The Lightbulb Moment: A Matter of Taste
I love pasta. Spaghetti, Bucatini, Ziti, Rigatoni. There are dozens of different types, each originating from different regions of Italy or morphing after be adopted by other cultures and taken across seas. Some are made to look like pumpkins or little ears, some are long cuts, some are bite size, some contain filling, and some are made with different flavors. Walk down the aisle in the grocery store and you may wonder, “Why do we need so many different kinds?”
Allow me to answer that with another question: Why do we need so many different kinds of basses?
People say that variety is the spice of life and that proves to be true whether you’re cooking dinner or playing music. Taste and tone are remarkably similar — they are developed as a combination of personal preference and stylistic integrity. Different dishes call for different kinds of pasta; a thick ragu begs for a thicker noodle, a recipe or regional specialty will suggest a certain kind of pasta. Finding the right fit requires you to cater to your taste buds as well as to the classicism of the dish.
Basses are the same way. Walk through a music store and your eyes will gaze upon all different brands and styles: Fender, Warwick, Ibanez, Mike Lull, and Fodera; 4 strings, 5 strings, Precisions, Jazz basses, and various pickup configurations. Vintage, Custom Shop, Reissues, Frankensteins. Hollow bodies, short scales, bass ukes, and uprights. Clearly, picking an instrument is far more involved than picking a pasta… especially because they require a much greater investment. So, whether you’re picking an instrument to purchase or picking one to take to a gig or session, how do you decide?
Fortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer; it is again a combination of personal preference and stylistic integrity. The basses you have will speak to the kind of playing that you do… if you’re a hobbyist, a collector, a “weekend warrior,” or a studio player. If you only need one or two instruments to have at home, then your choice of instrument will be purely out of preference. You can invest in a custom or boutique style instrument, find just the right one hanging on the wall of the music store, or inherit one from a friend or relative. As long as you find an instrument that you’re happy to play on, then you’ve made a good choice.
When your musical life transitions from hobby to profession, it becomes your responsibility to have a wider repertoire of both music and musical instruments. It’s easy to give preferential treatment to certain genres and axes — I’m happy as a clam when I get to play blues on a P bass — but that shouldn’t get in the way of what would be best for the music you’re hired to play. It takes a bit of flexibility on your part; sometimes you have to forego playing your favorite bass for playing a bass that’s more appropriate.
Your ability to make a judgment call based upon tone, note choice, and overall “vibe” is crucial to making the music more successful, particularly in the recording studio. For example, I recently found myself on a session where the bass that I typically record with just didn’t seem to cut it. We were tracking a song that had hints of James Taylor, Hall and Oates, and Maroon 5… slightly jazzy chord changes with a backbeat. I began exploring tone possibilities with my “go-to” bass but I quickly realized that it wasn’t sitting well in the mix. The tone was too dark and round; the attack needed to be punchier to counteract the guitar player’s smoother playing. I instantly reached for another bass, an active five string PJ, and it magically breathed life into the track. Its brighter midrange brought more “Sklar” to the mix, resulting in a slightly bouncier and vibrant attitude; the fifth string allowed me to execute the perfect low note to conclude the song. At the end of the session, the producer commended my decision to swap instruments and as we listened to the playback, I felt confident in my performance.
Being able to assess and react to a musical situation speaks to your reputation as a professional. In live settings, there’s a bit more wiggle room when it comes to tone… amplifiers and soundmen play a huge part in how you’re going to sound and, if you’re playing a wide variety of music, you may need to pick one versatile instrument to use for the gig. Other factors tend to weigh in as well… it can be rough playing a four-hour gig with a crushingly heavy bass or you may prefer to keep certain instruments off the road. A recording session is far more transparent when it comes to tone. Most of the environmental variables are moot and the bass you pick will have a greater impact on the sound of the final recording. Ultimately, your decision will come down to finding the instrument that you’re comfortable on and that allows you to contribute the best performance.
With quite a few years of bass playing and pasta making under my belt, I’ve managed to establish certain preferences. I love the thicker cuts — fettuccini and pappardelle — but I try to keep a wide variety of pastas on hand. Sometimes, a simple sauce of olive oil and garlic will pair best with angel hair, so that’s what will end up on the plate. Coincidentally, my favorite basses seem to err on the side of Fender-shaped objects. While my hand will often reach for a P bass, I’m not afraid of letting the music dictate otherwise. In the same way you pick a pasta to accompany a sauce, pick a bass that helps you play to the song.
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!