Cutting Through a Big Band: A Discussion for Bass Players

Bass Solo

Q: I’m playing in a jazz band of over 40 people in a song featuring bass guitar. I’m looking for a pedal that will make my sound distinct and rise above the band but not distort it. Any recommendations? Thanks.

A: Personally, I wouldn’t change my sound much at all. You might leave yourself a little room on your volume pot to turn up a notch (which is a good idea regardless of the circumstance), but I would make sure that the band is coming down to meet you (the lead instrument for this song) before making any drastic changes to my tone. If the song is a bass feature, it should be the bands job to support the instrument in whatever way is necessary.

Certainly, bumping the high-mids and/or treble will help you to cut through the mix. I’ve asked engineers about this type of thing and what I’ve heard is consistent:

  1. A boost of 1-4 khz will add presence to your sound without necessarily making it sound louder.
  2. Boosting the mids between 600-900 khz can really help to clean up and project a bass tone.
  3. Low frequencies can muddy the water. You can also try actually lowering your bass frequency, if it sounds muddy, instead of boosting highs.

It’s hard to be much more specific without first hearing the band, room and bass tone. I’ve found that, quite often, the tone that I like the best when dialing it in on my own is not the tone that works best once the band starts playing.

If your cord is long enough (or you’re wireless), it can be enlightening to take a walk around the room and listen to the mix from as many places in the room as possible. Is your sound is coming through articulately? Is the low end muddy? Are certain frequencies popping out too much when you hit certain notes?

You could always get a small EQ pedal and experiment with frequencies one at a time, but I think that you could likely get the results you want by some subtle and careful EQ’ing on your amp or bass. Sometimes simply favoring the back pickup is all that is required to hear the bass loud and clear!

Readers, what’s your trick to cutting through the mix? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Aaron

    Buy a Barefaced cab, then express yourself natuturaly! Fingers will be fine…

    • Paul

      Having just bought a Barefaced Cab (Super Twin) in the last 2 weeks and gigged it 3 nights in a row I can totally endorse this comment! It really makes a difference :)

  2. Bottomnote

    The bass, generally speaking, will always be heard because of its position in the sonic range of a big band. If you’re playing a bass guitar in a large jazz ensemble, be aware that a lot of mid range can cause the bass to sound inappropriate, if you will, for a jazz orchestra. I tend to emphasize the low end, dial down the midrange and put a slight bump in the upper frequencies allow the note attack to be heard.

  3. Joseph

    I used to play bass in a big band as well, double bass and electric bass. On the double bass I was always stood away from my cabinet to avoid the feedback and couldn’t really hear myself to be honest, but knew the parts by feel (also being a classical double bassist) and I knew the band COULD hear me and that they made sure to fit around my parts when I was leading.

    The obvious song is “The Chicken” for electric bass though. For this we did the “soul intro” before the full piece. I found that being split between neck and bridge pickups with a bias towards the neck for the intro allowed the bass to fill in the bottom end without being boomy or lost and then when the band cuts to let the bass take the lead I threw the bass onto the bridge pickup and left it there for the song. It meant the audience could hear the part really stand out in the space and then when the band comes back in, the audience knows the bass that they’re listening to. So it’s probably worth playing with pickup selection as well as where on the string you play, to help get a sound that works without having to spend more money on gear.
    And that’s a bit long, but I hope it helps :D

  4. Allen Quillian

    As a audio engineer your advice well stated. Especially for those starting out and for us old timers. I might add that that your sound will change to some extent from a empty room to a full crowded room. The crowd will absorb some of the high and mid frequencies. This is something that a Bass player needs to listen for and adjust for on the fly. Great article thanks.