Bobby Vega on Finding Your Sound

If someone had ever told me that I’d one day outlive my pecker, I’d look at him like he was crazy.

IF SOMEONE HAD EVER TOLD ME THAT I’D ONE day outlive my pecker, I’d look at him like he was crazy. But in my lifetime, something that’s just as unlikely has happened.

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the only basses that were the shit were Fenders and Gibsons. There were other basses, of course—Rickenbacker, Framus, Danelectro, Teisco, Vox, Ampeg, etc.—and Alembic was still “underground.” (I saw Jack Casady’s bass being made at the Alembic factory on Judah St. in San Francisco…that was a long time ago.) But today, there are infinitely more choices, and there are so many other things that affect your sound: pickups, strings, cords, amps, cabinets, and picks. That’s the times we live in. It’s a brand new day. I am lucky to be born in the era of the electric bass!

Let’s start with your cable, your bass’s lifeline to your amp. It might not have knobs, and its effects are subtle, but the cord you use has the same effect as an EQ. What? Yeah. It’s that important. It’s worth spending time to find the right cable.

Pickups! Man, they’re a never-ending story. With all the choices, how does one decide between all the different wire gauges, bobbin heights, windings, magnets (Alnico, Alnico 2, Alnico 5, ceramic, ceramic steel, neodymium), and pickup types (including P-style, J-style, MM, and soapbar)? And strings— heck. How do you pick the right set from all the roundwound, half-round, flatwound, pressure-wound, nickel, stainless steel, copper, phosphor-bronze, black nylon, and balanced-tension options?

What is your sound? Do you have one? Do you envision one? What do you think you sound like? Whatever your sound is, amps are an important part of it. When you play through the right amp, you’ll know. You will get goose bumps, chicken skin, and a big shit-eating grin on your face. Cabinets are another part of the equation, with so many speaker choices: from the small ones (2x5, 4x5, 6x5, 8x5, 9x5, 24x5) to the more common sizes (2x10, 4x10, 6x10, 8x10, 1x12, 2x12, 4x12, 6x12, 1x15, 2x15) to the big boys (3x15, 1x18, 2x18). You can also choose among cabinet designs that are front-ported, rear-ported, have no port at all, are downward-loaded, or have reverse speakers like the Acoustic 360 used by Jaco Pastorius, Larry Graham, and John Paul Jones.

All and all, it’s about the big three: you, your bass, and your amp. Effects are okay—they’re like spices and colors—but we, the players, are the best effect. Visualize the sound in your mind, and then with your fingers, create the sounds you see.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen, heard, and played some of the very best electric basses, amps, and cabinets on Earth, but after all is said and done, each piece of gear had a sound and its own personality. Now that I’ve been experiencing this phenomenon of the electric bass for 43 years, I can say that now is now and then was then, and them that don’t know, don’t know they don’t know! So in future Bobby’s Basements, I’m going to have a “Gear You Should Know About (Just Sayin’)” section, where I’ll mention cool stuff I think you should check out—not necessarily to buy, but to at least know about.

In my collection, I have the highest high-end and what you might call the lowest of low. I’d say it’s about finding a balance that will inspire you to new musical highs that will make you feel great and make other folks dance and feel their emotions. As I write this, I’m on Jam Cruise 2015, and the music is at such a high level! Man, it’s effing great—the bass players onboard are fantastic musicians. There’s Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band, George Porter Jr. of the Meters, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, Andy Hess of John Scofield’s band, Garrett Sayers of the Motet, Nth Power bass man Nate Edgar, and Robert Mercurio of Galactic, just to name a few. These guys are great players all the way around—they make their bands, and everybody they play with, sound better. So do what they do: Play your bass and make the world a better place! And may 2015 bring the very best to you and yours.