All in the Fingers?

I started playing bass when I was 14. My dad bought me a used ‘no-name’ bass from the local thrift shop; a Fender Precision copy made from plywood with a big, shiny, and very noisy, single-coil pickup. Once I was experienced enough to know good tone from bad, it became apparent that this bass sounded pretty awful. Yet I successfully auditioned for a band with it when I was 16.

I bought what I would say was my first ‘proper’ bass when I was turning 18. (Yep I played ‘the plank’ for nearly four years!) My new bass was a relatively low-end Aria Pro II. I remember playing it when I got it home – it felt amazing and to my young ears – it sounded just like some of the players I was emulating at the time. Suddenly the big wide world of tone had opened up to me.

I had now reached the next rung in the ladder of owning a playable, quality instrument. This bass was to see me right for the next 3 years… Then I unfortunately fell foul of the wanton vixen that is, ‘Gear Lust’.

A dedicated bass store called ‘The Bass Place’ had opened up in Birmingham UK and was run by some local musicians I respected at the time. This, along with the holy grail of panning for ‘bass-bargain gold’, the Birmingham-based ‘Musical Exchanges’, meant that I had a direct supply of gear to keep my new addiction well-fed.

From aged 20 to around 29, I must have swapped my bass guitar on an average of around once every two months. I went through SO many brands: Hohner, Aria, Washburn, Yamaha, Fender, Tune, Jaydee and Status to name just some. As my musical taste expanded and I listened to more and more different players and genres, I had an insatiable desire to ‘sound-a-like’. So on I went. It got ridiculous.

Eventually, almost overnight as I remember, I grew out of it. I settled down with a Yamaha BB1100S; a fabulous bass. Then it hit me… over all the years of experimentation, gear swapping and losing money hand over fist, I had arrived at a sound. MY sound. I have of course changed my bass guitars since and no longer own my Yamaha. I’m now 42 and own an Ibanez Soundgear SRX500 4-string fretted bass and a CJM 6-string fretless bass. These two great basses give me a nice breadth of tone and are versatile enough to see me through whatever style of music I find myself playing.

The point of all this though is that now, whatever bass I pick up – my own or borrowed – I sound like me. I’ve learned I no longer have to lust after better and more expensive gear all the time. Heck, I even own a cheap Jazz copy I bought on eBay for $100 which I’ve de-fretted. I can get a decent sound out of that too because it’s in the fingers, the ‘touch’ (and for that matter the soul) of the player where the real sound is.

So gear-heads, maybe have a rethink. Owning an Alembic won’t make you sound like Stanley Clarke or a Zon like Michael Manring (nor will it necessarily do your bank account any good!). The player is what makes great bass.

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  1. I agree. I play a EUR 90 cheap bass (fretless DIY) with my band. All are surprised with the good sound.
    Sometimes I play other basses (more expensive) with my band. Most of the times, they can not appreciate big diferences in my sound ;-)

  2. Absolutely right! While it’s true, different instruments have their own sound, the player really adds much more to the sound (tonality) by way of their technique than is easy to appreciate. Whether it’s the choice of notes, phrasing and/or any number of intangibles, I refuse to guess.

  3. Jesse

    This reminds me of being in Mars Music in Nashville with our old guitar player, who was extremely talented. Watched him pick up a $35 child’s acoustic & start noodling on it just for grins. It didn’t sound like a Martin, but in his hands, it sounded like a gig-worthy guitar.

    My main bass is an SX Jazz copy I got for under $200 & put some slightly better pickups in. I’m quite pleased with it.

  4. Tim

    This is true. Back when I first started getting into music, my dad said, “A skilled musician will make any instrument sound good.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t skilled at all at the time, and wanted better gear, much to my parents’ dismay.

    Now, after a long hiatus from music (no thanks to World of Warcraft haha)I bought a Spector Q5 Pro from my friend signed by Mr. Spector himself and I’ve been in love with it. I’m actually getting into theory and I love the bass’s ability to sing its notes with such great clarity and sustain, but I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate that sound without getting into the nitty-gritty of just playing. Great article! :)

  5. Great article Russ.

    My first Bass was a Fender Musicmaster Bass. At that time ( 1973 – I was 13 )my parents bought it new for $125 ( no case ). I used that bass until I was 17 and I was Fortunate enough to meet Shiro Arai of Aria Music and he gave me an SB1000 – single pickup w/ active electronics. When I was 18, Aria gave me an SB900 fretted and SB900 fretless. I performed numerous clinics for Aria back then. Great Basses!!

    Now I play Farnell Ultralite Basses with top of the line EMG pickups. These basses only weigh 7 lbs. and have the best tone and sustain. Great Basses.

    With all of that being said, I agree with Russ about “All in the Fingers”. If you have to work harder in the beginning stages of your playing, it gives you an edge when you get a truly professional bass.

    Best regards,
    Joel Ciulla

  6. SQUEEN!?

    as much as i agree, im still for getting rid of the battered old westfield im currently using (on loan from our ex drummer!) ^ ^ i wont be totally breaking the bank however, you can get a better sound by putting some good old practice hours in :)

  7. Jay

    It’s always been explained to me that “it’s not the arrow………’s the Indian!”

  8. Michael

    As the symphony players say , ” It’s not the violin , it’s the violinist “

  9. I am now 62 years old and have played bass since I was 12. My first bass was a Gibson because my brother bought it for me. I traded it in after a year or so for a Fender Jazz bass which I still play today. Along the way I must have owned 30 different basses. Everything from a cheap Rogue copy of a Hofner (still play it) to a fantastic graphite neck Steinberger that I wish I still owned. I play about six basses regularly for their tonal qualities. Sometimes I use a pick, sometimes fingers. The bottom line is that I always sound like “me”. And no band leader has ever complained that I wasn’t playing a more expensive bass.

  10. Hallam

    I’ve bought far too many basses just to experiment with my tone, but once I bought a low end warwick I realised I already had the right bass for my playing style, and it was cheaper. Most importantly though, when I’m playing it I just feel like me.

  11. But I do own an Alembic, and I don’t sound like Stanley Clark. Funny thing is that for me it is just the neck shape that is important. Peavey, soundgear, MTD and Alembic seem to do the trick. I have played for 27 years now and my rig is torn down to it’s simplest form ever. I have a four string, a combo amp and an instrument cable. Every knob on my amp is fixed at 12 O clock and I only adjust volume and gain. It really is in the fingers! (well, and the brain)

  12. Martin Paul Thiessen

    My line is simple, every bass player should be issued a fender P bass as a standard first bass. Figure out why that thing works. Then you can go get your 17 string Zon sonus special super elite fretless with gold hardware and buckeye Burl gallery top. But you’ll probably still take the P bass to gigs. Hmmm… Sounds familiar.

  13. Sorta agree,

    I went thru a very similar stage with basses and gear. I own a few Fenders, Music Mans, G&Ls and Yamahas and while each bass has its own unique sound I do favor my Sadowsky. Its 4 times the price of your average Fender and I spent a lot of time and money tricking out my Fenders but the Sadowsky gives me what I want right out the box.

    I will always sound like me no matter what bass I play but sound quality does differ from bass to bass. I own about 20 basses and a ton of gear but I have simplified everything down to two basses and a bag with a few cables, strings and pedals and I just run thru the house or whatever amp is there. That’s a huge change from 10 years ago where I would lug crazy amps and gear to every show.

    I find most of that stuff doesn’t matter. A good bass and a good DI is all I need :)


  14. I guess we all start out the same in a way, my first bass was a $125 specialty, but I learnt on it for about 4 years. It had a shocking action so I learnt all about setting up my bass, I had no choice this thing was making me bleed bad.
    I really can’t remember all the basses I have owned, never any that were expensive and I guess I still don’t own a expensive bass. I have a MM Fender Jazz that has been modified with Sadowsky Pickups and Preamp, I like it, It runs though a TC Electronic RH450 head and RS410 and RS210 boxes. It’s me, it’s my sound and I always have anyone I play with comment on the clarity and punch my sound has.
    Yeah I would love a MTD I have always liked Michaels basses but alas unless I win lotto a $5000 bass here in Australia is way out of my league. Will it make me better, no but it certainly is nice to look at ;).

  15. I believe it’s both player and bass quality. I have one of the best and one of the lowest end … My Warwick has insane sustain and reliable; the Squier sucks ….. Lol

    • Ayy!!Easy on those words!!Susane and billy Squier the average person does NOT NO wat those words mean!!

    • A great bass can make any player sound reasonable, a Good Player can make any bass sound great… it’s in the setting up of the instrument and the skill that lies within the Fingers of the player ;o)

  16. People still look at me like I’m nuts for playing a Squire Custom Precision. I played with Lenny Pickett from Saturday Night Live and he didn’t seem to complain too much.

    • I recently changed from Spector Euro LX basses to Fender Squiers Brandon, and have never enjoyed playing so much in 23 years of Bass Bashin’, and everyone thinks that my sound is better than ever… Figure that one out, haha

  17. Sorry Gina, but Warwick isn’t one of the best.

  18. No offense, but if you are happy playing a modern Ibanez you clearly know nothing about quality tone.

    • I own a 60 precision bass and a modern ibanez and i think that i can say something about good tone … the quality tone and the quality of tone is rarely linked with the gear you own … i know players who have realy nice gear, but their sound is frankly speaking … how to say it … not so good . And for example one of my students is a sound machine and he owns a Squier PB made Korea :)

    • Yes,the player’s skill contributes greatly to the quality of tone, and yes, you can plug a Squire Jazz bass into an Ampeg rig and be surprised at how much tone you can squeeze out of it. But please don’t tell me that instruments made by peasants, out of cheap materials in a sweatshop in Korea sound as good as a ones that are made out of real tonewoods, using hi copper content wire and came off a luthier’s bench. Imagine how good your student would sound playing a vintage Gibson or a handmade boutique bass. I USED to think knock-offs were the shit, until I got my first vintage Epiphone Rivioli. Ever since then I can’t play some 3rd world bass without being painfully aware of it’s tonal defects. Just for fun I played my singer’s Squire P-bass at rehearsal one night and everybody begged me to switch back to the hollowbody Epiphone by the second or third song saying, ” That p- bass just doesn’t have the SOUND we are used to.” I say do a blind taste test with a vintage or boutique bass and a plywood Korean bass plugged into the same rig with the eq set flat and no fancy compressors, aural exciters or the ilk, the difference should be clear. I’m not trying to be a snob, and I know affording an a-list bass is difficult for most hobby musicians, but if we are purely talking tone, with no other considerations, knock-offs haven’t measured up since the lawsuit days of the 60’s and 70’s. I have been in several recording studios and have NEVER seen an engineer pull an Ibanez or Squire bass out of the closet and say “Use this, it’s my favorite sounding bass!!!”

    • How can you say as a rule that intruments from Korea is not as good as a handmade made wherever in the west? Because someone told you? I just think this is crap….

    • No Jon, not because somebody told me, because I have built 2 basses, and one guitar from scratch and owned over 30 store bought instruments in my 25 years+ as a musician/ sound engineer and have a highly developed ear for tone. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that’s why this is called a forum. If you are happy playing plywood and pot metal basses built in a sweatshop then I am happy for you. I simply didn’t want young musicians to be misled into thinking that the quality of the instrument doesn’t really matter when it clearly does. (Unless you are playing some type of crappy metal or punk with a distortion pedal.) . They are called entry-level instruments for a good reason. I struggled to afford my first REAL professional grade bass, but it was so worth it. Just about every time I play or record I get soundmen and engineers commenting on the excellence of my tone, they say stuff like, “Wow man, that’s the most even, round sounding bass I have ever heard” or “Your tone is so tight, I didn’t have to use a compressor on it”. Do they say that about YOUR bass???? Yes, all my basses have been custom wired with hand-wound boutique pickups and pots, vintage capacitors and hi-copper content wire. (thanks Kevin Silva/ Dan Doughtery) I plug my bass directly into my amp, if you have to use a rack full of effects and compressors to make your bass sound decent then you are polishing a turd. Wake up, this is the price you pay for outstanding, killer tone and there is no substitute. It’s allright, I don’t blame you for your ignorance, I played for 10 years before I really understood the importance of great tone. Hey, who knows, with lots of practice, sacrifice and dedication your playing will warrant spending real money on a quality rig too. Good day sir.

  19. I first, aged 15, had a dreadful thing that cost £20 from Woolworth for 6 months, then a secondhand Antoria copy of a Precision for about a year, before getting a beautiful Ibanez copy of a Rickenbacker 4001 and then a fretless genuine 4001, which was my main instrument until I was 21 and with which I made my first recordings, including two studio albums and several singles. I then used a number of custom built basses by Melvyn Hiscock before swathing to Fender Jazz basses in the 1980s. As for amps: Vox with 15s, Fender with 18s!, Marshall, Orange and Hi Watt with 12s, fender with 10s, SWR with 10s, and now Mark Bass with 10s: the same sound for 40 years. I’ve also had a few active basses, but never liked the sound. When Ibanez gave me a pair of SGRs in 1990, I replaced the active pickups with passive ones and bypassed the circuitry altogether: no tone, no volume, so that the sound is ALL in my fingers, where I want it. I have been playing the acoustic bass since I was 16, too, and, as with the electric my sound is the same as it was when I was about 21. It really is all in the hands.

    • That’s interesting, AND good to hear. I also heard a similar view in an interview with David Gilmour’s guitar tech. who said much the same, that David Gilmour’s ‘sound’ and style has little to do with a particular guitar / effect, but achieved those characterstics in his playing through the way he hits the string, vibrato, quirks of timing etc.

    • I bought a Ibanez Rickenbacker copy in 1976.

    • I started guitar on a *crap* Woolies ‘Audition’, too! (Mine was second hand!!)

      My first actual bass was a home-made affair that was a joint effort between me and my dad. It was rubbish really, but it kinda worked… We didn’t know about truss rods, so the neck was a bit of a banana- the action was horrible!

      What that meant was that you could either tune it so the open strings were in tune, or ignore those and tune it so that the rest was in tune. Luckily I struggled on with it, and with hindsight it meant that I never relied on open strings which meant I understood patterns straight off, and also developed a strong finger technique.

      It sounded good, too, as we had no idea how long to make it, so we just bought the strings, uncoiled them and “made it that long”. So it turned out extra long scale in the days when that was rare. As far as I remember, it had no frets beyond the octave either, because: “what’s the point? It’s a bass- why would you be going up there?!” :)

      I played it for years in the family ceilidh band- earned enough money to buy a Korg 700s mono synth… (poor man’s Minimoog- fairly desirable these days!). I still have the synth, but not sure what happened to the bass….

    • but Terry, you have ‘active fingers’ – that’s the key!..

    • @Terry, I bought that Antoria copy of a Precision from you in 1975. It was the old Telecaster Precision design, vintage white with white scratchplate – it was my main bass in Stallion for a year until I bought my ’71 Precision, when it became my backup on all my Stallion and England gigs. Part exchanged it for something later, but can’t remember what. Wish I still had it now!

    • i’d forgotten that, Phil. It was a nice bass, wasn’t it? Tony Reeves in Greenslade had the real thing, and I always fancied one. Doesn’t Sting play one, too?

    • I think Sting has the real thing in sunburst.

  20. Right on Russ. To quote Jaco,”the sound is in my hands.” I remember reading that years ago in a Bass Player magazine. It really stuck with me.

  21. When I was in high school and started playing bass, a good friend of mine was sort of showing me the ropes. At one point or another he and I were talking about buying basses the one thing he said that I will never forget it “It doesn’t matter what you play, it’s how you play it. You could pick up a Kleenex Box with elastics on it but if you can sound like Stanley Clarke on it then who cares” – Matthew McWaters (bassist and educator). I’ve always kept that in mind when buying basses, and lately after years of playing, I’ve found that a lot of it really does come down to the fingers. I have a six string Clement Bass and a six string Ibanez sound gear. I find that, even though the basses have different inherent tones (woods, pickup placement, strings… etc) I still get “my tone” just based on how my fingers strike the strings. Which is kind of neat, because now I know, if I play a bass that’s well set-up has decent strings on it, and isn’t a 100 dollar sears wishbook special, I can generally sound like me. But I mean… you aren’t going to sound the same playing a Fodera or something and playing an old Gibson EB-0 from the early 70’s. I’d say it’s more an 80/20 split for the Fingers/Bass, but as long as you’re playing something with a familiar pickup configuration and a good set up you’re usually good to go. That’s my two cents… Maybe I should try that Kleenex box now.

  22. Say what ya wanna, Warwick is a quality beast. Mine is 10 yrs old, used and never had an issue. The ibanez I used to have was the biggest pos I ever laid my hands on.

  23. I commented this on the link in Facebook – I think pickup type, and most importantly pickup PLACEMENT, has the largest impact on your tone. You will never, EVER make a bridge humbucker sound like a neck single coil. You’ll never make a bridge single coil sound like a neck mudbucker. Ever. The sound of your attack and touch will remain constant, but the location and type of the pickups will always indelibly impact your tone. Sure, touch brings out the nuance, but you will never, ever rid a Stingray of that humbucker quack. You will never get a Jaco sound out of a P-Bass. People who say they can are delusional.

    My Squier/Fender Rumble 15 setup circa 2004 does not sound as good as my Warwick/Glockenklang rig – and don’t you dare say that it’s solely because of my improvement in touch since that time.

  24. Ok. So how? How is this blog post titled “All In The Fingers” helping me by telling me it’s not satisfied by gear lust? I was hoping for knowledge on attack, finger position, finger-tip usage. You tricked me.