If you’re going to play with some of the top hip hop and R&B names, you’ve got to know a thing about tone. That’s why we reached out to bass phenom Robert “Bubby” Lewis as part of our Profiles in Tone series.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Lewis wanted to be a drummer until listening to Tom Kennedy on Dave Weckl’s “Synergy.” From that point forward he poured all of his effort into the bass. He gained his chops and insights while playing at his father’s church and quickly became the go-to bassist in the area. The first big break in his career was when gospel legend Andrew Gouché helped him land a touring spot with rapper Snoop Dogg. The bassist’s big tone and even bigger groove has kept him in-demand ever since.
This summer will see the release of his debut solo effort, entitled 1UP. “It’s got a lot of interesting stuff happening with some cool collaborations,” he shares. “I’m trying different stuff and experimenting. If it feels good, then I’m good.”
On the Quintessential Bass Tone
As far as tone goes, I like so many different types. For different styles and genres of music, there are different tones to bring out the best in that particular style of music. For example, of course everyone knows that hip hop and R&B will have a lot of sub type bass and really synth-y. For metal, it might be a lot of treble that makes certain bass lines sound good.
I like all tones, honestly. But my favorite is to have a [tone that is] well-rounded, [where] you can hear everything. [One] that’s not too bassy but the bottom rumbles, the high-end isn’t too crunchy, but you can still hear all the definition, and has a nice level of mids.
There are a few albums that I’ve listened to that I’ve thought, “Wow, this tone is phenomenal.” The tone on John Patitucci’s entire album On The Corner is superb. Another is Wardenclyffe Power by Allan Holdsworth. That was Jimmy Johnson playing on that album, and the tone was phenomenal.
Also, any and everything Andrew Gouché plays on. I mean, he basically revolutionized bass in gospel, R&B, and funk music. I’ll put it like this: people have been trying to emulate his tone for years, and it’s still so difficult. Growing up in church, every bass player wanted his tone because it’s so huge and crunchy. You could hear everything he’s playing and the warmth of the wood and everything. Anything he’s played on is a definite.
I’m also a big fan of Indian music and one of my favorite composer/producers is A.R. Rahman. On all of his recording in the last four years, I think it’s him playing bass or his friend, the tone on each of the songs that he composes for the Indian pop or Bollywood records is great. They use a lot of different interesting tones. Because it’s Indian you think you’d hear a lot of fretless and stuff like that because it sits well with sitar, but he always has this super subby bass that’s really low in the mix. Sometimes you can’t really make out the notes but you can feel the rhythm of when they’re playing. I kind of like that, because we don’t really do that here and I think that’s really cool.
I use what you might call the Patitucci method, which is where you keep the thumb over the neck pickup either on the pickup or on the B-string. I’m not really a hard player as far as my right hand goes. I don’t strum really hard. As far as the left hand goes, I imagine that I press pretty hard, but I never really think about that very much.
I’ll say this: Mike Tobias told me that the best way to find the tone you like is to just let the bass play itself. I think sometimes we’ll pick up a bass and say, “Man this bass sounds terrible,” or “This bass sounds good,” but realistically I believe you can make any bass sound good. Because a lot of the tone is in your fingers and it does depend on what you’re playing and how you’re playing it. For example, you can give Victor Wooten any bass – even a fifty dollar Walmart bass – and he’s going to make it sound incredible. It is what it is.
My favorite is to have everything equal. I’ll turn my low end all the way up, my mid will be turned all the way up or at least three-quarters of the way, and my high end will be half-way, but for whatever reason it kind of levels everything out where it’s not too much of one thing. That works for me.
I EQ more from the bass and usually sit everything on the amp in the middle. I may turn the mids up just a tad or mess with the woofer, but never anything too severe. A lot of times I have to turn the low end and bass down on the amp. I like to get whatever the low end is from the bass itself. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time.
I’ve got eleven basses that are all by MTD. I’ve got three that are Kingston MTDs, so the rest of them are handmade by Mike Tobias. I rotate all the time, but recently the one that I’ve been playing the most is this five-string that Daniel Tobias actually built. It’s a new model called the Super 5. It’s got a few different sounds together. It’s got the USA MTD sound, then a Saratoga jazz sound, then a Music Man/Rickenbacker overdrive type of tone you can get out of it, too. It’s a wide range of tones that come out of one bass. I’ve been playing it ever since the NAMM Show. It’s been between that and my MIDI bass and my six-string with a whammy bar. I’ve just been rotating between those three for the past few months.
I use Gallien-Krueger amps, and I’m in love with the neo cabs. My favorite head is the Fusion 550. I like the MB heads, too, because they’re light but have a lot of power. What I use depends on what kind of gig it is. With Snoop Dogg and Lupe Fiasco, I used the RBX series with a couple 410s and a couple 115s. I would either use the Fusion 550 or the 2001RB. Recently what I like to do is use two Fusions and one 2001 head. Then I’ll have three stacks of 410s and three stacks of 15s. It’s a pretty cool thing. When I was with Lupe it was six cabs total, with Snoop it was nine cabs. that was five 2001 heads and all the rest were the RB800s. I’m still playing that because I like the warmth I get out of it, but the Neo cabs have really done some great things for me. For a lot of the TV show stuff, I like to use the Neo 412 and then a 115, then use a Fusion head. There’s a lot of combinations I like to do.
I have pretty much anything and everything that Roland or Boss has made. I have two MIDI pedals, I’ve got the GT-10B, I have all the loop pedals they’ve made… I mean I love pedals. I like trying a lot of different stuff with tones.
My favorite is the Roland VB-99 MIDI pedal. I can patch it to a keyboard and use whatever sounds are in the keyboard. Aside from that, it already have four hundred and some tones in it and you can create your own. It’s just limitless.
Advice for Bassists on Getting a Good Tone
Don’t think there’s a tone that’s not good. There’s really no wrong tone to me that you could necessarily have. Guys like Billy Sheehan and Flea have a signature type of tone, and maybe some guys would think that their tones wouldn’t work in R&B but I’ve heard it and I’ve tried it. I love Billy’s tone. I love Geddy Lee’s tone. It just depends on how I feel that day. Just flow with it. This tone may sound good today and tomorrow you’ll try something else that you didn’t used to like but now you like it.
We live in world now where there’s a lot of comparison going on and I think that it’s going to tarnish the next generation if we continue. I don’t think that anybody is better than anybody. I could never sit up and compare Allan Holdsworth and John Scofield. They’re guitar players, but I can’t compare them because they’re both great at what they do. They’re legends for crying out loud.
So as far as tone goes, all I have to say is don’t be afraid to try stuff. If there’s a tone you like, don’t worry about it if somebody else doesn’t like it. That’s your tone, you do what you do. Don’t be afraid to explore. Have fun, that’s what it’s all about.