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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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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 ;-)


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.



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.



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! :)

Joel Ciulla

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



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 :)



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



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


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.



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.

Aaron Gibson

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)

Martin Paul Thiessen

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.


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 :)