Bobby Vega: Strings and Things, Part I

When I began this adventure more than four decades ago, I had no idea what it took to get a sound, let alone a tone or a voice.

When I began this adventure more than four decades ago, I had no idea what it took to get a sound, let alone a tone or a voice. In the beginning, I didn’t have an amp, so I would go into the bathroom to practice. That worked, and it sounded cool because of the echo, but we had a family of seven in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom. I couldn’t stay in there too long, but that’s where my hands started to develop a sound.

Your sound starts with you, and then your bass—the body shape, the woods, the pickups, where the pickups are positioned, the EQ, the bridge, etc. But after you’ve made those choices, the strings you choose to put on your instrument are an important key to your sound.

Over the course of playing gigs, doing recording sessions, practicing, and just playing all different basses, both acoustic and electric, I’ve used just about every kind of string, from flatwounds, taper-wounds, half-rounds, pressure-wounds, and phosphor bronze to black nylon tapewounds, copper white-nylon tapewounds, phosphor-bronze roundwounds around a nylon core, hexcores, roundcores, and every kind of roundwound. Every string sounds and feels different, and each string has a different output; some are louder, because of the way the string is wound and the alloy used on the build.

My first bass, a Norma my mother bought for me, came with flatwounds. When I got a Fender Jazz Bass a few years later, I put black-nylon tapewounds on it because I’d seen Graham Central Station playing a show at the Orphanage, and Larry Graham had them on his bass. That’s when I started to get the sound and the tone and that Larry Graham vibe. That was the “downbeat of one” for me—to hear a sound on a record, see and hear a sound in concert, and then start to get that sound with that tone and vibe. Mac and cheese!

After that, I bought a black Fender Precision Bass with a maple narrow neck—that’s what they called them back them—and it came stock with Fender flatwounds, like all basses did in 1972. I was working at Don Wehr’s Music City in San Francisco, with Camille Décor, the funkiest guitar player and person I’ve ever met. One day, Camille gave me some strings. It was a set of Darco Funky roundwounds, and when I strung up my bass, man—the sound of those strings on the Precision Bass with that maple neck had such a snap and twang! I had this big grin on my face, because I had just seen and heard another sound and tone. It reminded me of Chris Squire on the Yes song “Roundabout” and of John Entwistle’s tone with the Who on “Boris the Spider.” Now things were flying through my head—I was beginning to see the matrix, starting to get the ingredients for the sound recipes that would help me develop my tone. That was my first set of roundwounds. Crackers, it was like having “the precious” in Lord of the Rings!

Next time, we’ll talk about finding the right strings for a bass, changing strings, and how strings can inspire you to play in different ways and styles. May the groove be with you.