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Finding the Right Tone Setting For Slap Bass

Slap bass
Photo by Valeria Guerrero

Q: I have seen a lot of Slap Pop tutorials, but none of them cover which pick up on the bass to use or tonal settings on the bass or amp. I am still working on proper striking technique, but I am wondering if part of getting the proper sound might be that I am not using the right pick up and tonal settings. What do you recommend?

A: I’ve mentioned in the past that I don’t really slap beyond the occasional plunking around in the shed for fun (and yes, plunking is likely the best word for it). I do, however, know a fair amount about trying to get a specific sound out of a bass, and I also know enough about slapping and slap bassists to help a bit.

First, here are some broad strokes:

There are dozens of things that go into your sound when you play and it’s good to explore them all individually.

Step 1: Make sure that you have a fairly clear image of the sound that you are going for. This seems obvious, but I know a lot of folks who just start twiddling knobs willy-nilly and hoping to stumble upon something cool. Give a basic analysis of the sound and experiment with your amp, bass, strings, pickups, etc. – with intention.

Step 2: Give thorough attention to the things that you can control with your current gear and fingers before you start spending money of stomp-boxes and swapping out pickups (although we’ll cover some of those options as well).

Step 3: Your gear…

Cabinets:

If your cab has a tweeter and has a rotary dial on the back, you likely can control how much involvement the tweeter has in your sound. The tweeter has more of an impact on your sound than you might think – it adds that extra sparkle and pop when slapping.

When it comes to big and dynamic sounds, the more air you are throwing, the better. This means that a 410 will automatically sound more authoritative than a 112 or 210 cab, when slapping.

Heads:

I always prefer to have more power than I need, regardless of whether or not I need the volume cranked. A power amp running with plenty of head room will be more dynamic and fuller sounding than and amp running at it’s max power output. I don’t know the science behind it (I’m sure some of you can fill us in) but I know what sounds good and I like powerful power amps.

Pickups:

Your pickups impact your sound greatly. It’s good to know what you have and what that pickup’s sound might be. For example, Bartolini’s tend to have a bit more growl and sound darker (to me) than EMG’s. Of course, there are multiple types of pickups within each brand as well. There’s also passive vs. active.

Basses:

Some wood combinations seem to shine when it comes to slapping. I know a lot of slappers who prefer Ash bodies and Maple necks and fretboards, for example. Graphite also has a very different sound – very bright with a lot of natural compression. The right combination for you very much depends on what you want to sound like. Also, the proper set up goes a long way towards both feel and tone. For aggressive slapping, you wouldn’t want your action set too low but you need to find a sweet spot as a very high action also effects the sound (seems to make it a little tubbier, to my ears).

Strings:

As far as I know, you can slap on anything but if you really want that Marcus, Victor, Flea, (whoever gets you excited) slap sound, chances are that they’re using stainless steel, round wound strings. I also like lower tension strings because you can get a little more slippery and expressive with them. D’Addario has their new Flexsteel strings (which I endorse officially, full disclosure) and, although I’m generally a nickel string guy, I really dig those flex steels. They’re super “bendy” and expressive and a lot of fun to play with. They sound great and seem to last forever.

Effects:

I’m once again out of my depth here, but I know that a big part of the slap sound is the elevated highs and lows. For quick switching of EQ on the stage, some players like to use an EQ pedal. This allows you to have one sound without the pedal engaged and change that sound on the fly. You might experiment with an EQ pedal with a setting specifically for slapping (i.e.: scooped mids). “Scooped mids” refer to the mids being lower than the bass or treble. Think smiley face on the EQ band. You could either boost the bass and treble and leave the mids flat or leave the bass and treble flat and drop the mids a bit.

You might also consider a compression pedal to help enhance those dynamics.

I’ve known some people to go a bit crazy buying a backpack full of pedals trying to achieve a good slap tone, but I must say that everyone I know with a great slap tone gets it from their rig, bass and hands. If they do have anything else in their signal chain, it’s for the finer details to really dial it in to their liking. But at least 95% of that sound is coming from them and their basic gear.

Now lets explore the things that you can control now.

I always try and start from a neutral place before trying to figure out how to get a specific sound.

I would start off by setting the EQ of your head flat. You don’t want to start twerking every knob on both your bass and amp at the same time, because you may unintentionally get the two EQ’s in conflict with each other – Tone suck. The flatter the better.

First start with the bass. Regardless of what type of bass you have or whether it’s passive or active, let’s start from the beginning. Put both pickups on full (center, if you have a pickup pan). Flatten any EQ and start with the tone knob, if you have one. You’ll want to lean towards a brighter sound.

Now you can start to add a bit of bass and treble if you have a 3-band EQ on your bass. You might also explore the subtle differences when you favor one pickup or the other. I believe that a lot of Fender players favor the front pickup and put the tone knob on the bright side of things.

Really explore how each knob and pickup relationship changes the sound of the instrument.

Get as close as you can on your instrument and then make some small, final adjustments on your power amp EQ. You could boost the bass just a bit and add some treble, for example. I like to then go back to my instrument and go through all of my options again. I prefer incremental changes so I don’t go too far into the rabbit hole all at once. It helps me to get to know my instrument better and better understand how everything effects everything else.

Now, if you’ve gone as far as you can with the instrument and the amp you have, make sure to also look at your technique! Explore the variance in sound achieved by changing where you hit the string, what part of your finger hits the string, how hard you hit the string, how much of your finger is plucking the string, etc. Everything plays a role and the hands are a huge part of the sound. It might be good to find a teacher that can actually slap well and spend an hour or more on just your right hand positioning and technique.

I would encourage you to get to any store with a selection of basses and try different basses. Explore maple necks vs. rosewood. Explore passive basses vs. active. Explore different amps and cabinets. You may just stumble upon the sound you’ve been looking for. Also check out the same basses with different pickups, if you can find any around you.

I know many of you readers know plenty about achieving a great slap sound. Do you have a preference of wood combinations? Great head and cab combination? What’s your magical formula for slap tone? Please share in the comments.