As a bassist, you can play the right notes, hit the groove, know every possible version of a song—even wear a hat and sunglasses—but if you don’t get “the sound,” the music doesn’t fully happen. While this is true in any musical situation, the bass tone of the R&B Gold timeframe (1940–75-ish) has been practically eradicated by years of product development and innovation, so achieving that tone can be a bit mysterious. Virtually every advance in bass-gear technology has replaced the instrument’s dark, indistinct thump with full-range clarity. As players pushed the boundaries of what a bass could do, gear designers met and fueled that challenge, creating many of the advances we now take for granted: steel strings, advanced pickups, and hi-fi amplifiers for upright bass; roundwound strings, active electronics, exotic woods, and sophisticated hardware for electric bass; and full-range speaker systems and Class D amplification to make it all loud.
Like many contemporary players, my tone ideals were bassists who stood out in the mix, such as Stanley Clarke, Larry Graham, Jaco, Marcus Miller, John Entwistle, and Jack Casady. The equipment I chose was designed with modern sensibilities in mind: clarity, full-spectrum tone, even response, and flexibility. While I appreciate the advances our instrument has experienced, and I enjoy playing in contemporary styles, over the past ten years my personal preferences have shifted toward a more vintage aesthetic. My gigs have been predominantly based in the Americana/roots/country realm, where a fat, dark, punchy tone is the standard, and there are no bass solos. Getting “the sound” can be as simple as using vintage gear—but outside of a controlled environment like a recording studio, it can be a challenge to get modern performance standards out of such gear. While heretical to the vintage purist mindset, it’s possible to produce “the sound” even with modern equipment, if you understand its nature.
Words like full, fat, thick, round, warm, and punchy are used to describe “the sound,” as opposed to the modern tone palette that can be called bright, clear, full-range, and crisp. However, “the sound” is not just a product of timbre; it also involves the note’s envelope. ADSR is an acronym used in music synthesis to describe the attack, decay, sustain, and release of a note. We bass players are concerned mostly with the attack and decay, and if we look at “the sound” in these terms, we see it has a strong attack and a quick decay. Figure 1 is a screenshot of the waveform produced by my upright bass—there is a large initial spike, which tapers down relatively fast. In contrast, the waveform produced by my electric bass (Fig. 2) shows that the initial attack is not as big as the upright’s, and the waveform holds a more consistent volume level from beginning to end.
Listening to older music, you’ll notice that bass notes were shorter. For upright players, this was largely a result of playing pizzicato with gut strings and high action to achieve volume. The string’s material and tension produced a strong attack and fundamental, but the notes did not sustain well. As steel strings took over, the envelope of upright notes began to change. String heights also lowered, which decreased the attack and lengthened the decay. As a result, pickups and amps became more of a necessity to compete in the rhythm section. Players like Ron Carter began to emphasize the growl and length of each note instead of the thump, and this opened up an entirely different (and distinctly modern) approach to the instrument that has inspired several generations of players. But when you hear Lloyd Trotman’s introduction on “Stand By Me,” or James Jamerson’s upright on Marvin Gaye’s “Once Upon a Time,” or Bob Moore’s playing on any record he’s ever done—that is “the sound” I’m talking about.
For the past few years, I’ve been touring and recording with the Mavericks, a band with musical influences as far-flung as traditional country, Cuban son, ska, Tex-Mex, and swing, with a big dollop of classic R&B on top. My primary instrument for the gig is upright bass, although for a handful of songs I switch to a Fender Precision. As the gig’s tone palette is decidedly vintage, it’s been my quest to reliably produce “the sound” really freakin’ loud! While the thought of miking an old Ampeg B-15 is quaint, my stage volume needs to be loud enough to give the lead singer a solid backstop, and keep me out of his wedge monitors. Feedback is the first issue to deal with—standing in front of a roaring 2x15 cab is quite a trick for an upright bassist. While upright players combat feedback by putting foam under the tailpiece or inside the bass, taping up the ƒ-holes, or taking even more extreme measures, I found a different solution. My Chadwick Folding Bass came with a removable internal brace to protect the top from being crushed during travel, and I found that playing with the brace installed effectively removes 90 percent of my acoustic volume and therefore my feedback problem—although it does add sustain, much like a center block does in a semi-hollow instrument.
The next step is getting the proper attack and decay. My first inclination was to use gut strings, as they naturally have the thumpy attack and rapid decay, but after one year on the road, I gave up on them. Constantly changing climates, rainy outdoor festivals, and the many hours needed prior to a show to let the strings settle in became problematic. Synthetic-core strings can exhibit gut-like qualities, but I found they still took too long to stretch out, as I have to assemble the Chadwick for each gig. Steel-core strings settle in quickly, as the material is less pliable, but pizzicato-oriented string sets tend to growl and sustain rather than thump. It occurred to me to use strings designed for arco playing, as they typically have an underwrap of silk to calm down the high-frequency transients and sustain. A set of light-gauge D’Addario Heliocore Orchestral strings put me on the right path. Due to marathon sets lasting up to three hours, I keep my action relatively low, which unfortunately decreases attack and lengthens the decay. To balance these tendencies, I use a variety of hand techniques to get “the sound” in different registers and dynamic levels.
When photos of me on my new gig first started circulating, a thread on talkbass.com lit up about my atrocious left-hand technique. People were surprised to see me grabbing the neck like a baseball bat—something I’ve told all of my students not to do. This primitive technique is dead wrong by “legit” standards, but it’s the way most “bass thumpers” approach the instrument. In the world of upright bass, you have classically trained players, jazz players with various levels of training, and “thumpers.” Thumpers just pick up the darn thing and start playing. They didn’t take lessons; they just thump away until they get something going. In educated circles, there is a tendency to scoff at this approach, but the reality is many of the greatest records ever made had a thumper on bass. In early jazz, bluegrass, country, blues, and other “rustic” genres, the bass playing was often crude, but effective. If you’re playing this music, perfect classical technique is not going to get “the sound.” Instead of cleanly pressing the string to the fingerboard with the tip of the finger for optimum clarity and intonation, the thumper crams the fingers together, mashes down on the string with the pads, and uses a solid monkey-grip on the neck. It’s “wrong,” but it shortens the decay times, emphasizes the attack, and adds a ton of low-end thump. The crudeness of the technique creates the desired sound and articulation; call it “harnessed slop.” The right hand also plays a large role in the shape of the note: The classic “hook” technique gives a firm bump up front, but it can cause more string excursion, which means longer decay. A more classical pluck that pulls the string away from the neck can produce a decent attack with a short decay, and using one or two plucking fingers, and varying one’s hand placement, can open up a good dynamic range. Plucking with the pads of the index and middle fingers together gives a strong meaty bump with medium decay—and in combination with the thumper left-hand technique, it gives you a lot to work with.
Getting the right envelope is the first step, but then we have to make it loud. My rig, although thoroughly modern in design, is a critical link in bringing this texture to life at high stage volume. While it’s a modern Class D design, the Genzler Magellan 800’s beefy power plant and semi-parametric midrange can just as easily make my three-way Greenboy Audio cabinet sound like an old bass rig without a tweeter: super loud, without feedback, and with improved definition. My Barbera Transducers piezo pickup is full-range, with even response and tons of gain. To shape all that sonic information into “the sound,” I cut the mids deeply in the 800Hz–1.5kHz range. A slight bass boost helps make it plump, and because the strings are fairly dark, I leave the treble flat. Even with the feedback resistance of the muted Chadwick, a highpass filter rolling off everything under 80Hz is necessary to keep howling at bay.
This modern setup allows me to convey the upright-bass version of “the sound” at stadium-rock levels. But first you have to know what “the sound” is, and understand what produces it. If you can’t replicate those conditions, figure out another way to produce the same result. Next time, we’ll talk about “the sound” as it relates to electric bass—but until then, keep digging for R&B Gold. It’s everywhere!
Ed Friedland of Tucson, Arizona, is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks.