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Maintaining Your Tone Between Fingerstyle and Slap

Bassist by Feliciano Guimaraes
Photo by Feliciano Guimarães

Q: Most of the time, I play fingerstyle, but sometimes in the middle of some songs, I change to slap-style. In those situations, I find I just don’t have enough punch to come through. I don’t think that’s a matter of technique or strength. What do you suggest? Do I need a gearbox to augment the volume when I switch from fingers to slap?

A: Great question! I wish I was more of a slap guy, because I’ll be winging it and making some educated guesses here.

I’ll start with my “smaller likely doesn’t make a difference in your life, but I’ll say it anyway” thought: not all basses are great sounding slap basses and not all basses are great sounding fingerstyle basses. Fewer still really do both well. Generally speaking, I find it easier to get a good fingerstyle tone out of a great slap bass than the inverse (although, my slap technique probably plays a part).

I just wanted to make note of that. Pedals, EQ settings, etc. aside, your bass could play a role in the equation.

Outside of your instrument, you might try a few things:

1. Depending on your fingerstyle sound and tone, a small boost or cut in your on-board pre-amp could go a long way towards getting the tone that you want.

Most of the great things in tone happen in the mid-range, in my opinion. I generally leave my bass pretty flat (or with a bass or treble cut, depending on the room) and go for more thump with my low-mids or more clarity with my high-mids.

The essence of slap-tone is a mid-scoop, where the bass is emphasized for thump and the highs emphasized for the pop.

If you have a burpy-low-mid tone, you could certainly help by cutting your mid frequencies (and/or bumping up your bass and treble). If you have an on-board pre-amp, you might be able to get to a workable sound with a quick knob twist or two.

2. You could also explore an EQ setting on your amp or on-board pre that meets the two tones somewhere in the middle.

You might have to compromise one or both tones to get one that sounds ok for both but much depends on your ears and what you want to hear.

3. Pedals! (everybody loves pedals, right?)

Some common fixes for this dilemma (and some common uses even for those without any dilemma) are one or more of the following effects:

  1. Compression: A good compression setting can really help your sound to cut through the mix in a way that’s almost magical. It might not even sound louder or like your tone changed that much, but the way your sound interacts with those around it seems to change. That’s not really how it works, but that’s how it sounds to me (can you tell that I’m no a super gear-head?). An LED peak-reduction status and good control over your compression parameters helps a lot. I use the MXR Bass Compressor, and it’s pretty great. I’m pretty unacquainted with compression settings, and a quick read of the quick start manual got me going with great results.
  2. EQ Pedal: There couldn’t possibly be a quicker way to change EQ settings on the fly than an EQ stomp box.
  3. Boost/EQ style Direct Box: It’s always great to have a quality DI with you on the gig anyway, so maybe you should just get a good DI that also has a boost/EQ stomp box built in. You can tweak the tone to your liking, give it a little boost or overdrive, if you like, and click it in and out. Pretty great tool. I use the Basswitch IQ-DI and love it. It’s prefect for my needs on the road (it has two effects loops, one having a blend knob, boost and is switchable. Tons of other functions, too). The SansAmp Tech 21 is also a great sounding pedal with a great sounding DI. I know a lot of guys that use this as well. This might be the one of you want a little more grit to your boosted sound.
  4. Sonic Maximizers or Enhancers: I’ve never used one, but I do know that some bassists use these live or in the studio to bring a little bit of sparkle to their tone. It’s not for me, but it definitely does work for some people. It all depends on what sound you are going for.

Readers, you can help big time here on this question. How do you deal with switching between slap and fingerstyle playing on the fly? Please share in the comments.

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Share your thoughts

Kirk Hazel

Well, since you asked, and it IS the “internets”afterall…..seriously though, great question and one I’m surprised no one asks more often! I struggled for years with the same problem, and three things changed my life. #1 was the bass I was using…as Damian mentioned above, this can make a HUGE difference. I don’t know why, but when I got my Sadowsky Metro 5, switching between finger style and slap got a whole lot easier. The instrument just seems to deliver whatever you throw at it. Second thing was compression, I use a Diamond bass comp. and it really fattens up the high notes and keeps the lows under control when slapping. I keep it set real low, just enough to do it’s thing but not so high that it starts to kill dynamics. Third thing is a limiter, I use the Boss limiter/enhancer. Lets you set an absolute ceiling on the signal so you can slap away and not overdrive boards and amps, keeping the sound cleaner and therefore clearer. Technique is a huge part also, not too heavy handed seems to work better, for me anyway. Strings can make a difference too, esp. dead versus new ones. Newer strings cut through with less effort…..and action plays a roll also. Too high action will cause the sound to “choke” when you slap, not spank against the fret like you want it too. Just my 2 cents….good luck!

    Damian Erskine (Author)

    Great info. Thanks Kirk!

    Enrico Hendro

    Enrico Hendro

    do you have any recommendation what bass is best for switching between finger style and slap?? other than your sadowsky metro 5?? ’cause you see, I’m having the same issue here…I currently use Yamaha BB424 and MXR Bass DI+

      Kirk Hazel

      Man. I wish there was a clear answer for that but it such an individual thing! Before I went out and spent the money on a new bass I would try a compressor, maybe even an EQ pedal with a slight gain boost you can kick in for slapping. I personally prefer a subtle mid scoop between 300 and 2k, a very slight low end bump around 80hz and a slight bump around 6 to 20k. Be very careful when boosting freq. esp. in the lows as too much boost coupled with over eager thumb slaps can damage speakers and make soundmen very unhappy! You can get a Boss GEB-7 EQ for around $50 on ebay, and I found it works quite well, with 7 bands of cut/ boost and an overall gain. Also, make sure your bass is set up well and has newer strings….just my opinion of course! Cheers and good luck.

      Aaron Pearson

      I’ve had the best tone with a straight maple neck over a rosewood fingerboard. It seems to be brighter.

David

David

Is the bass and active or passive? I have found that playing in passive mode, instead of active can make a difference when you are switching between finger-style and slap style. Just something to try.

m.steity

in the past i played very hard with my fingers, there was no chance to get equal or louder sound with slap style playing.
but it took me years to discover this. now i play finger with 10% power (surprise; it sound more powerful than ever) and slap stuff cut through the mix like nothing.
i also recommend the new d’addario flex steel string, very explosive slap tone.

    Fa_Graf

    Fa_Graf

    I totally agree with you: playing with heavy fingers often causes a little distortion or overdrive that lowers the overall volume and presence, having a linght touch makes bass sound bigger and slap lines pop out easily and clearly!

Jon Hallam

I’m lucky enough that my bass – a Warwick Thumb – has a great slap and fingerstyle tone though I don’t like scooped mids even in my slap tone.

However, if you do want to scoop the mids for the slap tone then embrace the tone variation you have in your hands. If you play closer to the neck you get a deeper, rounder tone, if you play closer to the bridge you get a more nasal, midrangey tone, think Jaco. If you scoop some mids you can effectively put them back by playing closer to the bridge and when you switch to slapping you will have a better tone.

    Ethan Bender

    Ethan Bender

    I started out primarily as a slap player, and over the years I’ve gradually become more of a fingerstyle player. Two things made a huge difference for me: my Eden Navigator preamp and my Ernie Ball 5-string. The compressor section (and the eq) on the Navigator preamp make it very easy to even out the volume between slapping and fingerstyle. I also play a Yamaha JP1, and I get the same results with that bass when I use it with the preamp. Both basses are active, so I don’t know what results I’d get from a bass with passive electronics.

    Ian Lewis

    Ian Lewis

    You took the words right out of my head Jon!