Bass Ramps: The How and Why
Q: I see a lot of people talking about the use of bass ramps. I see that’s it’s basically a piece of wood in between the pickups, but I’m not sure what the benefits are. Also, how do you make one?
A: A ramp (or finger ramp) was created out of the desire to broaden the range of feeling one gets from playing over the pickup with the plucking hand (a la Jaco and many modern players). Personally, I really developed as a player with a love of the feel of playing over the pickup because it kept my fingers from digging too deep on the strings. Playing over the back pickup also allows for a higher string tension and makes it easier to play fast.
However, once I started exploring the full range of sounds on the bass, I realized that much could be gained from utilizing a broader range in hand position. I might pluck anywhere from the bridge and on up toward the neck (even up to about the 12th fret), depending on the sound I want.
The problem is – especially for one who who has become quite used to the feel of plucking directly over the pickups – is that it can feel weird to pluck in different areas in between the fretboard and bridge.
Enter the bass ramp.
As you said, it is simply a piece of wood, shaped to fit directly in between the pickups so it would feel uniform all of the way across.
This is especially appealing to players who play finger-style and need to play fast at times. It is significantly easier to develop a light and speedy touch with a ramp because it simply doesn’t allow you to play too hard (especially if you keep your pickups and ramp pretty high and close to the strings.
A ramp can be made of anything really, but wood is often the easiest to bring to the proper shape and also feels good under the fingers. I’ve seen some pretty cool looking designs with clear or colored plastics, and I now have a design with Pete Skjold where we’ve actually created a much larger pickup mold for the pickups so it really looks like one giant pickup. This is less about aesthetic and more because I found myself a little distracted by the seams in between the wood and pickups. Other luthiers can also make one large wooden pickup cover that can use as much space as you like.
One thing I will add based on my experience: if you are looking to really hone your technique, pay attention to the curvature of your fretboard. It drives me nuts when luthiers put flat pickups on a bass with a radiused neck, for example. This holds true for ramps as well. If you truly want an even playing surface for your right hand, the pickups and ramp (unless you are using one larger cover of some kind) must match the radius of the fretboard and you will also want a uniform string height.
Personally, unless you have a wood shop and are fairly handy, I would find a wood worker, luthier or carpenter of some kind to help you make your ramp. It’s just not worth the trouble and danger of trying to do it yourself without the proper tools. You will also want to measure all four corners of the inside space in between the pickups. Don’t just measure one side or corner and think that it will be a smooth surface as you pickups are likely slightly different heights from one end to the other.
Some have gotten quite fancy with their ramps and integrated screws to adjust the height of each corner of the ramp. I’ve generally just measured properly, discerned exactly what I wanted and attached it with thin, double-sided tape. This allows me to remove it if I want and leave no holes or marks on the instruments face.
Remember: measure twice, cut once. Really sketch out what you need and have someone make it for you unless you feel confident in your wood working skills.
A ramp is fantastic for those who want to really develop their right hand and develop a light touch which also facilitates speed.
But it also comes with a warning: once you get used to playing with a ramp, many find it quite difficult and awkward to play without one. It has a way of changing your approach to the instrument.
Readers, how about you? Do you use a ramp? Have you tried one and decided to switch back? What’s your take? Tell us about it in the comments.