Getting to Know Your Bass: Part 1 – Tone Controls

Last night, I got to experience a true musical treat: the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the historic Ryman auditorium in Nashville. The band is somewhat of a super-group of talent and each player has a distinctive voice that contributes to the overall awesomeness of the music. Listening to players like Oteil Burbridge and Derek Trucks, I witnessed first-hand how much a musician’s “sound” is defined by their instrument and how the instrument itself influences what and how someone can play. Throughout the course of the performance, Oteil went from playing a four string Fender P-Bass, to a six string Fodera, to a banjo-bass. Needless to say, the different instruments allowed him to implement different techniques, tones, and styles to enhance the music. After attending the show, I became inspired to write about the importance of knowing what your instrument can do and how it can inspire or inhibit your ability to make the kind of music that you want to make.

In this column series, we’ll examine a few different things that all fall under the heading of “knowing the capabilities” of your bass. First, we’ll focus specifically on the importance of tone knobs and learning what they do. We’ll also highlight how this comes into play when you’re searching for a new bass to buy or why you may feel as if you’re not getting the most out of the bass you already own.

A quick disclaimer… I certainly don’t consider myself an “expert” when it comes to tone, especially because it’s a huge (and very subjective) topic. That said, this column is not meant to spark a huge discussion about what contributes to “good tone.” Instead, it’s supposed to get you thinking about how well you understand the potential for different tones with your instrument.

Early on in my playing, I didn’t take the time to find out what all of those knobs my instrument could do… the whole thing just seemed too complicated. I simply said “I pick it up, plug it in, it makes noise, I pretty much like the way it sounds, and it sounds like a bass.” Oh, how naive I was. I found myself in different playing situations where I knew that I had to change my tone somehow but didn’t know what to do other than turn up the volume. So one day, I sat down, played around with the knobs, read a couple of helpful hints online, asked a few gear friends some questions, and figured it all out.

Some instruments are easy… a P-bass has two knobs: volume and tone. Other instruments have all kinds of fun gadgets, from pickup selectors to co-centric bass and treble knobs to active/passive switches. If you don’t know what the knobs do and have a hard time just hearing it, look it up online or ask a “bass guy” at a music store. If you’re in the discovery process, a great thing to do is to turn your volume all the way up, set everything flat, play a simple bass line, and turn one knob all the way to one side, then all the way to the other. Listen for the differences in tone and try to play around the whole range of the instrument to see how the tone changes. After experimenting with the various knobs, you’ll start to get a feel for which control does what and you’ll learn how to create the sound that you want to hear out of the instrument.

Taking the time to do this helps in two ways. First, it helps you find your sound. If you don’t like the tone that you’re currently get out of your instrument, remember to “seek and ye shall find.” After playing around and getting a sound that you like, you may be surprised by how much more you enjoy playing your instrument.

Once you find your sound, try to memorize where your tone knobs are set and determine how each setting helps to create your overall sound. If you need to change your tone to better fit a room or rig, you’ll be able to make the adjustments from your “normal” position. Also, if you plug your bass in and it doesn’t sound like you, check to see where your tone is set and re-normalize it if it’s off. I’ve gotten so used to my sound that I’ll often pick up my bass the day after a gig and instantaneously notice whether or not I had to adjust my tone the night before.

Second, if you’re in a playing situation where you don’t like what you’re hearing, you’ll know how to change your tone so that you find something that you like. As someone that goes to jams a lot, I’m constantly sitting in and playing on rigs that aren’t mine. Usually, I don’t have time to mess around with the amp (nor do I want to mess up the house guy’s settings), so I look to my instrument to manipulate the tone. If I’m using my rig and playing a room that sounds weird, I’ll be able to shape my tone with both my amp and my bass… I’ll find a good sound with my amp and then make little tweaks on my instrument. Additionally, if I’m playing a tune that calls for something specific (or if I get called out for a bass solo), I may make a quick adjustment to find the right thing. For example, if the band calls “The Chicken,” I may quickly change my tone to favor the bridge pickup and heighten my mids so that I can get closer to the Jaco sound. Once I change my tone, I find that I play with a new approach; my note and rhythmic choices may be influenced by this different sound and the small adjustment provides new inspiration.

Sometimes, you may not find what you’re looking for while you’re “tone searching” on an instrument. In that case, it may not be the bass for you. If you happen to be on the hunt for the perfect bass, think about what kind of versatility you want in terms of tone selection. Some players decide to go the simple route, where they only want one or two controls. Other players want to have as many options as possible and will modify the instrument to their liking. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want your instrument to do, the setting in which you’ll be playing the instrument, and how the tone of the instrument inspires you to play.

Next time we’ll discuss the relationship between the tone and the scale length of your neck. We’ll also talk about how playing in different positions on the neck can influence your tone. Plus, in future columns, we’ll highlight the differences between 4-, 5-, and 6-string basses, the action of your bass, and how your set up caters to certain techniques.

And as always, I love hearing your stories. Keep sharing in the comments.

Photo by banger1977

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Great article Ryan! I’ve come to the point that I prefer the basics. Passive pickups and passive tone. That’s when I’m playing through my rig though. Now, I’m coming to the realization that I need something more versatile for plugging into those “house rigs”. It still amazes me, though, how many good players are out there that have no idea how to get the sound they want. A very informative read!

  2. I have an Ibanez BTB 5 that looks like the bass pictured in the article. It has a 18 volt active EQ. I usually start with everything set to mid then adjust accordingly.

  3. amazing article, thanks for sharing your experiences! really needed this!

  4. I can’t wait for next part! You write great articles Ryan!

  5. Great article. I am often surprised about bassists who just pick up an instrument and do not modify anything on the tone level. For myself, my style is the opposite of most bassists, I play simple tunes that are made purely by the sound of my bass, effects and amp. I have four basses with 4 different string styles; A Washburn MB40 with a heavy gauge, an Ibanes EDB5 with medium strings, a Fender Jaguar with nylon coated strings and a Status Series 2 with a medium/light gauge. I prefer lot’s of controls on all my basses, even for the fender I looked for a bass which offers more controls as the classic P or J bass. While the Fender is the perfect bass for Zeppelins Dazed And Confused, it is useless for The Cures Pornography. The Status is the most versatile bass of them all, and my favorite to play on, this makes that I usually use this bass to jam, but once I’ve got a riff I am not shy to change instruments because another bass produces a better tone for that riff. I often lose myself for hours finding the right tone for a specific tune, playing a simple riff and modding the controls. In the end music is all about what one hears, and that is defines by the gear as much as by what you play.
    Simon Gallup is a great example of this; he plays simple riffs, by playing them with the right sound he makes them great bass pieces.

  6. Nicely done. I’ve found that with the sound that I like, the preamp on my bass (as phenomenal as it was) didn’t have the flexibility that I was hearing. I ended up going from a 2-band to a 3-band (adding a mid control) which, while I still loved the sound I was getting previously, allowed me much more fine tuning to really get that sound I was hearing.

  7. I know what my tone controls do: Sit on a shelf in a box with a bunch of other electronic detritus, amongst my not-inconsiderable collection of ‘stuff to tinker with’. Never know when I might need a 500K audio taper pot for some project or another…

    Wait, lemme ‘splain:

    The coil of wire in a pickup is an inductor, and has a certain frequency range, depending on wire size, number of turns, etc., etc.; and the tone and volume controls on most passive basses put a resistive load across said inductors, lowering the high-end frequency response. So, too late to make a long story short, my passive basses are wired with both pickups in parallel to the output jack, and my tone is consequently brighter.

    My five-string, on the other hand, is an active bass, which already takes this into account, but I generally have the tones flat and the volumes wide open, except dialing the neck pickup back a tad. But that’s just me.

    • ever know when I might need a 500K audio taper pot for some project or another…

    • The coil of wire in a pickup is an inductor, and has a certain frequency range, depending on wire size, number of turns, etc., etc.; and the tone and volume controls on most passive basses….. my passive basses are wired …

    • ok …Proof is here now ..I haVE OFFICALLY LOST MY MIND ….I quickly read all that and this is what came out .. Never know when I’m going to need a 500 k taper and some pot ..( recording engineers make that much ??? pay less and you’ll have extra $$$ for pot ) ….The second part of it twisted into sexual innuendos ..ending with passive bass players …I don’t know any myself …….I’m thinking I need sleep ..sorry

  8. I usually play with everything up, but there are exceptions

  9. Great article, Ryan. I make full use of my tone control, even on a passive Jazz Bass. The differences may be subtle, but I hear them, and it enhances my playing for sure. I don’t know how many players I’ve seen just crank them up and leave them there for EVERYTHING. I enjoy finding a sound that fits the song, even with a plain jane P Bass. Ask me what my secret is…there it is.