It’s All in the Hands: Time to Dust Off the Old Axe

Dusty bass

Photo by Lee Carson

I’m sure than we’ve all heard the saying “it’s all in the hands.”

Many of us, myself included, are willing to support this statement. But is that really all there is? Is our musical voice the same regardless of what we play or what we play through? After all, we’re the one picking up the instrument, and our years of practice and experience doesn’t change whether we’re playing a Fender, Warwick, or Fodera… or does it?

Despite what everyone says, yes, it’s all in the hands. But the instrument, amp, and pedals have a huge impact as well (if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be as picky when it came to gear). Most pro players have multiple basses, not just because they enjoy having a collection of instruments, but because each instrument has its own personality. Although we may have a special bond with one instrument in particular, it’s a great idea to diversify and spread the love to others in your collection.

Here are a few reasons why it’s good to dust off the old axe now and again and to revisit a bass that you don’t frequently play.

  1. Different instruments have different musical associations. This may inspire you to emulate a particular player or focus on a certain style. If you pick up a vintage Fender P-bass, you may suddenly find yourself playing some old school Jamerson or George Porter Jr. grooves. If you grab a beat up sunburst Fender Jazz, perhaps you’re inspired to get your Jaco on. Or, if you have a Hofner sitting in its case, you may want to grab it and revisit your Beatles collection. We frequently associate players with “their” instrument, so let that act as some inspiration and motivation to practice.
  2. Some basses are better for certain techniques than others. If your instrument of choice is a hollow body, such as a Gibson or Gretsch, you probably won’t have an easy time sharpening your slap skills. Hollow body basses don’t take to slapping particularly well… the tone of the instrument, the resonance of the body, and the placement of the pickups are usually inhibiting factors. Even if you gig with that instrument all the time, you’ll find it much easier to work on slap technique with a solid body bass. You can kick your practice session up a notch by doing a technique work out on a different instrument.
  3. The range of the instrument makes a huge difference. Call me crazy, but every time I pick up a six string, the first thing to pop into my head is chords. Of course you don’t need to play chords if you’re playing a six string, but that’s typically what I’m inspired to do. The range of the instraument allows for it, so I’ll take advantage of the instrument’s unique capabilities and let that influence my time in the shed. Suddenly my approach is geared toward soloing or discovering chord voicings since the high string gives me license to play in new sonic territory. Similarly, with a five string bass that has a particularly good sounding low B string, I may be enticed to integrate the lower notes into new grooves or find different ways to play songs that I’m already familiar with.
  4. The “vibe.” Every instrument has a vibe, and perhaps a style, that may give you inspiration. If you primarily play a vintage or more traditional style instrument, pick up a modern sounding one and see what kind of groove you come up with. Maybe you decide to take a stab at some modern gospel or hip-hop, since the tone of the instrument steers you in that direction. Vice-versa… if you’re a fairly busy player with a modern instrument, try picking up an old P-bass and you may be inspired to play simple, root-centric bass lines and styles.
  5. Remember why you bought it in the first place. It’s always nice to get a reminder of why you purchased something (especially if it was a significant investment). Your basses are your tools, and it’s nice to know that they can come in handy every now and again. Perhaps you bought a particular bass because it sounded great with a pick. Well, go ahead, grab a pick. Or, perhaps you bought it because you just love the way it sounds above the 12th fret. Go ahead, play above the 12th fret.

To quote the movie Dirty Dancing, “nobody puts baby in a corner.” As someone who plays the same instrument 90% of the time, I certainly have to remind myself to drag another one out on the dance floor. Without fail, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the instrument and by what it allows or inspires me to play. So, give yourself a reason to open those cases and unzip the gig bags, if for nothing else to make sure that all of your instruments are still in good shape. While you’re at it, plug in some of the old amps and hook up the pedals. If you simply can’t warm up to some of the gear that you have, maybe it’s time to downsize your collection. And finally, remember that yes, it’s all in the hands, but sometimes the instrument will tell your hands what to do.

How about you? Which of your basses are your go-to axes, and which ones are for that special situation? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. I find that a Fender Jazz works well for most songs.I also use Musicman 5 string stingray and for that low band midrange.But my favorite for tone is an Alembic 5 string essesence.

  2. Made it a habit to, since I’m in the lucky circumstance to do so, pick a different bass for each gig (I do not gig that often… :-) ). Found out that, indeed!, each instrument ‘invites’ to rethink ‘strategy’ and inspires to find different ways to do the same stuff (e.g. find and avoid those dreaded dead spots on an older Fender!)

  3. For years I used a fairly modern sounding Schecter Elite 5, attempting to be a chameleon. I was loads of fun. Then just messing around I modded a Stinger P-bass with some cheap pickups, new paint job, some stamps, and played it with a heavy pick. Wow! Rock monster! For 2 of my main projects, it has become my main player for 98% of what I do. I seem to have found “my voice”, despite other instruments giving me the ability to be a chameleon. Love that interplay between my style and this instrument.

  4. I remember reading an interview with Brian May and Nuno Bettancourt many years ago and Nuno said that he had the opportunity to use Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and amps. Nuno complained that he still sound like Nuno not Eddie to which Brian replied that that was a good thing proving that the player and not the gear is really the determinant factor.

  5. Great advice. I’m currently down to just 4 basses – 2 P’s, J, Stingray 5. They are always sitting or hanging in home studio and I’ll grab which ever one feels good that day. Usually I’ll end up playing one for a few gigs and rehearsals before switching to something else. For a long time, was playing only my 57 AVRI P with flats. Lately I’ve been playing 08 Am Std P with rounds. Sometimes, I’ll take them into playing situations where they are less typical (PBass at a funk jam) just to see how it works. In all cases, feel like I’m constantly learning new things about each instrument, what it works well for, what it doesn’t. Main thing is I like all of my current basses. Nice to have variety.

  6. Great article! I have 3 electric basses and a double bass. I’ve owned one of those basses for 10 years, a stock peavey. I unconsciously pick it up 98% of the time and leave my Cort fretless, Warwick rockbass 5 sitting and Upright sitting there. That will change. Thank you

  7. I’ll be playing my A/E fretless 5 string this weekend for the first time in a very long time. I am blown away by how different her voice is from by P bass! Sometimes different is a very good thing.

  8. Fretted weekdays, fretless weekends!

  9. Good morning! My Fortress 5 is for gigs,(buttery action) my thumbo 5 is for woodshed,

  10. My main band loves my Fender Jazz. But, my second group gets to hear my Hohner headless 5-string and my Line 6 Variax. Going to jams I’ll grab my Fender Bass 6 for its “Wow” factor. ;)

  11. I’ve got a Traben Phoenix 5 string (main), and a newer Squier 4 string. I’ve owned 5 basses and am down to these. I only pull my 4 string out if I’m teaching. It always constantly holds me back, and that’s why it’s only use as a spare and teaching. I have the same problem with fender j basses. My 5 string just “feels like home”. Any technique I play/learn is that much easier. It even has a huge range of tones for playing virtually anything. I can play a speedy fill, can hit strings hard if I need an extra punch, great for pop/slap.

  12. When I first picked up a fretless I got a cheap washburn T14 just to see how it felt. It was intended to be kind of disposable. Even though my main gigging ax is an always dependable Jaguare or a de-fretted Taurus T24 (very woody sound) I still reach for the Cheapo T14 for its crazy growl and loose, bendy feel.

  13. The guy who wrote this is straight on point. Also sometimes going down in string count will help you tighten your game up. I know I went from playing my sr755 at every gig, bought my Squier VM Jag, and it changed how I viewed playing just a 4 string, helped me tighten up a lot. Just interesting how that works.

  14. Trey Smith

    I definitely do this. Each new band I join begins a weeks long process of tearing down my previous rig, selecting the right instrument, and rebuilding the sound and effects from the ground up. I have a tc electronic rh450 as my main head, but after that everything is up for grabs, speaker arrangement, effect patches, basses, string gauges. For me it is a fun process to examine the sonic qualities of my output. For years I was searching for the perfect tone, but then I realized that is different for really every song, so now I shoot for something appropriate for the genre with enough range that I can fit myself into whatever box the song demands.

    Currently I’m using my ’86 Yamaha BB1600, and my ’76 Rick for the classic rock band I’m in. We tune down to Eb so I have heavier gauge strings on them to compensate for the tension. I have a line6 hx effects pedal and mostly use just the comp, and analog chorus in it, sometimes a bit of tube screamer. That or I dial in a bit of the tube tone from the RH450.