Replacing Lead Guitar with Piccolo Bass?

Zander Zon

Photo of Zander Zon, the man who defines piccolo bass for us.

Q: I am a high school musician in a relativly serious band with my friends, and we are about to make the transition into college. Unfortunately, our fantastic lead guitarist is going away for college, so rather than find a new lead guitarist, our frontman asked me if I would be willing to play lead guitar, since he’s seen my proficiency on bass. I can play guitar, but I am far more comfortable and talented on bass. So my question is this: to fill the spot, should I seek to improve my guitar playing skills, or is it a reasonable idea to replace lead guitar with lead piccolo bass?

A: That’s a wild idea, and one I like!

I say it’s worth a shot. But in reality, it all depends on the sound of the band and how far you guys are willing to drift from that. A piccolo bass will definitely sound different, but it could wind up being very cool, interesting, or at least, it might lead the band in an unexpected direction (good or bad… you won’t know until you know). You would likely need to experiment with effects and tone to fulfill the role of “lead” piccolo bassist.

I think it’s a totally reasonable experiment, but unless you guys are willing to change the aural aesthetic of the group, it may not ultimately fly. It requires that you all approach it with an open mind and ditch any preconceptions, because it will alter your band’s sound.

I’m wondering, would you then acquire a new bassist? The piccolo is only likely to work if someone is still holding down the low end.

What’s your take?

This is one I especially want to open up to the readers. Has anybody tried this? What genre? It certainly worked for Stanely Clarke but he’s in a jazz or jazz/funk context (anything goes). If you have experience with this, or other thoughts on the subject, please share in the comments.

A quick search on Youtube yielded a ton of solo piccolo performances, but not many full bands with lead piccolo bass. I did come across a video with a pretty great “lead” sound around the :45 second mark. It’s also full of a good crunchy guitar tone and, as far as I know, it’s all piccolo bass:

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Share your thoughts

  1. Alun Vaughan

    Miles Davis did it in the 80s too with Foley playing piccolo and (I think) Darryl Jones on standard bass.

    • You are right and I have the old VHS video to prove you are your correct.I took my old 78 Guild EB bass and changed the pickups to EMGs with each having thier own volume,treble bass.Spliter switch for the pickup.Replaced the wood bridge saddles with brass tuned to piccolo tuning.

      Bassist Tony Hill

  2. I don’t know about in a Rock context, but Foley used to play Lead Piccolo Bass with Miles Davis and Brian Bromberg has done a few albums featuring his Piccolo Bass as the lead instrument.

  3. Heck yeah it can work. Michael Manring’s Thonk had plenty of good examples :

  4. Matthew Sychantha

    I pulled off a similar idea. Hofner bass guitars by their very design are really good for quick neck movements with the left hand and it’s got a pretty nice tone above the 12th fret(surprisingly). Live, I used it to solo all the time in a rock context and when doubling some power chords for a surprising crunch.

    In general, I’d suggest NOT hiring a new bassist. From my experience, it’s actually weird trying to teach someone your grooves. It’s like trying to tell someone how your think inside your head. Instead, try a 6 string bass(obnoxious when you first start to hold, but they eventually can become comfortable) and hiring a rhythm guitarist to hold the fort while you solo so you can still play your basslines until it’s time to shine. This will depend on if your band is willing to let that happen, but it’s pretty awesome. Or if worse comes to worse, there’s double neck guitars you can get to just solo. Those are heavy though.

  5. like the sample above, in conjunction with a looper i think you could make it work. 2 bassists is cool too. can;t have too much bass.
    Piccolo bass isn’t common around these parts. i had a hard time finding strings but i love how its voiced. It covers guitar bur still sounds like a bass.

  6. Brent

    ive been wondering something similar. in a metal band, one guitar player, drop d (then a half step flat across the board). i know i can, but havent tried it yet…. but doing the d’s in regular strings, but with the a & g with piccolo’s. that way i could totally chord out with distortion. sounds crazy & thats why i havent tried it. any thoughts??

  7. If your willing to make it your own you can do just about whatever you want. Take a listen to the new band Royal Blood Effect are also another tool that can be used alone or in conjunction with a piccolo bass to get some lead guitar type effects. POG and Whammy come to mind along with some way to split your signal to maintain one clean bass sound and the other to handle the effected “guitar” channel.

  8. Steve

    Bromberg “Metal” boom

  9. DH Bennett

    I am knee deep into a piccolo bass phase, and I can tell you this much for sure: the key is attack. Bass player approach the string completely different than guitar players do. We typically use a downward plucking motion while electric guitarist almost exclusively use a horizontal picked attack. If you learn to play with a pick and you become accustomed to how hard to pick, things should work out well. A short scale instrument might not be a bad idea also.

  10. Daniel Sudhoff

    There was a Crust Punk band back in the mid 1990’s called Skaven that played with a pair of basses, one usually mirrored the guitarist (while doing his own melodic stuff in bridges and the like.) while the other one did the bottom end and it worked really well. Mind you, they were both normal bass guitars (tuned to D, if I remember correctly.) but the interplay was rather nice, I thought.

  11. in the 2000’s, I led a band that was fretless picccolo bass/bass synthesizer, upright bass and drums, doing oringinal jazaz-funk stuff. It was very successful in my area. I’ve got another album in the same format coming out next month, but a little edgier. Here’s a link piccolo bass trio album form 2001:

  12. Dante

    Have you thought about trying a Bass VI?

  13. I played a show with a local metal band that was two guys, a bass and drums. He ran his bass through both a guitar stack and a bass stack (splitting the signal). And I think there was also an octave pedal/ other pedals involved. It sounded like a full band to me, so that is an option.

  14. I’ve ben doing this for 5 – 6 years now, a lot of thought had to go into chord voicings etc. seeing there was no B and e string, also an octave missing.

    If you looking for strings that won’t stretch or go out of tune try D’addario piccolo 52 – 20. Some brands offer 50 – 18 these are no good

  15. You don’t even need a piccolo bass. Just one to stick low and one to play above the 12th fret on chorded parts. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin had a melody and rhythm bass. Morphine has a great lead bass. I threw out the idea of a guitar in my own project because frankly I was sick of the way a regular guitar sounded.

  16. Or do it with a regular bass and an Octave pedal like I did in Apollo Run:

  17. Here’s a track that I’m playing Piccolo bass as lead guitar on with a GT10 multi effect processor.

  18. The truth is I get hired as a lead guitarist on piccolo bass more often than I do as a bass player. I often work with multiple bass groups.

  19. udawggy

    Ummm. One name: Foley. There’s tons of high and piccolo bass parts out there, but in terms of replacing the guitar as a lead instrument… Foley. You can find him more recently playing drums for some George Clinton shows (and killing it of course)

  20. Something to consider might also be something like the Ibanez SRC6 Crossover, which is essentially a guitar tuned like a bass… just a thought. I believe Fender has a similar model called the Pawnshop bass…

  21. Pawel

    Check out Brian Bromberg + Vinnie Colaiuta – Plays Hendrix. Wild sound made just by different basses layered on top of each other.
    Here, watch the whole video, at one point he switches to a piccolo bass.

  22. i’ve been playing piccolo bass exclusively both as a solo artist/songwriter and in a band (also playing leads) since about 2009. yes, it works!

  23. Mick F

    Sounds like a distorted guitar. Might as well just play a guitar.
    How is this a thing? Who wants a bass to sound exactly like a guitar?
    Pretty dumb