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It’s All in the Hands: Time to Dust Off the Old Axe

Dusty bass
Photo by Lee Carson

I’m sure than we’ve all heard the saying “it’s all in the hands.”

Many of us, myself included, are willing to support this statement. But is that really all there is? Is our musical voice the same regardless of what we play or what we play through? After all, we’re the one picking up the instrument, and our years of practice and experience doesn’t change whether we’re playing a Fender, Warwick, or Fodera… or does it?

Despite what everyone says, yes, it’s all in the hands. But the instrument, amp, and pedals have a huge impact as well (if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be as picky when it came to gear). Most pro players have multiple basses, not just because they enjoy having a collection of instruments, but because each instrument has its own personality. Although we may have a special bond with one instrument in particular, it’s a great idea to diversify and spread the love to others in your collection.

Here are a few reasons why it’s good to dust off the old axe now and again and to revisit a bass that you don’t frequently play.

  1. Different instruments have different musical associations. This may inspire you to emulate a particular player or focus on a certain style. If you pick up a vintage Fender P-bass, you may suddenly find yourself playing some old school Jamerson or George Porter Jr. grooves. If you grab a beat up sunburst Fender Jazz, perhaps you’re inspired to get your Jaco on. Or, if you have a Hofner sitting in its case, you may want to grab it and revisit your Beatles collection. We frequently associate players with “their” instrument, so let that act as some inspiration and motivation to practice.
  2. Some basses are better for certain techniques than others. If your instrument of choice is a hollow body, such as a Gibson or Gretsch, you probably won’t have an easy time sharpening your slap skills. Hollow body basses don’t take to slapping particularly well… the tone of the instrument, the resonance of the body, and the placement of the pickups are usually inhibiting factors. Even if you gig with that instrument all the time, you’ll find it much easier to work on slap technique with a solid body bass. You can kick your practice session up a notch by doing a technique work out on a different instrument.
  3. The range of the instrument makes a huge difference. Call me crazy, but every time I pick up a six string, the first thing to pop into my head is chords. Of course you don’t need to play chords if you’re playing a six string, but that’s typically what I’m inspired to do. The range of the instraument allows for it, so I’ll take advantage of the instrument’s unique capabilities and let that influence my time in the shed. Suddenly my approach is geared toward soloing or discovering chord voicings since the high string gives me license to play in new sonic territory. Similarly, with a five string bass that has a particularly good sounding low B string, I may be enticed to integrate the lower notes into new grooves or find different ways to play songs that I’m already familiar with.
  4. The “vibe.” Every instrument has a vibe, and perhaps a style, that may give you inspiration. If you primarily play a vintage or more traditional style instrument, pick up a modern sounding one and see what kind of groove you come up with. Maybe you decide to take a stab at some modern gospel or hip-hop, since the tone of the instrument steers you in that direction. Vice-versa… if you’re a fairly busy player with a modern instrument, try picking up an old P-bass and you may be inspired to play simple, root-centric bass lines and styles.
  5. Remember why you bought it in the first place. It’s always nice to get a reminder of why you purchased something (especially if it was a significant investment). Your basses are your tools, and it’s nice to know that they can come in handy every now and again. Perhaps you bought a particular bass because it sounded great with a pick. Well, go ahead, grab a pick. Or, perhaps you bought it because you just love the way it sounds above the 12th fret. Go ahead, play above the 12th fret.

To quote the movie Dirty Dancing, “nobody puts baby in a corner.” As someone who plays the same instrument 90% of the time, I certainly have to remind myself to drag another one out on the dance floor. Without fail, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the instrument and by what it allows or inspires me to play. So, give yourself a reason to open those cases and unzip the gig bags, if for nothing else to make sure that all of your instruments are still in good shape. While you’re at it, plug in some of the old amps and hook up the pedals. If you simply can’t warm up to some of the gear that you have, maybe it’s time to downsize your collection. And finally, remember that yes, it’s all in the hands, but sometimes the instrument will tell your hands what to do.

How about you? Which of your basses are your go-to axes, and which ones are for that special situation? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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