Dealing with Awkward Keys when Transposing on Bass

Q: I’ve been asked to play Billy Ocean’s “When The Going Gets Tough” transposed down to B, which is down in the murky depths of the B string, and I feel it takes away from the bass line. Going up an octave makes it seem thin. Any advice on how I could remedy this issue, not just for this song, but for transposed songs in general?

A: You have a few options.

First, you could ask the bandleader what their preference is, and state your reasons for inquiring.

In this situation, I might:

1. Change the fretboard position of the higher octave line.

For example, you said that you’re in the key of B, so if you’re playing your B on the 2nd fret of the A string, it will certainly sound thinner than the 7th fret of your E string. If you want to go thicker yet, the 12th fret of your B string.

This is always the first thing I might try if I want a thicker sound without dropping an octave.

2. Use an Octave pedal.

Set it with a mostly dry signal with just a touch of lower octave to add beef without overdoing it. Some octave pedals will do this better than others. I strongly prefer the MXR Octave pedal because it does nuance style effects better than any other that I’ve tried.

3. Palm mute.

This will change the sound of your line in a big way and it might not be what you’re going after but a bit of muting can go a long way.

4. Change your EQ for the tune.

You might immediately tend to bump the bass knob a bit but that might make it a bit too full, so you might alternately try simply lowering the treble to simply reduce the thinner top of the sound. You can also, of course, play with your mids and any combination of the three. A bit of sound sculpting on the fly can go a long way.

Also, this scenario is where an EQ pedal comes in handy. Dial it in for that one tune and blammo… there it is when you need it!

5. Make the best of it.

If nothing makes it feel quite right for you then you pretty much have to just do the best you can and make the best of it. Don’t be afraid to ask anyone else in the band if they have a preference or opinion.

Hope that helps! Remember that there is always another way to get the sound you want. Unsatisfactory tone is the mother of invention and is always a worthy pursuit!

Readers, how do you deal with these issues? Tell us about it in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. I’m not sure if it will work, but you could also buy a pack of string of 5 strings’ bass but only put the B, E, A and D on your bass. For sure it wouldn’t be the same exact sound, but I think it could work.

  2. Thanks for answering my question Damian!

    I’ll be sure to try out all of these options.

  3. I would just let them hear the line and explain why it doesn’t work. If they still want it – I play it…