Strike Force: The Foundation Of Hard Rock and Metal Bass Tone

Bass master Bryan Beller shares ways to develop a more authentic hard rock/metal sound and feel, even while playing fingerstyle.
By Bryan Beller ,

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 you 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 overdrive on.

Ex. 1

Ex. 2

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 .