The Inquirer: Chasing Excellence

May 3, 2017

Like every artistic endeavor, bass playing is complicated. Drill down on any single part of the craft and it’s immediately clear that mastery is a mirage. There’s so much subtlety; an infinitely motivated player with boundless patience could make a life’s work of the subtle vagaries of seemingly simple ideas. On this attention to detail, my North Star has long been Anthony Jackson, who said in a ’90s BP interview:

“Honesty is an automatic self-correcting process … Unless you are a supremely arrogant, shortsighted, narrow-minded individual, your mouth should go dry when you hear yourself play and tune in to the buzzes, squeaks, and inconsistencies of all types. Ultimately, the responsibility for excellence is yours alone.”

I relay the above not only because it’s an all-time favorite quote from an all-time favorite player and it deserves another day in the light, but because this magazine’s raison d’être is to aggregate and contextualize insight so that you can get better. The critical eye that AJ champions is meaningless without focus. We can’t make the process any easier, but we can help make it more efficient. But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one: in print, we only have 30-something pages, 13 times a year, to fulfill that mission. That catch has consequences. It means we leave stuff out. Stuff that matters. We’re forced to weigh the merits of an artist’s insight in an interview with the objective value of a harmony lesson. Should we review that hot new amp or run a piece about bass setup? With minimal space to achieve a maximal goal, we make choices that inevitably mean each issue fails to comprehensively cover the craft.

This column will not solve that problem, but I hope it will help. It’s intended to be eccentric; to explore the myriad issues that sometimes fall through the editorial cracks; to inquire. Given I’m a gear guy, technology will often be its focal point, but I’m also a player, producer, and teacher, so it will undoubtedly veer into those lanes, too. Regardless, I aim to make it useful and to leverage the (perhaps misguided) carte blanche I’ve been given to be authentic; to probe the industry without feeling overly unencumbered by politics.

My inaugural focus: I hereby encourage people to futz with their bass. Those of you that teach can relate, I’m sure: How often have you had a new student bring in a bass so profoundly out-of-whack that it easily explains their perhaps decades-long frustration at being stuck in a rut? Almost to a person, my students come in with long-neglected instruments. Loose pots, rattling tuners, action as high as a mountain and harder to climb. No wonder they’re discouraged.

Often, my first advice to students is to get their hands dirty. A little common sense, some cursory Internet research, and a modest set of tools (shout-out to my fave, the Cruz Tools Bass Player Tech Kit) are all that’s needed to learn how to take care of an instrument. Plus, at least structurally, it’s pretty hard to break anything (one warning, though: the trussrod requires minor adjustment). And most important, just like in any relationship, intimacy deepens the connection.

If you’re tweak-phobic, consider this a fear-facing call for catharsis. Find out the sizes of each adjustable screw and nut on your bass (if you don’t know where to begin, contact the manufacturer). Most likely you’ll need #1 and #2 Phillips screwdrivers, a metric and imperial hex key set, a ball-end hex wrench for trussrod adjustments, a short steel ruler with a metric scale, something to cut strings with, and a ¼" and 5/16" nut driver or at least an adjustable crescent wrench. There are approximately 50 bajillion videos on YouTube illustrating the setup process and you’ll find standard specs to aim for on many manufacturers’ websites. I tend to take the jazz approach to setup, though: I improvise, but steeped in self-taught awareness. Only through trying will the symbiosis between your instrument’s adjustable bits reveal itself, and you’ll get to the point where you easily intuit what needs a fix. Most important, if you do find yourself in a seemingly irredeemable setup quandary, folks like me are typically happy to take your $40 and fix it for you.

Don’t be coy. It’s time you and your bass had a date night; you won’t hurt it, so long as you don’t overtweak the ’rod.

Bass Player Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan has been a full-time musician and producer since first leaving the magazine’s staff in 2010. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.

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