"BASSES ARE LIKE microphones,” says Doug Wimbish. “What sounds good in one player’s hands can sound like crap in another’s. Everything depends on exactly what you put into it.” Wimbish is a master of touch, and he uses a wealth of techniques to yield the rich tone that he’s applied to practically every style of music in his three-decade session career.
The journeyman bassist’s excursions cut across an especially broad stylistic swath. He was in the Sugar Hill Records house band that pioneered hip-hop on tracks such as Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines.” He went on to record with classic rock royalty including Jeff Beck and Mick Jagger. And although he wasn’t in the original lineup of Living Colour (Muzz Skillings played bass), Wimbish was directly involved in the band’s breakout success during the late ’80s.
“I told Jagger about Living Colour, and he helped them get signed,” recalls Wimbish. When Skillings and the band parted ways in 1992, Wimbish was there to fill the chair. When Living Colour disbanded in 1995, Wimbish continued doing sessions, and began projects like Headfake with Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun and Tackhead with members of the old Sugar Hill gang. Wimbish released his first solo record in 1999. Living Colour got back together shortly thereafter, and has been his primary vehicle in this decade despite releasing only one studio record, 2003’s Collideøscope, until now.
The Chair in the Doorway represents new life for Living Colour with tracks that range from vibrant and straight-forward to ambient and textural. It’s hard hitting and forward thinking, but with one eye in the rearview mirror. Wimbish was involved in nearly every production aspect, from jams that began in his home studio to sessions held between tours at Sono studios outside of Prague. Wimbish’s subbyyet- clear bass brigade supports the entire affair.
How did you become involved in production for the band, and what was your vision for the new CD?
I wish I didn’t have to wear so many hats, but I’ve simply got more time on my hands than the other guys. They all have kids to deal with, but I’m beyond the kid phase—I’m a grandfather now. I was a huge Living Colour fan before I was in the band, and my vision for the new CD was to include all the aspects that made Living Colour exciting in the first place—including the guitar hero element with Vernon Reid. I also wanted to create a record that resonated with the frequencies of what’s happening now, meaning the massive low end that modern sound systems are capable of putting out. I’m not really interested in recreating vintage bass tones. I was tracking in the ’70s, so I did the whole PBass through an Ampeg fliptop trip. I’m into working with bass tones and effects sounds that will capture the ear of the DJ scene.
What’s your studio signal path?
I create the “Wall of Wimbish” sound by splitting my signal a couple of times on the way into the mixing board. I have a pair of clean signals. One goes direct to the board, and another through a Trace Elliot amp rig. Another signal is sent to my pedalboard, where it becomes stereoized. That is sent to the mixing board. If I choose to do any stereo imaging, it’s usually done with those tracks. The post-pedalboard signal also goes to a pair of amps, where it can be utilized in stereo or mono depending on the sound I’m going for, and if there are any phase issues.
That sounds complicated.
It sounds more complicated than it is. I may blend two or three tracks together, or mix it all down to one fat mono track. Sometimes I only use the stereo tracks for special effects. I’m all about capturing a moment, like a photographer going for the right angle on a model. I search for the right sound, and print it without looking back. If I have the time and the gear, then why not set it all up and see what works? But believe me, a lot of sessions go down fast, and all the gear is used up quickly on the drums. I have to make sure to ask the engineer, “Please make sure to leave at least one decent preamp for me.”
How do you play so that the tone is heavy, and still ensure that each note is distinct and discernable?
I have a light touch. There’s an art form to playing soft, and yielding a big tone. The first key is getting to know your bass very well. I’ve been recording with the same 1987 Spector 4- and 5-strings for years. The necks on all my basses are shaved down a bit to make them comfortable in my hands, and Spector’s circuitry is second to none. It’s like having a built-in Neve preamp. I’ve learned the intricacies of the bass unamplified, and how to use the active EQ in subtle ways to hone in on specific frequencies. Certain ones actually jump out more when you hit the string lightly—as you would when you’re hitting a harmonic. I obtain clarity in the mix by keeping my notes even, and shaping the notes around the bass drum rather than competing with it, so that there are enough frequencies left for you to actually hear the notes.
How do you make each note in a series sound even?
Where you pluck the string is very important. Every bass has its resonant frequencies that make some notes ring out more than others. You have to find out where the hot spots are, and then adjust your playing to even things out. Sometimes it’s counterintuitive. A lower note, such as the G at the third fret of the E string, may not resonate as heavily as the Bb four frets up. Sometimes you actually have to pluck the string softer, and in a different place on the string, in order to make that lower note sound as pronounced as the more resonate note. I’ve learned various ways to achieve a more fundamental, solid sound such as using more of the flesh on my index finger, and plucking softly up close to the fingerboard. Keep in mind that the location of principle tones will change depending on the strings. Changing strings can change the whole character of the bass.
The shape of each note is vital, and it varies according to how you play. If I use Larry Graham’s technique, the notes will have a percussive sound. If I use my flamenco technique, it’s going to sound different because I use my fingerpads rather than my thumb to produce the percussive effect.
Can you explain the basic concept and execution of your flamenco technique?
It’s a complete reversal of the thump and pluck technique popularized by Larry Graham. I realized I could cover more ground with less effort by slapping down with a finger rather than my thumb. Tony Levin used to strike down on the strings using little drumsticks he attached to his fingers. My concept starts with that, but then remove the drumsticks and take the pain! You have to develop calluses on your fingerpads. Basic execution starts with developing the ability to hit all four bass strings simultaneously using the index finger. That’s the top layer. For the bottom layer, I position my thumb underneath the bottom string near where the fingerboard joins the neck, and I pluck up with my thumbnail.
Can you break down the execution a bit further?
Make a letter “C” with your plucking hand. The thumbnail faces down, and is at a slight angle. Now straighten your index finger, and curl your thumb under the bottom string. Get the thumb and finger as close together as possible. You’re basically cupping the string. Every time you pluck up on the E string, slam down on all four strings with your index finger. Leave your index finger and thumb completely stationary, and generate the motion from your wrist and elbow, as if you were waiving goodbye. Don’t move the fingers individually. Let gravity work. Let your elbow give you the pitch, and let your wrist provide the wings you need. Practice it until it becomes fluid like any other rudiment. This technique allows greater control over the shape of the note. It’s actually very simple. It just looks complicated.
Can you provide a simple note-based example?
Start by grabbing a G on the E string at the third fret. Now put your thumbnail down underneath the bottom string just a little bit. Position your hands over, so you have enough room to operate. Remember that location. Move your wrist to elevate your thumbnail up to pluck the bottom string yielding a G note. Use your wrist again to tap your index finger down across all four strings as you would to create harmonics, and you get a G chord. Or do the same thing hitting only the bottom string to hit just the Gnote. That’s it.
I hit with the first pad of my index finger. I aim near where the fingerboard meets the body. That’s a resonant spot. If you go too far up the neck, it gets thinner. The basic principle is “four strings, one finger.” Use more fingers for more options.
Can you site an example of when you’ve used that technique on a recording?
I used it on “Flying” from Collideøscope, and on “Ignorance Is Bliss” from Stain. I’ve expanded the frontiers of bass on my solo records. The most recent one, Cinema Sonics, features more intricate bass techniques than anything else I’ve done. It’s very ambient, but it’s got some nice compositions too. There’s crazy flamenco slap stuff all over that record.
In a YouTube video clip of you playing at Winter NAMM 2009, you pluck quickly across the strings using solely your index finger. How do you do that?
I’m hitting all those tones with the pad of my finger, and actually plucking at the same time—I’m rubbing. All you need to do to make a string vibrate is just touch it. That’s central. And you can rub it up or down. Leave your finger on too long, and it will deaden the string. It’s like a game. You can stick you hand over fire, or in hot water—you just can’t leave it there too long. It’s the same with touching strings. And then you have to find a way to keep the motion moving. The fretting hand can generate motion, while your plucking hand assists. Sometimes I’ll hit the neck or the body to generate vibration, or hammer on to a string just hard enough to make it vibrate, and then I’ll tap, rub, or flick it with the pads of my right hand and fingers to keep it going. Bass is such a deep instrument because of how much it literally resonates. That’s why harmonics sound great on bass.
It sounds like you’ve put a ton of thought into your touch, and experimented with all sorts of ways to apply it.
I’m not the architect of all this. I’m a fan of all bassists, and all musicians. I watch how drummers adjust their sets to work best in conjunction with their bodies, and how they attack their drums in various ways to achieve different tones. I do that too. I adjust my hands to coax the frequencies out of my bass by striking it in different ways in different parts of the instrument. Sometimes I’ll wonder something like, “What would Tito Puente sound like if he played bass?” That might inspire a whole new branch of my overall concept.
“If you’re right handed, it’s a great exercise to pick up a left-handed bass, or vice versa. Don’t change a thing—just try to play it. The shape of the notes is exactly opposite. It will open your mind.”
With Living Colour: The Chair in the Doorway [Megaforce, 2009], Paris Concert [Inakustik, 2009], Collideøscope [Sanctuary, 2003], Stain, [Epic, 1993]; Solo: Cinema Sonics [Yellow Bird, 2008], Trippy Notes for Bass [On U Sounds, 1999]; With Headfake: Live “In The Area Of Prague” (DVD) [Nova Sounds, 2008]; With Tackhead: Love and War [TBD, due early 2010]
Basses Spector Doug Wimbish Signature Models, 1987 Spector 4- and 5- strings, Spector 4-, 5-, and 6-string fretless basses, 2000 Ned Steinberger Double Bass, Peavey MIDI Bass
Rig Two Trace Elliot AH1200-12 heads run in stereo through 1048H 4x10 and 1518 1x15 speaker cabinets
Effects Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI, MXR Bass Blowtorch, Danelectro DO1 DaddyO Distortion, BBE Sonic Stomp, Pigtronix Disnortion, DigiTech Whammy, Dunlop Cry- Baby, Carl Martin 3-band Parametric Preamp, Boss BF-2 Flanger, DOD FX25B Envelope Filter, DigiTech XSW Synth Wah Envelope Filter, DigiTech Digiverb, Boss DSD-2 Digital Sampler/Delay, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss DD-6 Digital Delay, Boss SL-20 Slicer, DigiTech TimeBender, Ernie Ball Stereo Volume Pedal, Eventide Pitch- Factor, Voodoo Lab Power 2 Plus, DigiTech JamMan
Strings Rotosound, various gauges