Photo by Enric Juvé
Q: I use a Fender American Standard Jazz bass and have Labella Flats on it. It’s a great bass, but not suitable for the type of genres that I play. I am seeking for a fatter and tighter sound, as deep as possible but with a lot of clarity. I have been looking into different pickups too. What should be my current plan of action? How can I get the best of my jazz bass? I know the power lies in the fingers, but this has become an issue as I prefer less notes with deep and long sustains. And another big issue is that one of the guitarists of my bands uses a baritone guitar!
A: There aren’t many sounds that you can’t get with a decent Fender instrument. They are built to cater to traditional players and traditional tones. I’ve always dug the sound (although I prefer the P-bass). My issue with Fender has always been the feel. They are very inconsistent from instrument to the next and you really have to play a bunch of them to find the one that speaks to you. That’s another column though. We’re talking sound.
While I do have preferences with regard to pickups (I love the Aguilar pickups and use the P/J set in a Marleaux bass that I use in the studio when I need that “Fender sound”), I don’t believe your issue lies in the pickups.
I have a few thoughts:
1. If you are looking for long sustain, you should ditch the flat wound strings.
This will also help with the clarity and tightness that you mentioned. When I think of flats, I think of deep thumpy notes… notes that song cool specifically because of their lack of definition and sustain.
Here are some tips when looking at the myriad of strings available to you with regard to string construction and materials:
Hex core vs. round core:
- Round cores tend to lean towards a fat, traditional bass tone.
- Hex cores are more common and give a brighter sound and stiffer tension.
- Round wound is the most common and is the brightest.
- Half round have a smoother feel and slightly mellower tone.
- Flat wound reduce finger noise, are very smooth and are very warm and mellow sounding.
- Tape wound strings have a nylon outer wrap that gives you a short decay and more of a thump sound. I prefer the feel of nylon strings to flats, but they have a very old school, thump vibe.
- Steel strings are likely the most common for electric bass and are the brightest. Steels are optimal for slapping and an articulate finger style playing.
- Nickel strings are a bit less bright than steel strings and are also much less “grabby” on the fingers. The metal feels much slicker than steel. I prefer nickel and actually have grown so accustomed to the feel that steel strings tend to feel like they are sticking to my finger tips when I pluck the strings now.
- Steel core with a nickel wrap may give you the best of both worlds.
- Coated strings are much slicker and tend to last a little longer although they tend to get a bit frayed as they age which may or may not bother you.
It may take a little experimentation but I think that you may get much closer to what you are looking for with some different strings. Perhaps some round wound, nickel strings with a round core (which may sound better to you after a week or so of playing. I always like my strings a bit on the dead side).
2. You might want to experiment with your technique.
Students are often surprised at how many different sounds they can get out of their bass simply by adjusting how and where they pluck with their right hand.
Here are a few things I’d experiment with:
This is when you lay the meaty side of your hand lightly against the strings back by the bridge while you pluck (most commonly) with your thumb and index fingers (some people just use their thumb. I use my thumb, index and middle finger). This dampens the attack on the string but you can control how much muting is happening by how much of your hand is touching the strings, how hard you are pushing down against the strings and whether or not you lift your hand after plucking the note. You can actually get a thumpy, palm muted note attack with a lot of sustain if you lift your hand after plucking the note. You can also try adding a little vibrato with your left fretting finger to encourage the string to continue ringing!
Plucking by the bridge vs. over the fretboard vs. anywhere in between.
How hard you hit the strings and where you pluck them has a massive impact on how the note will sound. Play around with location and intensity. With enough practice, it’s possible to have a bright articulate sound as well as a nice thumps, old school muted sound without changing anything but your hand position and attack style.
3. Make sure that you really get to know your tone controls.
Explore how favoring the front pickup vs the bridge pickup can change your sound. With just a pickup pan and a tone knob, you have a wealth of sounds available to you. Don’t get hung up on one setting. Fully explore your instrument.
It’s also possible that you have the wrong bass for the job, but I think it’d be a waste to spend money buying a new instrument or changing your current instrument until you’ve forced yourself to really explore the sounds possible on that instrument. Many of my techniques actually came about as a result of me searching for a sound on an instrument that wasn’t meant to sound that way. I learned a lot about my sound and how to get it by exploring every aspect of my bass, pre amp EQ and technique.
Readers (and especially you Fender players): What is your sound and how do you get it? What strings do you use? Did you swap out your pickups? Please share in the comments.