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Choosing the Right Tone for the Song: On Stage and In Studio

Q: How do you decide what tone to use for different songs?

A: This is a great question. And it is one that is very subjective. This will be different for everyone, but I’m happy to share my personal take on it. This is also something that may be very different live than it is in the studio.

Quite often, what one decides is the best tone when playing by themselves and dialing things in winds up being nothing close to what is going to work best in the mix as a whole.

In the Studio

The first step: make yourself happy with the sound in your headphones. Finding the right tone will help you stay relaxed and distraction-free with your sound, and let you focus on your playing.

Next, listen during playback and make suggestions on your tone – things you think might work, and anything that stands out to you in a negative way. If it sounds good, let the band leader, composer and/or engineer do what they think is best. This doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy, but in the end, if it is someone elses record, then its not our call anyway. If they’re happy, we should be.

Live Sound

To an extent, think like you would in the studio – find the tone you like, but focus on blending well, enhancing the overall musical experience, and definitely don’t compete sonically with anything or anyone on the stage with you.

When it comes to changing your tone a bit to cater to one song or another, it really just comes down to listening. Always focus on the band when you play (and not just yourself). When you do this, you may realize that you may need to cut more, round out the tone or could use a bit more punch. Alter your EQ or the way you’re playing the instrument to help facilitate a more appropriate tone.

In addition to EQ and on-board pre-amp tweaking, there are a hundred different ways to sculpt your tone on stage. Here are a handful of things we have at our disposal as bassists:

  1. Palm muting
  2. Left hand muting
  3. Shifting your plucking position further towards the headstock or bridge
  4. Playing with a pick
  5. Playing with my thumb (in place of index and middle fingers)
  6. Changing the length of my notes
  7. Plucking harder or softer

The end result should always be to the purpose of making the song come alive and really speak the way it’s meant to. Try not to think in terms of genre and what this genre would require. Treat each song individually and how it feels.

If you think this particular tune wants to do this, then do everything possible to try and help it to do this.

The short and sweet version: listen and react to what you hear.

Remember that the best way to become a working bass player that’s in demand is not to make sure that you sound great every night but to make sure that the band sounds great every night with you on bass. That’s the secret!

Have a question for Damian? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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