Bobby Vega on Finding Your Tone

“Sound” is one thing, and “tone” is another.

“SOUND” IS ONE THING, AND “TONE” IS ANOTHER. Think of it this way: When you’re playing by yourself, you can clearly hear your tone, and if you’re playing your own music, your tone is the sound. But when you play with a band, your tone becomes part of the band’s sound.

Paul Butterfield used to talk to me about tone. When Paul played by himself, he sounded great, and when he played with his band, his tone was a big part of the band’s overall sound.

I didn’t know it for a long time, but I’ve been working on my tone for 43 years. Now that I’m on the other side, I can talk about it. I developed my tone by listening to lots of music, going to lots of concerts—Santana, James Brown, Tower Of Power, Cold Blood, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jeff Beck, and Deep Purple, to name a few—and working on four key things. These are: right-and left-hand techniques using a pick, thumb, and fingers; instrument choice (Fender Jazz and Precision Basses, as well as my Ribbecke Halfling acoustic bass); strings, which are an overlooked but important ingredient; and amplification.

Let’s start with your bass. You can use any bass; remember, the best one is the one you have! Start by playing long, sustained tones. If you’re using a drum machine or metronome, try setting the tempo at 94 bpm so that holding a note for one bar won’t be so boring. Better yet, use your inner clock and your imagination so you can hear your hands and your strings and your instrument. If your bass has two pickups, start with the bridge pickup, go to the neck pickup, and then play with both pickups. With your picking hand, play over the bridge pickup, then over the front pickup, and then where the neck meets the body.

When you play closest to the bridge or over the back pickup, the string is tight-sounding. Go to YouTube and search for “Jaco Pastorius Birdland 1978 Weather Report tour” to hear an example of the tone you get when you play over the back pickup of a Jazz Bass. You may not have Jaco’s hands, but you can see his approach and hear how his tone is a part of the band’s sound. When you play closer to (or right on top of) the front pickup, the sound will start to open up. Search for “Rocco Prestia Oakland Stroke What Is Hip” to hear an example of the tone you can get when you play over the front pickup of a P-Bass. When you play right at the end of the neck, the sound will be open and wide, almost like an upright bass; that’s where the string vibrates farther, and you’ll get that big, open swing of the string sound, like John Entwistle did on the Who’s “Who are You.” Go to YouTube and search for “The Who at The Concert For New York City October 20, 2001 (Full Set)” to see and hear a great Entwistle performance.

As you develop your tone, make sure to use fingers, thumb, and pick. Start with the open E, then play the G at the 3rd fret. Listen to the open strings and the 3rd fret on the A, D, and G strings, and if you’re playing a 5-string, start with the B. By doing this, you’ll hear each string and feel how they open up. There are so many sounds in between the ones I mentioned, from all the way up at the bridge saddles to all the way down at the middle of your bass’s neck. Listen to how your pickups and strings react to different techniques. Try playing with soft, medium, and hard touches. You’re the tone palette, and it’s a never-ending story.

Next month, we’ll talk about finding the right strings for the tone you want.

Until then, may the groove be with you.