Photo by Alison Webster
So far in our Profiles in Tone series, we’ve covered two legendary, old school rock bassists. Now we’re diving into death metal with a detailed look at one of the kings of metal’s deep end: Alex Webster.
As bassist and founder of Cannibal Corpse, Webster has been an influence to legions of metal bassists. The band has twelve studio albums with millions of copies sold across the world, and the bass break on “Hammer Smashed Face” has kept young metalheads practicing for two decades.
Currently, Webster is keeping busy with the brand new metal supergroup Conquering Dystopia, which also features guitarist Jeff Loomis, Keith Merrow and drummer Alex Rudinger. While their debut album drops on March 10th, Webster hasn’t lost focus on Cannibal Corpse. The iconic metal outfit is also working on their 13th studio album with a tentative 2014 release date.
During his career, Webster has paved the way for many metal bassists through his own experimentation. “I really started out – like a lot of people – not really knowing what I was doing,” he explains. “I didn’t know how to achieve the bass sounds that I heard that I liked. It was a little like feeling around in the dark.” An advocate for the metal community, he’s devoted time to educating bassists on what he’s learned during his time at the top. His first instructional book was published in 2011 and he’s currently penning an instructional column for the UK’s Bass Guitar Magazine.
We got a hold of this legendary bassist to talk about what makes a great metal bass tone, his technique, his gear, and more.
On the Quintessential Bass Tone
There are a few quintessential bass tones. It’s a little bit different for the kind of tone you should go for depending on if you play finger-style or with a pick.
I think the quintessential pick-style tone might be D.D. Verni from Overkill. That’s just such a perfect bass sound for pick bass playing. Check out their album Ironbound. There’s a song on there called “Give a Little,” but really all of their songs have great bass tone. And you hear every note he’s playing the whole time. It’s a bit of an overdriven sound.
Also Peter Baltes from Accept for traditional metal, he’s got a great tone. Again, I’m thinking of guys you can hear every note that they’re playing all night long. It sounds like that should be a given, but if you’re into metal, you know it’s not. It’s actually a challenge to be heard at all. A big part of it is the pick and that little bit of growly overdrive they’ve got going. I’d recommend bass players that are starting out with a pick check those guys out.
Finger-style is tougher. Finger-style usually works better to go a little bit cleaner. I think because the attack is not as sharp even for a guy who plays like me, too much overdrive with finger-style can blur the notes. Steve Harris is the quintessential finger-style bass tone for me. I’m not sure exactly where Steve Harris is playing, but that was always the tone that I liked. You can hear his finger attack, you don’t have to be told he’s a finger-style player. It’s got that attack and click and clack. In some types of music that’s not desirable at all, but for metal that’s what you want… Probably because of Steve Harris and other guys like him. They helped develop what makes a killer metal bass sound. That was a guy I was looking at his sound as one to emulate.
I’d add Frank Bello from Anthrax as my second example. Among the Living has some of the best bass tone he’s ever recorded. Also, a few modern metal finger-style players jump out at me for both tone and skill, you might want to check them out: Lauri Porra from Stratovarius and Felipe Andreoli from Angra. Jack Gibson from Exodus (he’s played on all of their newer albums) is also excellent. Pick players often have a tone advantage in metal but these guys are keeping up and then some.
I think part of my sound is that I play a little harder than is probably considered “right,” but for metal it really works to play just a little bit harder. There’s a point of diminishing returns with that though, where you can actually start choking the note. Then you’re not giving it a chance to really ring. I got lucky in that my style helped me develop a really good attack. And so not knowing that much about gear, I was able to get a pretty good sound just out of my fingers in the first place.
So much of it is fingers first. I really try to get my sound from my hands, and I think an awful lot of bass players would say the same thing. The gear is going to enhance who you are but it starts with your hands. I used almost a completely clean tone on most of the Cannibal Corpse albums, and the attack was coming from where I played on the instrument and also maybe having low action to get some grind off of the fretboard.
For example, on those Blotted Science albums, a lot of people thought I used an overdrive but I didn’t. It was just the setup. If you want a little growl, sometimes you don’t even need a pedal.
There’s a sweet spot, and you’ll know when you find it because it sounds good. Once you find the right spot on your bass with the gear you’re using, then you’ve found it. It’s a little bit different for everyone. Everyone’s hands are different, your instrument setup is probably different… There are just certain things that sound right for this kind of music and I try to get there with my hands first.
I play with my thumb on the neck pickup. Same thing when I was on a Precision bass, I would place my thumb on the screw next to the split coil pickup. I like that spongier feeling that you get around the neck pickup. It’s kind of suited for metal.
I used almost a completely clean tone on most of the Cannibal Corpse albums, and the attack was coming from where I played on the instrument. We had done some SansAmp and stuff like that after the fact on some albums. One album we specifically recorded with a SansAmp was Bloodthirst. We did that one with [producer] Colin Richardson, and pretty much every album he does has an overdriven bass sound. He put a little on mine, but probably less than he does with others.
I still didn’t do it in live situations. [For live playing] I would just plug into a DI box and then mic my cabinet so our soundman would get both. It worked really well. As we went on further though, we were always looking for ways to up the ante as albums went by. We had used the SansAmp DAW plugin on my clean tone on some of the albums, but by the time we got to the Torture album we decided to just start out with a pedal inline. We had a Boss Bass Overdrive and we didn’t even have the drive turned on, but just engaging the pedal added some attack. It gave it a little boost. After that, I decided to jump into the overdrive thing.
I figured, “Why don’t I start trying this live?” So I searched for the best bass overdrive, which led me to Talkbass where people were talking about Darkglass Electronic’s B3K pedal. I checked out a few different pedals with sound samples, and I really like what I was hearing from the B3K so I got in touch with Doug and Hugo at Darkglass and they sent me one. Ever since, I’ve used it for every live show.
I put a Radial Engineering Bassbone in front of it, and on the Bassbone you can adjust your levels for two different basses. We use two different tunings, and they each sound a little bit different. We do one tuning where I have a five-string with every string detuned by a minor third. The lowest string is a G#, and so on. For some reason that bass sounds more scooped than our other tuning, which is every string tuned down a half step. They’re different sounding tunings, so I use the Bassbone to make the basses sound closer to each other both in level and EQ.
The reason I’m mentioning this is that I don’t like to hit an overdrive pedal with the full volume of my signal, but I don’t want to have my volume knob turned halfway up or something. So I go full volume out of the bass and then bring the levels down on the Bassbone so they’re getting more about the level of a passive bass. That way I have more control over it. Hitting the overdrive full on always had way too much gain for my liking. So using the Bassbone lets me hit the overdrive just right.
Now what we’ve been doing is taking the B3K and throwing a Radial JDI after it. That’s what we’re sending to the desk now. We’re not even miking the cab, so it’s acting more like an on-stage monitor for me at this point. We do one clean channel out of the Bassbone, then we do a dirty channel out of the JDI after the B3K. Besides that I have a Boss Tuner. That’s the whole of my pedalboard.
The clean plus the dirty signal is the way to go. If your live soundman or your producer in the studio has those two things, you’re good to go. I think it’s good to have a good, clear low end signal and then the distorted signal doesn’t have to have those frequencies in it. It needs to have the growl. Then you put the two together and you have this really beefy sound. It’s so much better than having just one or the other. I don’t think I’ll ever do a recording again where I don’t have a dirty channel plus a clean one.
For recording the Conquering Dystopia album, I used an Aguilar Tone Hammer for the clean channel and for the dirty channel I used a Darkglass B7K. I also put an Ampeg DAW plugin on the channel with the Tone Hammer just to give it a little more depth and just EQ some additional low end.
I remember my first good bass was a Fender Precision, one of the Japanese ones they made in the eighties. They were really good, and pretty much on the level with the American ones, in many people’s opinions. I found out later that a Fender Precision was a really good choice, but at the time I thought it was just the only choice because that’s what everybody else had. I used that for the first two Cannibal Corpse records, and then I switched to an Ibanez. I wanted something with 24 frets for tapping techniques and extended stuff like that. I wanted something with a little faster neck, too. I played Soundgears from the early to mid-90’s, and I had an Ibanez Saber, too. I used those until I needed to switch to a 5-string.
Alex Webster’s first Precision Bass and main Euro 5 LX Spector Bass
The first album that we were using lower tunings on that I needed a five-string for was Vile. The studio we recorded at Morrisound, had a good relationship with Thoroughbred Music, which was the big music store in the Tampa Bay area at the time. I remember we went there because I had a five-string Ibanez that just wasn’t getting the right sound for me. We went to the music store and they had a five-string Spector hanging there. At the time it was SSD, one of the American made ones. It was orange and had fresh R. Cocco strings on it. They let us rent that bass for two weeks for the tracking of the album and it sounded amazing. It had that beautiful Spector piano-like tone. I kind of got buried in the mix on that album, which is a bummer because the tone was really good.
I didn’t have the money at the time to get that Spector, but there was a Modulus that was actually less expensive. I went to the guy at the music store and I said, “Man, I don’t think I can afford one of these American-made Spectors right now.” He said, “Try this Modulus out, it’s also good for the kind of metal you’re playing.” I tried out a Modulus Quantum 5 and asked if I could get it in black. I used that one from 1996 until just a few years ago. It never really recorded quite as well as I wanted. It sounds great live but we always had to do more EQing than I liked in the studio. Eventually I found out that a friend of mine in Nile named John Vesano was playing a Spector. I asked where he got it, and he said, “Oh, it’s one of the Euro ones and I got a really good deal on it from PJ at Spector.” He got me connected with PJ and I got my black and blue Spector Euro 5 LX in 2003. I’ve been using this one since then. I used it on both Blotted Science albums, maybe three Cannibal albums, the new Conquering Dystopia album, and [the audio examples for] my bass book. I’ve had it 11 years now and it’s my go-to recording bass.
To me, the American-made Spectors are the Holy Grail tone for metal bass. It’s just perfect. It’s that piano tone with that good controlled but aggressive attack. It’s just the perfect metal bass. Spectors are great for slapping as well, but I don’t do any of that on any of my recordings.
Also, I use DR Hi-Beams steel roundwounds and EMG pickups. Active pickups are good for metal, in my opinion. They help compress things subtly up front. I never have a compressor in my chain but I know the house guy will put a compressor on my signal and producers add some as well. But coming out of my rig I never use compression. If I had a passive bass I think I would need to.
I have a Aguilar DB 751 and DB810 cabinet. I also have a DB412 because I just wanted to have two different cabinets to choose from if we decided to mic up a cab in the studio. I figure why have two of the exact same ones? On stage I put them both up but the DB412 is there mostly as a backup. I usually just run the 8×10. It’s great, and it’s loud. I generally am told to reduce my stage volume by our front-of-house guy. He’ll say, “Ok man, do you want to be in the PA at all? Because if you don’t turn down, you’re not going to be.” [laughs] It’s funny because I think when people look at Aguilar they think jazz, but it’s a great metal amp. The DB751 into an 8×10 cabinet is as good a metal cab as I’ve ever played. It’s ripping.
Advice for Bassists on Getting a Good Metal Tone
If I were to summarize it, I would say start with good attack from your hands, be it with pick or fingers. Then figure out how much overdrive works well with either of those – maybe even none. If it sounds better by itself just do that. For metal, you want that attack and to hear each note. When the string is first struck, you want to hear that attack and then get the note to bloom after it as well. The other big thing is to just try that clean channel and dirty channel mix. Clean channel for the clear low end and dirty channel for the growly attack.