Greetings once again, intrepid readers. Against their better judgment BP’s
editorial chieftains have granted me this
space to write about Playing Rock and Metal
Bass Guitar. Barring some massive fail on
my part (or a subscriber revolt on your part),
this will be the first of many installments
on the topic.
I can hear the snark: Thanks, Beller …
there haven’t been enough columns written
on this topic already. Here’s my angle:
There are players who somehow arrived
from the womb with their axes swinging
just above their knees, a variety of hard rock
techniques built into their hands, killer metal
tone that works both live and in the studio,
etc. In my experience, they’re a rare breed,
and this column isn’t for them. It’s for the
rest of us who grew up playing a little of
everything—pop, rock, funk, R&B, fusion,
jazz, country, Latin, polka, honky tonk,
whatever—and are interested in nailing a
more authentic hard rock/metal sound and
feel, even while playing fingerstyle, as I do.
Are you with me?
In 1993, when I first started playing with
Dweezil Zappa, I’d play along with his
insanely technical material in headphones,
and it sounded fine to my ears. Then at
rehearsal, on a big soundstage, the bass disappeared
in a swirling mass of distorted guitars
and kick drums. I could still feel my
playing, but the attack was lacking, and the
notes didn’t have the roundness and presence they had in my headphone mix.
Dweezil noticed, and asked, “Can you play
harder or something?”
It would be years before I knew what
he was driving at. He wanted a more “rock”
bass sound. Seeing as I didn’t play with a
pick, he wanted something with that aggressive
initial attack, followed by a stronger,
dirtier note. Without me throwing down
2,000 words of pure tonal nerditude, let’s
just say that, tone-wise, hard rock/metal
bassists have a challenge unlike those playing
funk or pop. There’s less sonic space
available, thanks to those crunchy guitars
up high and the kick drum down low. So
if you’re out there like I was, playing Rage
Against The Machine riffs correctly but
with a tone that isn’t cutting it, what do
I have three starter solutions:
1. Use a Jazz Bass-style instrument
(with two single-coil pickups). Turn both
volume knobs all the way up, or if there’s
a pickup blend control, set it in the middle.
Why? Precision-style basses (with one
split-coil pickup) lack treble edge and typically
aren’t focused-sounding enough for
hard rock, while single-bridge-pickup basses
can sound too throaty and midrangy to mix
well with guitars. (Are there exceptions?
Yes! Please stop yelling.) A Jazz-type setup—
one neck pickup, one bridge pickup—is the
best starting point for these purposes.
Throw on some new stainless steel strings
while you’re at it.
2. Overdrive the sound. Not full-on
Big Muff fuzzy distortion, just something
that adds dirt. This can come from any
proper “vintage” tube power amp, or a
decent pedal in front of a solid-state amp.
Overdrive adds harmonic distortion to the fundamental note, enhancing your sound’s
position in the mix in complex ways. I’ve
found the resulting tone sits better with
crunched-out guitars. Under normal genre
circumstances, you’d kick on the overdrive
for heavy or solo parts; in hard rock and
metal, though, you leave it on as a default,
and kick it off when the guitars go clean.
3. Fingerstrike through the string. This
is crucial, and what this column is really
all about. Normally when playing fingerstyle,
we pluck with the fingers resting close
to the strings, and use a combination of
striking and pushing down on the string
for our attack (shown in Figures 1 and 2).
This works well for most genres needing a
clean, fat sound. But here we need a
stronger “chime” on the attack. In Figures
3 and 4, see how far away my finger is from
the string. I’ll wind up from that far out
and use the top of my fingertip to strike
through the string, as opposed to using the
middle of my fingertip to push down and
past it. If you do it right, the sound should
become way more metal—especially with
Achieving consistency in string attack
requires practice. Your fingers may be wild
at first, so warm up with some basic scales.
Then try Examples 1 and 2 both ways, traditional
and “rocked out.” From there, it’s
a quick leap to nailing killer tone for playing
along to your favorite Lamb Of God or
Hatebreed tune. (I think.)
Check out this video for a thorough
demonstration of the strike-through
technique. I’ll be back soon enough. Until
then, lemme see those horns: \m/
Bryan Beller is the touring bassist for the metal “band” Dethklok
from the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, and
has played with Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Dweezil Zappa, Wayne
Kramer, and more. His most recent solo album is Thanks in Advance [Onion Boy].
Follow him on Twitter (@bryanbeller) and find out more at www.bryanbeller.com .