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Overcoming Tone Loss When Switching from Finger-Style to Slap Bass

Note from Damian: This week’s question is about slap bass. I don’t slap, but instead of ignoring it, I asked Steve Jenkins if he’d be up to write a guest column. Luckily for all of us, he agreed. See you next week, and thanks, Steve!

Slap bass

Photo by Valeria Guerrero

Q: I have a question regarding when switching between finger-style and slap. I set my amp up predominantly for finger-style playing, but when I switch to slap – particularly mid-song – or if I throw in a slap embellishment, the slap gets buried underneath everything else and is barely audible, consequently losing the momentum and presence of the tune/bass part. I’ve had people tell me I need a compressor, booster or volume pedal. Have you encountered this problem in your career? Can you recommend any EQ solutions or advice?

A: Greetings, and thanks to Damian for passing this question along to me.

Smoothly switching between playing with your fingers and slapping during a song (over the course of a gig) is something I’ve had a lot of practice doing with some of the various playing situations I’ve been involved with. Indeed, it can be challenging if your tone preferences for each technique are different from each other. For example, you might really like a really bright, scooped-out slap sound (like Marcus Miller) and a darker, heavy-in-the-low-mids sound (Pino playing a P-bass) when switching to playing with your fingers.

If you arenʼt being heard and your ideas arenʼt cutting through and worse—your bandmates are giving you critical feedback about this, itʼs really important to consider all of the possible factors which contribute to your sound.

Also, itʼs completely possible that the solution wonʼt cost anything more than a little time and experimentation. So before looking at spending any money on compressors, boost pedals, etc. letʼs look at a few basic things which might make all the difference.

1. Your bass (and its tonal settings)

Whether you play a passive or active bass, you must be able to understand how to get all the different sounds it offers. Many techniques need specific frequencies to ʻspeakʼ better. Make sure you understand how those sounds are achieved on your axe of choice. I know this is a total no-brainer but itʼs good to keep in mind because no stone can be left unturned when it comes to matters of tone.

Itʼs important to have an idea of what you want your slap tone and fingerstyle tone to sound like because it will make troubleshooting your live sound way easier.

2. Your amp, itʼs EQ settings, the cabinets, etc.

This is probably where a lot of the issues you are having are coming from. The amplifierʼs EQ has a lot of bearing on your overall sound. If you have an active EQ on your bass, this is where the problem potentially can get exponentially bigger because the amp settings could be masking/canceling out the settings on your bass. For example, if your EQ on the amp is set to emphasize lows and mids and the active EQ in your bass has the mids scooped out and the highs and lows dialed in, it wonʼt sound clear at all.

My advice for troubleshooting your situation is this: Try setting the EQ on your amp completely flat and make tonal changes strictly from the bass. (iʼd have written that in all caps, but Iʼm not trying to yell at anybody.)

This is my favorite solution because itʼs easy and costs nothing. (Also, just so everyone is on the same page, “flat” means that each frequency knob/slider is at “zero” or in the center when you look at the EQ)

Personally, I prefer making most of my sonic alterations from my bass and (additionally, if iʼm using pedals & effects as I often do, my feet.) Thatʼs not to say that you canʼt/ shouldnʼt alter the EQ settings on your amp if a certain room calls for it, but as a starting point itʼs helpful to see what everything sounds like without any additional reinforcement from the amp other than volume. Youʼll also get to truly hear what your bass sounds like. Itʼs definitely a good starting point.

So if Iʼm using my (passive) jazz bass and I want to use my slap sound, I have both pickups 100% all the way up volume-wise and the tone is set about halfway. If I want it brighter that Iʼll adjust the tone to a brighter setting. If I switch to my fingers and want to get more of a growl, I can quickly roll the volume of the neck pickup off. And if I want to have a darker sound, I will quickly go for the tone knob. You should try this with your bass of choice. See how significant the changes in tone can be just from your fingertips and the knobs on your bass while going through your amp.

If Iʼm playing an active bass (which honestly, is maybe half the time), to start I add some bass while keeping the mids and treble flat (ʻflatʼ meaning where the notch is). Eventually, I may dial in a little treble (but not too much) and I simply donʼt touch the mids at all. You actually do need SOME mids in there because those frequencies provide fullness and definition. But ideally youʼd want it set little less than bass and treble—so dial in bass and treble and leave the mids flat. Also, if you have a passive tone control, set it at about halfway.

Your cabinets also have some bearing on your sound. A 2×10, 4×10, or 2 cabinets with 12ʼs in there are ideal. For slapping, even if you are going for a more old-school tone, a tweeter is helpful/essential in getting the brighter frequencies heard. The more subtle elements simply wonʼt translate as clearly if there isnʼt a tweeter there. Cabinets generally have adjustment controls so you donʼt have to have the tweeter set very high for it to be effective. Let your personal taste guide you with this.

Even if all of this is contrary to the way that youʼve done things, itʼs good to experiment with it. If your amp settings are creating an uphill sonic battle, it doesnʼt matter how good your ideas are if what your plugged into canʼt represent them accurately.

Which brings us to…

3. Your technique

(Not just slap + finger technique but the technique of switching in between the two.)

I think it was Neil Armstrong who said that “The sound is in your hands” or something to that effect. Anyhow, you want to maybe consider what your touch is like when you play with your fingers versus when you play with your thumb. Do you play with a light touch when you play with your fingers? Or do you dig in? How hard are you slapping? Are you smashing your thumb into the strings then popping or is your thumb technique more controlled where you are letting the amp do most of the work and your thumb is just a well-oiled groove machine?

One major thing I discovered is that you can work on getting the volumes between both techniques (relatively) consistent with a little practice.

Try this little exercise: Take any bass line. Like, say the main groove from Herbie Hancockʼs “Chameleon”.

We all know that one, right? Ok, great!

If you have something to record with, play it once through with your fingers and then switch and do it slap-style. Listen back and see what it sounds like. Itʼs inevitable that the slapped version (in most cases) will probably be a little louder than the fingerstyle version.

Try lightening up your touch a little bit if itʼs louder one way versus another. Itʼs never going to be 100% identical but you can get it really close with practice. It does take some getting used to, but itʼs an important thing to consider. Another incentive to do this is that it actually is a really beneficial exercise because it will help you with dynamics.

Be honest with yourself when assessing all of this. A little practice can go a long way and letʼs face it: no piece of gear can compensate for bad/inefficient technique.

4. Your choice of strings

(Rounds or flats. Dead or newer?)

You donʼt need brand new strings but if your strings are dead they wonʼt be doing you any favors if they prevent what youʼre doing from being heard the mix. It doesnʼt matter if they are roundwounds or flats, they just have to have some life in them.

5. Add some compression

In addition to all of the above, using a compressor can definitely help to even up the volume levels of the notes you play. Itʼs the one significant piece of gear that will make a difference regardless of the size of the room, etc. Using compression on bass is a good way to tighten up everything. Itʼs quite useful if you are playing music with a narrower dynamic range—say rock/funk/r&b as opposed to straight ahead jazz/singer- songwriter/folk music where there are more extreme levels of dynamics and nuances. (hint: Start with a lighter setting because too much compression can squash your sound and make it almost lifeless.) For the sake of practicality, a compressor pedal is a logical choice because then you can engage it only when you absolutely need it.

I hope all of this helps and best of luck!

To learn more about Steve Jenkins and his music, check out his website, and his Bandcamp and Facebook pages.

Here’s a track by Steve where he slaps, so you can get an idea of where he’s coming from on this column:

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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