Many players ask me what kind of bass rig to buy, and the answer is: "The one that makes you sound and play great!"
It starts with a great sounding bass: set-up well (no buzzes), intonated, and properly installed fresh, high-quality strings. It's easy for players to spend many years playing "OK" sounding basses - just getting by.
They do this partly because of the high price of custom basses, or maybe they just haven't experienced what a difference a really fine bass can make to their playing and sound. Your bass sound is your musical voice. Your perceived ability to play is very dependant on your tone. If you don't sound great, you probably won't be perceived as a great player.
Your best tone starts with your hands: a firm stroke of the string with plenty of the pad of your fingers addressing the string; with your plucking hand placed between the bridge and the end of the neck (not right by the bridge, this yields a thin tone).
Play with a firm attack at all times, but without killing the string by playing too hard. Learn to back off a touch when a verse or soft section comes around, while still playing your notes with authority and not losing control of the bass (the term, "velvet hammer" is appropriate here). Jazz great, Bob Magnusson taught me the following when I took my first upright bass lesson with him: "Playing strong is fine, but can you play good bass and not wake up your sleeping baby in the next room? ... Touch is everything."
Now we can talk about getting a bass. I strongly recommend having a Fender Precision Bass
or Jazz Bass
in your arsenal. The wood used is very important: alder for the body, maple neck with maple, rosewood, pao ferro, or ebony for the fingerboard. Good hardware: Hipshot, Schaller, high-quality 45-105 gauge strings, high-quality proven pickups with, importantly, even volume balance between the strings (a must for recording and a great sound).
If balance is a problem (especially for Jazz Bass type pickups) you need different pickups. EMG
makes a bell-style design for some of their J-style models that works well and keeps the outside strings from being louder than the inside strings. Lane Poor makes a line of pickups featuring good string balance. P-style basses
and J-style basses
are used by most pros, but aren't the only basses played today. I own and play other basses, too, using them because they each have a unique sonic signature.
If I can't play a bass because of balance problems (too neck heavy), uneven volume, dead-spots, or tone problems, I get rid of it.
If you're going for the best in custom-made axes used by pros, check out James Tyler, John Carruthers, Roger Sadowsky, and others. You can't go wrong with any of these builders - their client lists tell you that.
[Ed. Note] Keith is also the author of several bass instruction books available at ActiveMusician, including Studio Bass Masters
, Jump 'n' Blues Bass
, and The Lost Art of Country Bass