vs 500k, etc.)
    Capacitor (.1uF vs .47uF, etc,)
    Bridge mass/material
    Finish (poly vs nitro)
    Truss rod tension

    I'm intentionally leaving out amplification. That's another huge topic.

    I am primarily a Fender man. Not a Fender snob by any means, but after putting myself in thousands of gig situations with good and bad groups, musicians, sound engineers, and venues, Fender P's and J's are almost always what sounds most appropriate to both myself and bandmates in a band context whilst fulfilling supportive role duties to the best of my ability.

    I currently have basses that range from Custom Shop, US vintage reissue series, Squier China, Squier Mexico. Some cost a lot, some cost me next to nothing. A $100 stock Chinese Squier with 10-year old dead sounding round wounds and super high action may be a better bass for a very specific song than say, a $4500 custom shop thingy. Here's the thing about that: I have to spend a lot of my time in pawn shops and checking out Craigslist basses in order to find that very rare cheapo bass that kicks ass. It's usually about 1 in every 100, or less. More recently though Fender's quality control on US-made instruments has been awful, in my opinion. So it's fun to just go on a hunt, playing hundreds of pawn shop basses until I find a great one. I choose basses only by playing them acoustically first, then plug them in. Also, mixing and matching bodies and necks seems to produce drastic changes in playability and sound. Lately my #1 favorite bass is a heavy-ish Alder 4-string Precision body with nitro finish, babicz full contact bridge, D'addario Chromes, '62 AVRI pickup/electronics, very lightweight rift-sawn tele bass neck with an extremely thin nitro finish, lightweight hipshot tuners.

    Another thought: A bass that I think sounds fantastic by itself does not necessarily sound great with a band, and vice versa. It has taken me years (and I'm still learning) to accurately imagine how an instrument will fit in a mix.

    What I want to hear from TBers here are your thoughts on tone production. Add to my list of factors. Talk about them. Discuss/compare. Let's see where this goes!

  2. Jaco Taco

    Jaco Taco

    Jul 30, 2012
    I think you left out the most important aspect of tone production: the bassist. It's shocking how much a player affects the tone of an instrument by the way he/she plays. I've heard people play some of my basses and I would hear sounds I never heard before come out of them, all because they were being played by a different player.
    aguacollas likes this.
  3. Malak the Mad

    Malak the Mad Over the River and through the Looking Glass Supporting Member

    I've only been learning for a little less than two years, so a lot of the "whats", "hows" and "its" are a mystery to me. But one thing that I've found is that these gee-tars we love are like intricate puzzles. In other words, if you take one crucial element out of the whole, it can all fall apart.

    True story: I had just added two items to an excellent Squier Standard Jazz…a Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder neck pickup and a set of very light D'Addario flats (.040-.095). Sadly, it sounded lifeless and uninspiring.

    My impression of that bass was taking a significant downturn and I was seriously considering selling it, despite the hoops I had jumped through to acquire it. But, "the little voice in the back of my head" said I should try out with a set of strings I'd recently grown fond of. (Ernie Ball Cobalts…love 'em!)

    The difference was absolutely amazing! :eek:

    Since then I always try to figure out what will be the best combination of string and electronics. I'm still trying to figure out how much of an impact different neck/body woods make. It's kinda hard to do that when one-third says it does, another third says it doesn't and the rest don't seem to sweat such details. That, and the fact that I prefer rosewood on a visually-aesthetic level doesn't help my research much, now does it? :meh:
  4. phillybass101

    phillybass101 Supporting Member

    Jan 12, 2011
    Artist, Trickfish Amplification Bartolini Emerging Artist, MTD Kingston Emerging Artist. Artist, Tsunami Cables
    My tone concept is in my head and will address subtle changes by moving the playing position of my right hand. Give me any decent bass and I'll work it out. For years I gigged with a $279 OLP 5 string and was working it. Elm body, maple neck, maple board, passive. Ran EB Super Slinky 5 strings. Affordable and sound very good when new. Even when they got old they had a real punch to them for fingerstyle. Today however I use D'Addario Pro Steels (cost and sound concerns). I alo like DR Hi Beams but the Pro Steels are more affordable. For every two sets of DR's I can get 3 sets of Pro Steels.
  5. Itzayana


    Aug 15, 2012
    Oakland Ca
    So what's better? P-bass or J-bass?
  6. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
    Haha :)
    How many "yeah mans" will I be rewarded for providing a correct answer?
  7. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
    Agreed. Very, very true.
  8. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Supporting Member

    Over-scrutinizing. The major factors (pickups/electronics being #1) outweigh the minor ones (truss rod tension? string height? poly vs nitro???) by so much that the minor ones become meaningless.

    It's fun to get scientific about tone, but the variable nature of wood throws equations out the window. Identical basses can sound surprisingly different. I've owned identical pairs, including boutiques, and they never sounded identical, even when freshly strung with identical strings. Ken Smith built identical basses made from corresponding wood pieces cut from the same planks, and said they did not sound identical.

    Finally... to throw a wrench into this, blind tests show that it's difficult (at best) to tell the difference between body and fingerboard woods even when the bass is soloed. We often listen with our eyes.
  9. I agree, though I'd add strings.

    Strings, pickups, electronics.. anything else is a minor contributor to tone and in most cases not reproducible.

    It's not sexy to think you can get the same tone out of a squier with a couple hundred dollars with of upgrades that you can out of a few thousand dollar bass, but it's true IMO. (Though the more expensive bass should provide many other non-tonal improvements)
  10. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
    I can see your point.
    I have also purchased two identical instruments, same model, same year, same electronics, same color. Both P basses. One was 9.5 lbs, the other was 8.2 lbs. One sounded like garbage, completely lifeless, both acoustically and amplified. The other sang, had a big beautiful tone both acoustically and amplified and is as beautiful a P bass I have ever heard. Needless to say, I kept one and returned the other.

    I am trying to get to the bottom of these variables, big or small. In that specific situation, it seems to simply come down to the quality of the wood; it was the only difference between the two instruments. I did try swapping the necks on the two instruments, and it made them both weigh the same and sound very average.

    We are both sensitive enough to hear a world of difference between two "Identical" instruments, and from both of our "same instrument" experiences it seems to boil down to good wood combo. And it doesn't necessarily mean lighter is more resonant and heavy is dead sounding. There have got to be very specific formulas that luthiers and master builders know of that produce semi-predictable results; they know in advance for example what a quartersawn neck with pau ferro fingerboard and a very light piece of alder is pretty much going to sound like. Gil Yaron uses multiple tuning forks to listen to the resonating frequencies in blanks before and after cutting the body. Unbelievable quality instruments come from that guy. Anyone interested in chiming in about their observations or favorite instrument combinations? I'm not afraid to over-scrutinize or risk sounding too geeky. I make a living playing bass, and no detail is too small. Of course, when it's time to make music, I don't think about that sh*t, and just feel music. And, of course, use my fingers to shape the tone :) Music remains music and tools remain tools.

    I suppose, Fuzzbox, that you are simply saying that the nature of wood is unpredictable, and you can't count on formulas. I can appreciate that. I've experienced that. And it frustrates me sometimes. And I don't enjoy playing carbon graphite ;)
  11. Alder P Ashman

    Alder P Ashman

    Aug 27, 2013
  12. davidhilton

    davidhilton Supporting Member Commercial User

    Apr 13, 2009
    Los Angeles, CA
    its not shocking at all...matter of fact, its the most important element of ur tone...period. a lot of my students think my tone comes from my bass...but when they play it, or go so far as to buy the same doesnt sound like me at all...everybody is different, and so is their tone. its not that i sound better, or they sound worse, its just it sounds different...i doesn't matter if ur using the same exact bass and rig...of course certain basses have "great tone" but just the bass, p/u's rig, wood, neck, etc...all the items he listed are not the most important....
    Im avail for lessons in the greater Los Angeles area, and worldwide via skype online lessons.
  13. Bassmunnky


    Jul 3, 2004
    New York and Philadelphia
    Endorsing Artist: Ernie Ball MusicMan Guitars
    Ask a good sound man, He'll tell you EXACTLY what basses he likes...and why..without the voodoo, snobbery, bias or denial.

    It's not what you would expect, but there it is. What "we" hear or want to hear, and what the audience hears are wildly different. So is what is required for good sound for the FOH.

    I can be sure of this, he won't give a damn about what kind of neck or fretboard you have.
  14. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Supporting Member

    :D Nicely said. I have preferences, too: prefer alder to ash (usually). And I've also been frustrated: why is this ash/maple bass I ordered so warm, I was expecting bright!?!
  15. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Supporting Member

    I appreciate your thread. The whole quest for tone is fascinating. And as with many other topics based on opinion, some folks have very strong ones. I suppose that includes me too :ninja: but at least I try not to claim that my opinion is fact.
  16. topo morto

    topo morto

    Mar 22, 2010
    If you're going to put in things like finish, you have to put in things like :

    type of screws and plate used to attach the neck
    condition of the neck joint screw threads
    neck pocket fit
    resonances of the pick guard that the pickups are mounted on
    air temperature and humidity of the room
    how tightly you are holding the guitar against your body
    nut material

    Unfortunately there's not a lot you can do to isolate and separate the variables, because they are so interactive. If you have a really high mass bridge, for example, that might serve to isolate the strings from the wood, and so lessen the importance of the body wood used. In turn, the effect of resting the bass against your body will be affected by how fat you are, but the degree to which the 'fat factor' influences the sound might be altered by the weight or stiffness of the body wood. Nut material may make less difference if the break angle of the strings is shallower.

    It's really only luthiers who are in a good position to attempt to isolate some of these variables, and it is not necessarily in their commercial interests to be honest about how little some of them might really play a part!

    Not to mention that all human senses are interactive (because we only have one brain). The average person is going to perceive a heavy, wooden instrument to have a very different sound to a light aluminium bodied instrument, even if they actually sound the same. Likewise with a cheap and expensive instrument. So we shouldn't believe our own ears. Also, the sound we hear from an instrument is down to how we are playing it, and how we are playing it is likely to be affected by how we think it sounds.

    I've played the same synthesizer voice during the day, and a few hours later at night. And had it sound completely different, subjectively. Some might say it's because the mains electricity was different! I would say it's because ears, like all the senses, are relativistic and cannot measure things - they too are affected by

    - pressure differential across the eardrum
    - whether you have been listening to loud noises recently
    - your health and body chemistry
    - fatigue
    - how loud the sound is
    - how much you are concentrating on the sound

    The amount of interactivity in the whole situation is such that - well, it's beyond my means and abilities. I think for me, the best approach is

    - focus on the factors that I can control, that make a difference that is obvious to me
    - get my sound 90% to where I want it
    - get on with playing, get on with music, get on with life

    Do I manage that? Well, sometimes....
  17. Webtroll

    Webtroll Rolling for initiative

    Apr 23, 2006
    Austin, TX
    There are a lot of factors to getting a good tone. I just get the gear to where I like the tone and play. Some people want a specific sound so they focus on one kind of bass almost to an obsession, but I like to mix it up a fair amount. To that end I'll play whatever bass I have that is strung up and ready to go and suits my mood at that time. I don't swap around instruments mid set because one has the right tone or whatever.