R&B Gold: "The Sound," Part 2: Technology Marches On

It seems that my personal musical situation is retracing the path taken by many stalwart upright bassists who chased the High Volume Dragon through music history.
By ED Friedland ,

It seems that my personal musical situation is retracing the path taken by many stalwart upright bassists who chased the High Volume Dragon through music history. As I’ve mentioned, my gig is decidedly slanted toward a retro upright bass texture. The sound I require is dark, warm, round, punchy, fat, and percussive, with a short decay time. In days of old, the upright bass delivered “the sound” as a natural result of high action, gut strings, and the recording techniques of the time capturing the bass moving air. But in the context of modern performance-volume levels, this sound is a challenge to produce. While I have managed this fight admirably for the past two and a half years, a recent increase in the Mavericks’ Latin influences led me to set aside my former electric upright and seek out perhaps the thumpiest of all basses, the Ampeg Baby Bass. While highly favored in the world of Afro-Cuban music for its strong attack, quick decay, and sonic oomph, the Baby dishes out the classic sound of old-school upright bass, but as loud as you want, without feedback.

The instrument was designed in the late ’50s by Rudy and Ed Dopera, the family that brought the Dobro resonator guitar into the world, as well as the National and Supro brands. Originally called the Zorko bass, it had a full-scale upright bass neck mated to a hollow, cello-size body made of fiberglass. In 1962, the design was acquired by Ampeg, and famed product designers Jess Oliver, Charles Hull, and Harry Bloom set out to improve the beast. They switched to a foam-filled Uvex plastic body that was molded together with a seam up the middle, with significant redesigns to the pickup. The Baby Bass came equipped with an aluminum bridge, whose feet rested on two magnetic spring-steel diaphragms. The diaphragms transfer the string vibration to two magnetic coils, which generate a signal to be amplified. Although magnetic, the pickup’s electromechanical nature allows for the use of gut or nylon strings; regardless, steel strings are commonly used.

When the Baby Bass is played acoustically, the strings produce sustain that runs counter to “the sound.” Instead, the Baby gets its thump via the inherently clunky nature of the pickup, which produces an envelope similar to the classic upright bass tone of the ’40s and ’50s. Unfortunately, during its time of manufacture (1962–72), jazz players were evolving toward a smoother attack and greater sustain, and the instrument never caught on in that scene. But its percussive thump and fast decay has made the Baby Bass the de facto standard in the world of Latin music. The vast majority of existing Ampeg and Zorko basses are in the hands of salsa bassists, and the proliferation of private builders from Columbia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Cuba highlights the demand for this rare bird in those circles.

Due to the timeframe, the Baby Bass never made any waves in the classic R&B period; by then, Fender basses had established themselves in the recording studio for sessions requiring more impact than the upright could offer. However, my constant battle with stage volume makes the Baby Bass an excellent choice for conveying the classic vintage upright bass tone without feedback or interference from other instruments. My particular instrument is a mid-’90s reissue built for Ampeg by boutique luthier Steve Azola, who sadly has retired. The Azola version makes several improvements to the basic design, including a one-piece, foam-filled aluminum-reinforced fiberglass body, a wooden bridge, and updates to the electronics that include a piezo element that can be blended with the magnetic diaphragm pickup. The Azola has proven itself to be very roadworthy, and its focused fundamental, thick texture, and super-punchy attack has made it my go-to axe for the Mavericks gig. But, what about the electric bass?

In 2018, it’s safe to say more people play electric than upright bass, and most players approaching classic R&B will be doing it with the “slab,” not the “doghouse.” As mentioned last month, the technological advancements in the world of electric bass have all but eliminated the sonic qualities needed for classic R&B tone. Bassists embraced the clarity, consistency, and fidelity of the modern aesthetic, throwing the dark, thumpy grunt of vintage bass tone on the scrap-heap of antiquity. But while the focus of this column is decidedly biased toward the vintage, don’t take that as a condemnation of all things modern. My journey to the vintage side of things came after years of pursuing the coveted tones of the modern era: Marcus Miller’s slap tone, Jaco’s bridge pickup, the pristine clarity of Victor Wooten’s Fodera—and if given the right context, I happily go there. A well-versed bassist should have a wide spectrum of colors to work with and the musical knowledge to use them effectively. But if you’re considering checking out the dark side of bass playing, step one is to put flatwound strings on your bass.

Traditional flatwounds like La Bella’s 760FM set, or DR Strings Legends, have the strong attack, fat tone, and decreased sustain built in—it’s what they do. There are also several types of flatwounds with a more “orchestral” response in mind, like Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats and Pyramid Flats. These strings have a smoother attack, improved sustain, and looser feel while retaining the warmth associated with flats. To find the right match, you may want to experiment with different brands and gauges—but once you’ve found a set you like, leave them on! Flatwounds don’t “die” like roundwounds; most players will tell you they get better with age. My 20-year-old set of La Bella 760FMs have been on three different P-Basses, the last being a 12-year residency. In the unfortunate event of a breakage, there will be nothing to do but give the bass a Viking funeral down Nashville’s Cumberland River and start over. When making the switch to flats, you’ll most likely need to reset your intonation at the bridge saddles. Also, make sure your nut slots are wide enough to accommodate the sometimes larger gauges. (Rotosound’s SH77 Steve Harris set has a whopping .110 E string.) As heavier-gauge flatwounds require higher string tension, make sure your trussrod is properly tightened to avoid a bow in the neck. (Conversely, a low-tension string like La Bella Flexible Flats might require an opposite adjustment.)

Switching to flatwounds is perhaps the simplest way to give your bass a vintage makeover, but there are other things you can do to get even closer to “the sound.” One long-extinct piece of the original Fender bass puzzle is the bridge cover. Along with the matching pickup cover, these two hunks of metal are better known as “ashtrays,” because ultimately, that’s how they were used. But more than offering protection from an unlikely errant flying screwdriver, the bridge cover hid a secret that could be the most significant element in attaining vintage tone: A foam rubber strip was glued underneath the cover, positioned so it would mute the strings right at the bridge. This not only made the new instrument sound more thumpy, like the upright, it also helped early bass amps better manage the challenges of amplifying the Precision Bass. If you have an original Fender bridge cover, chances are the foam strip was peeled off, or at least it disintegrated long ago. Always the pragmatist, Leo Fender used weather-stripping from Sears, but some people replace the foam with felt or sponge. Whether you have a bridge cover or not, you can easily slip a strip of foam under the strings next to the bridge. To avoid overdamping the string, pay attention to the height, thickness, density, and placement of the foam, as well as whether it is closed-or open-cell foam. With these parameters, you can fine-tune the timbre, attack, and decay of the string. As each brand of string is unique, and each individual string has its own mass and tension, crafting a mute becomes a somewhat artisanal experience, but the time spent pays off: A well-matched foam mute becomes part of the instrument, part of your sound.

As much as I tend to lump all electric bass references into the Fender category, the fact is that many classic old records were recorded with other instruments, and understanding their differences can help you get closer to a specific tone goal. While Fender instituted the 34"-scale standard, not everyone followed suit. Gibson’s early basses were 30.5"-scale, and Hofners (like most hollow and semi-hollow-style instruments) were 30". While most players default to long-scale (34") basses, the tone of the shorty is something to experience. As the scale length decreases, the sound’s basic character gets fuller, tubbier, and less distinct. Sound familiar? The 34" scale was decided upon as a good balance between flab and articulation (upright bass is typically 41"-scale), but as you get smaller, the tubbiness wins out. Combined with flats and muting, a short-scale bass is vintage tone personified.

Of course, we are talking about the electric bass, and we have to recognize the contribution of the amplifier. The sound of a vintage tube amp with an old-style, tweeter-less cabinet is something that can’t be replicated with modern gear. If you’re performing at vintage-appropriate volume levels, or in the studio, vintage amps can be a wonderful thing. However, if like me, you happen to play vintage music at modern volume levels—and you have to cover the stage sound with your rig—you’ll be better served with modern amplification. There are plenty of tweeter-less cabs being built again, but my personal approach is to use a full-range cab and make sure what goes into it is what I want to hear. I find that while the bass texture itself may not have an abundance of high frequencies, having it represented full-range onstage at high volume, without the rolloff from a tweeter-less cab, helps me get “the sound” across the crowded spectrum that is my gig.

All of this of course falls under the “things you can do that don’t involve playing” category. Beyond understanding the technology involved, there is a big technique component to getting “the sound.” It requires a solid rhythmic understanding, knowing chronologically based style points, an ability to hear yourself in the proper balance to the music, and a willingness to forget everything that has happened technically in the past 40 years of bass. You need to play what sounds right.

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ED FRIEDLAND

Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.