Tonal Vision: Jaco & Effects

Jaco Pastorius’ superior technique and his melodic sense—especially on fretless—are two of the several reasons so many listeners have fallen in love with his music.
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Jaco Pastorius’ superior technique and his melodic sense—especially on fretless—are two of the several reasons so many listeners have fallen in love with his music. Jaco was an innovator who was always stretching sonic boundaries with ripping bass lines, rich open-string harmonics, pinch harmonics, and sliding harmonics, and when he had electronic effects at his disposal, he created even more sounds that all of us wanted to emulate.

Jaco’s use of the chorusing effect is all over his records. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, many bassists used chorus on bass—I did because of Jaco and a few new-wave bassists—but Mr. Pastorius’ incorporation of chorus with open harmonics was truly genius. By fretting and holding down a note while plucking open-string harmonics, he created a wall of otherworldly chord sounds. Modulation made the chords more lush, and what came out of his speakers was huge! Even with fingered chords and double-stops, Jaco’s sound was different, thicker than anything else out there.

As we entered the digital era, MXR began making rackmountable effects that could be used onstage, and Jaco began rocking the MXR Digital Delay as his chorus. A digital delay reproduces your signal after a slight time lag, and if you get the repeats very close in time to your original signal, and then you slightly modulate them (i.e., electronically slow them down and speed them up), you create chorus. These days, it’s much easier to use an actual chorus pedal to get this sound.

Jaco also used a second MXR Digital Delay for its sample-and-hold function. Sitting this rack effect on top of his amp, he would sample himself playing a bass line, loop it, and like a drummer, stack rhythmic sounds to support the original loop. Next, he would add sonic embellishments and then solo over everything. Layer after layer of his electric bass would create this beautiful and rich composition, all on the fly! Jaco was opening doors to all of the ways we could incorporate gear into our bass playing.

Jaco’s use of effects didn’t end with chorus, though. He was known to crank the onboard fuzz on his Acoustic 360 head during his solos and for performances of “America the Beautiful” (you can see a great example on his instructional video, Modern Electric Bass). Jaco would run to his 360, crank the fuzz so it was overdriven like a Jimi Hendrix solo, and start burning. Never afraid of feedback or of tossing his bass into the air while the distortion raged on, Jaco always gave the audience more bang than any other bassist.

As I examine Jaco’s influence on me, I still use vibrato/chorus effects on my bass, I sample myself playing and stack bass parts on top, and I crank up fuzz to blast through the mix. I still dream about what else Jaco would have done with pedals and effects. I know he would have owned an arsenal of stomp-boxes, because he would have continued being innovative, taking us places no bassist had gone before.



A veteran of Racer X and the Mars Volta, Deltron 3030 bassist and Vato Negro founder Juan Alderete de la Peña is an effect-pedal supergeek who proudly displays his addiction at


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Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorius needs no introduction. He was an innovator, a virtuoso of monstrous proportions, and a truly unique personality. Self-taught on multiple instruments (bass included), Jaco overcame an early and debilitating arm injury, a youth of poverty, and an initial backlash to his bass technique to become the legendary musician he's remembered as today.