The Lightbulb Moment: A Tale of Two Pickups
As we learn and grow as musicians, the moments of discovery may seem few and far between. Sure, we get better at grabbing the bass and finding a note, which turns into a bass line, and then a song. If we play professionally, we get used to playing the same bars and clubs on the weekends with the same group of guys. We get accustomed to walking down the same hallway, turning on the same light switch, and illuminating the same interior. But, every now and then, we accidentally stumble into a new room—one that we never knew existed or never bothered to enter. We come face to face with a person or scenario that forces us to connect the dots in a new and exciting way.
This new series, aptly titled “The Light Bulb Moment,” highlights those moments of discovery in our musical lives: the songs we listen to, the bass players we learn about, the conversations with our teachers and friends, and the “on the job” scenarios that make us think twice or alter our approach. Call it an epiphany, the “clicking” in your brain, or the sudden realization of something that you never quite “got” before.
Most of these lessons come about unexpectedly and unsolicited… as if we’re characters in a short story who converse with a magical wizard, discover a treasure map, or need to defeat a fire-breathing dragon before the 8pm downbeat. Instead of taking a traditional or “academic” approach to lesson-based columns, I figured it was time to get creative — time to paint a picture and tell a story that, hopefully, most of us can relate to. The information will be there, but hopefully the reading will be just a bit more entertaining.
So, to all of you totally awesome No Treble readers who enjoy learning about the “Bass Players To Know,” discovering the things “I Wish I Knew That,” and sharing all of the cool videos, artist and gear info, lessons, videos, and licks, I’d like to introduce a new and exciting series, “The Light Bulb Moment.”
It was a humid, mid-summer night in 2010. Navigating to the venue seemed to take forever as the streets were bustling with 20-somethings heading to this restaurant and that, celebrating their two-day vacation from the confines of their offices. This particular club was familiar… I had played there once a month for almost a year and was confident in my ability to set up, get a decent sound, and play the typical set of top 40 cover tunes. While loading in my gear, I was greeted by a fellow band mate who mentioned that the club finally completed their outdoor stage and that we would play there this evening, as opposed to the indoor stage that we had all become accustomed to.
Thirty minutes later, the band was set up, sound checking, and trying to get acclimated to the new stage. In addition to fighting off mosquitoes, I was having a hard time dialing in my tone; the bass seemed hollow, muddy, and genuinely lost amongst the great outdoors. Despite my usual apathy towards tone, I decided it was time to troubleshoot. The current state of affairs simply wouldn’t fly and I knew that there had to be something I could do.
Unfortunately, I never had much desire to explore my tone. I lacked the patience necessary to experiment with something that, it turns out, happened to be important. My attitude was quite stubborn. I knew how to set my amp to my preferred “normal” settings: the bass knob at 2:00, the treble around 10:30, and the midrange somewhere in between. Fooling around with the EQ was usually futile, and as that happened to be the case that evening, I gave up and reverted back to my original settings.
Frustrated with my inability to find the right tone, I hopped off the stage to say hello to a fellow musician friend who came to the gig. I mentioned my sonic plight, hoping that perhaps a pedal-obsessed guitar player might offer a few words of wisdom. I described the current settings, my attempt to adjust the midrange, and the fact that I simply couldn’t make sense of the mysterious pictures below the buttons on the “pre amp” section of the amp. My bass was ambiguous mush. Clearly, I was doomed.
“You’ve got a Jazz bass, right? What pickup are you on?” he asked.
Hmmmmm… Good question. I was indeed playing a Jazz, one where I set all of the tone controls in the middle and just barely favored my neck pickup. I didn’t know much about the instrument, but at least I knew how to get the sound that I wanted to hear… most of the time.
“Try going to your bridge pickup — you’ll get more definition,” he added.
As I returned to the stage to begin the first set, I did exactly that. Suddenly, the bass sounded a bit brighter and my attack had enough definition that the eighth notes actually sounded like eighth notes! The change was significant enough that the other players looked back at me and smiled, knowing full well that I made an adjustment to help the overall sound of the band.
That was the moment that I realized the power of the two pickups. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that my bass could offer a better tonal solution than my amp. After years and years of playing the same instrument, I rarely took advantage of it (in fact, I never really knew how). With the turn of a knob, I realized that my Jazz had a trick up its sleeve… the difference between the neck and bridge pickup was extreme. In combination, it created “my sound,” but in a situation when that simply didn’t cut it, the bass offered two very different (and very useful) sonic options. Unlike a P-bass, with it’s distinctively round yet punchy tone, the Jazz bass is more malleable. It’s an instrument that can take on different personalities… it can be Jaco, it can be Geddy, it can be Marcus, and with a bit of experimentation, it can give you exactly what you need to be yourself.
As with every column, I love hearing from you. What’s been your experience with sound? What do you think of this new column? What would you like to see here? Please share in the comments!
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!