Gear, Tone and Reality
Q: I know a lot of guys who spend quite a bit of time and money on their gear. In your opinion, how much of a bassist’s sound is contained in the rig that they are using versus the hands and so on?
A: I’m glad you asked! I just had this conversation the other night, at different times and with different people while at a dinner party held by Janek Gwizdala. Janek and I have noticed a large number of people asking very specific information about gear, strings and amps – not just about how this works or that works, but simply, “What do you use?”-type questions.
We surmised that a large number of people believe that, to some extent, if you buy the amp, bass and use the same strings as your favorite player, maybe you’ll sound a bit like them.
While I think every one of us has been guilty of this line of thinking, let me save you some money.
Buying everything that your favorite player uses will not make you sound any more like them than you already do. The reason many players play what they play has to do with reliability, artist pricing, power needs and – for many – transparency (not coloring the sound so it sounds exactly like… you).
I can remember hanging out with Rich Brown (an amazing bassist in Toronto) at my house and he had brought his bass. Rich has one of my all time favorite electric bass tones. I couldn’t wait to swap basses for a hot second and play his. I wanted to hear that tone under my fingers. To my dismay, I sounded nothing like Rich and sounded practically the same as I did when I had my own bass in my hands.
Very subtle differences at work.
I was so bummed because, in that moment, I truly realized that my sound was actually that: my sound, and not the result of me having the right or wrong gear.
As further proof in the pudding to our “the tone is in your hands” discussion, Juan Alderete (Mars Volta bassist) mentioned how a wrist injury a few years back had completely changed his tone. He simply couldn’t get his hand in the same position that he was used to and it drastically changed his tone because he was forced to pluck from another part of his finger. Same finger, mind you, just from a different angle.
Certainly, if you plug your bass with a flat EQ into 10 different rigs, all set with flat EQ’s, you will get 10 different sounds. They will, however, be 10 different variations on your sound.
When anyone asks me about choosing gear I always suggest that one simply tries out a number of different basses and then play it through a number of different amps and use what speaks to you. Choose the bass by the feel, stability and sound you get out of it. Choose the rig by your needs and requirements (size, power, versatility). Choose the strings you use by how they feel and sound, and how long they last.
And of course, by varying degrees of financial ability. We certainly can’t all afford boutique rigs (see my past article on picking a rig).
I heard someone say once, “we’ve all got different meat and different bones… how could anyone one of us sound alike?”. That’s it in a nutshell. Physiology plays a huge role in your tone. Then there’s how hard we pluck, what fingers we use, what part of our finger we use, and the same goes for the left hand. Even the callouses on our fingers change our sound. How long are your nails? Do they add a click to your (attack) sound on your right hand?
How high you wear your bass will effect what part of your finger you use when playing too.
In short, there are countless variables. If you don’t like your sound, there is a lot of experimentation one can do in order to fully explore the tonal possibilities we possess. What someone else plays should play a role only in the beginnings of your exploration into what gear to use. Use it as a launching board for your experiment, but only use what speaks to you personally in one way or another. Don’t think that buying a Fodera will get you any closer to Janek’s, Garrison’s or Anthony’s level of musicianship. That part is all a matter of blood, sweat, tears and determination.
My advice? Put far more energy into your craft (music) than you do the tools (gear) of the trade and you’re sure to develop a voice all your own and, before you know it, people will be asking you what gear you use.