Crafting Tones With Wylie Gelber of Dawes (Web Exclusive)

Wylie Gelber discusses the custom bass he built and the latest album from his band Dawes
By Jon D'Auria ,

To say that Wylie Gelber of Dawes is a hands-on type of person is an understatement. Not only did the 27-year old scrutinize over every last line and run that he played on Dawes’ recently released All Your Favorite Bands, but the ambitious bassist even designed and hand-built his very own custom bass to achieve his ideal sound. His results on both accounts were successful, as Gelber’s tone and tastefulness on his band’s latest indie-rock-meets-folk record account for as much melodic presence as rhythmic punch.

In switching to primarily using his thumb for plucking, Gelber gets a warm and present tone that shines through on songs like “Things Happen,” “Waiting For Your Call,” and “Right On Time.” With a groove-first mentality, Gelber has been the backbone of his band’s sound for the last six years, but on the new material he gives himself enough space and freedom to wander into higher registers. Currently on the road for a long stretch of summer touring, Gelber is already plotting his next bass to design and writing the next batch of songs for his band. He checked in with BP to report on both.

What were your goals going into this project?

I listen to a lot of bass-heavy records and even if it isn’t recorded that way, I’ll crank the bass thirty times louder than anything else. I’m listening for the bass part in every song, and I’m so critical about records and how the bass is played. If I never hear one thing that I’d change in a record—one note or one run—then it represents a great recording. So when I’m writing and recording I’m always super critical of what I’m doing. I listen back to our older records and try to imagine it being a different bass player, and then I analyze what I did and try to learn from it. So going into this album, I was just trying to achieve as solid of a performance as I could pull off. And I’m always going for the perfect bass tone, which is an art that has been completely destroyed in the last ten years.

How do you feel bass tone has deteriorated in the last decade?

A lot of it is gear. People simply don’t care about what their rig sounds like. For the bass, there are a lot of limitations about what is possible and what is not. You should be able to pick out every single note. I hate when I hear a record where everything is so soaked out and the notes are all muddy and indistinguishable from each other. There isn’t even any string sound on albums anymore. I like the whole spectrum of bass tone. A great player will sound good on any piece of gear, but he will sound better with great gear.

What is your ideal tone then?

I love extremely low, bassy, midrange. If you make it too low it can lose quality on the album. But on all of the epic records of the ’70s and all of the Motown albums the bass was so clear and rumbling and you could hear everything they were doing. Nowadays bass lines get lost in the music and you have to really listen for them. I need a tone where all of my bass is audible.

What studio chain do you use to accomplish that?

I’m never afraid to DI my bass as long as it’s a quality unit. For this one, I had a tech build a custom DI and we had a ’60s Fender Bassman that we didn’t even put a microphone on it. We just had mics in the open room. There was tons of bleed, but most of what you’re hearing tone-wise was my DI. The room captured just enough of the overall essence of the low end, so the combination made it sound really nice and live.

How does your technique affect your tone?

Much of my tone is from my hands. I play a lot with my thumb, but it really depends on the song. It’s hard to play faster, more difficult lines with only your thumb. I never focus on using proper technique or alternating my fingers. Your two fingers sound very different from one another, and that can make for a cool tone. Often, I’ll use only one finger on a song. If you’re not doing a lot of string jumping you can get a unique feel with just one finger.

Describe your role in Dawes.

We just got another guitar player, so we’re a five-piece band on the road. Before, we were a four-piece band and I always tried to make sure that I was holding up 25% of the sound; I would try to be as tasteful as possible while playing exciting parts. I want my bass to be one of the four legs of the table.

You built the bass you’re now using. What was that process like?

I designed and built that bass with my dad about a year ago. It has a Gibson Grabber neck and I assembled the rest of it. I’ve always loved Gibson Ripper basses and I wanted a neck like that. I had one month to build the bass from scratch—cut the body, paint it, put in the wires and electronics—and so I went with a Grabber neck because the Ripper necks were bolt on and I wasn’t able to make that happen. I installed three pickups: A Gibson EB Mudbucker, a Ripper pickup, and a Dimarzio Model G. I wired them all and loved how it sounded; it’s the only bass I played on the album. Each pickup has it’s own voulme control, so there’s a lot of flexibility. One setting sounds like my Ripper and adding the other pickups makes for a Cream-y sound. I’m happy with how it came out; I can emulate all of my favorite basses with it.

What inspired you to build this bass?

I’m not one of these guys who opens up the back of a guitar amp and knows exactly what’s going on, but I’ve been the one to maintain our gear over our years of touring. I’ve fixed pretty much everything we have. I don’t have proper training; it’s pretty much trial and error. And my dad isn’t a musician, but he’s a master builder, so it was something that we wanted to do together. We got very lucky on the first one. I’m already in the middle of plotting on the next bass I’m going to build.

Would you ever build instruments full time?

If I had more time I would build a bunch and get them to all of the bassists I know. But we’re simply too busy. Maybe later in life I’ll take it up to a greater degree.

How and when did you first start playing bass?

When I was in third grade my mom, who is a huge music fan, gave me Fresh, by Sly and the Family Stone, and I fell in love with it. I asked her what it was that I loved so much on the album and she figured out it was the bass, so I got a bass. The way that my mind works, I can barely strum a chord on the guitar, but bass has always made sense to me and has been an easy way for me to express myself.

Who are your main bass influences?

Mike Elizondo, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Willie Weeks, George Porter, Jr., Wilton Felder, Melvin Dunlap, Darryl Johnson, and really just dudes from that era and in that genre. Those are the bassists who have always inspired my playing.

Describe a Dawes show from your perspective.

I try to keep my head clear and I try not to pay attention to the crowd. I just focus in on Griff [drummer Griffin Goldsmith] and make sure we’re playing tight together. On rare occasion, we’ll have had an off show, which happens because my mind is on something other than the music. That’s why I always want to clear my head and let the music take over.

Equipment

Bass: Gelber & Sons Model 2 (Handmade) 4-string

Rig: Ampeg SVT VR, Ampeg SVT-410HLF

Pedals: Tab Funkenwerk V71DI

Strings: D’Aquisto Medium Flatwounds

Listen
Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands [HUB, 2015]