By Craig Anderton
Touch: It’s what separates the great from the almost-great. It’s what every bass player wants, and some manage to find . . . but few have ever really defined. Nonetheless, in addition to the unquantifiable, there is the quantifiable aspect of touch—so let’s investigate.
Tuning is crucial with bass, perhaps even more so than with other instruments, because of the low frequencies involved. A bass is a resonant system, where even if you’re only playing one string at a time, you can’t avoid having occasional, sympathetic resonances from the other strings. Even slightly out-of-tune strings will create slow, rolling beat frequencies. This is very different from, say, guitar, where slightly out-of-tune high notes create more of a chorusing effect; chorusing on a bass robs the part of its power.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT NOTES
One of the great things about bass (or guitar, for that matter) is that you can play the same note in different places on the neck to obtain different timbres. Those who play samplers know how valuable “round robin” note assignment can be, where hitting the same note repeatedly triggers different samples to avoid the “machine-gun notes” effect. Bass has “round robin” assignments too, but you do the assigning.
An obvious example is open versus fretted strings. For example, when going from an A to a D, don’t necessarily go from one open string to another, but play the D on the A string. That mutes the A string so its vibrations don’t interfere with the D string, and the contrast with the decay can shape the sound as well—going from an open string to a fretted string shortens the decay and “closes down” the line, whereas going to an open string leaves the line more “open” because of the extra sustain.
Fretted notes tend to draw less attention in a mix than open strings, and this can also be used to good advantage. During the verse, try playing fretted notes to give more support to the vocals; but for the chorus, use open strings as much as possible.
The distance of the pickups from the strings makes a big difference on how your touch interacts with the bass because pickups follow the inverse square law, where output drops off rapidly with increasing string distance. Placing the pickups further away makes a heavy touch seem more light and the overall sound less percussive, while placing the pickups closer to the strings makes a light touch seem heavier and emphasizes percussive transients.
I have two preferences with pickups. First, I usually set the neck pickup closer to the strings than the bridge (Fig. 1). This isn’t just to balance out levels; I tend to pluck just below the neck pickup, so having it a bit lower accommodates the extra string excursion. Second, I like to angle the pickups so that they’re a bit further away from the lower strings, and closer to the higher strings. I tend to slam the lower strings harder, so this pickup placement evens out the string levels somewhat, even before they hit any kind of amp or compression.
Fig. 1: Where you set the pickup height in relation to the strings can make a big difference in the overall touch.
In any event, if you haven’t experimented with pickup height, spend some time recording your bass with the pickups at various heights. You might be surprised how much this can influence not only your tone, but the effects of your “touch.”
THE TONE CONTROL IN YOUR FINGERS
There are many ways to play bass strings: Pushing down with fingers, using a pick, pulling up and slapping, plucking with the fingers . . . and each one gives a different tonal quality, from smooth and round to twangy and percussive. Match your picking technique as appropriate to the song, and your “touch” will augment the arrangement. You can make your bass lay demurely in the background, or push its way to the front, just by what’s in your fingers.
TOUCH MEETS ELECTRONICS
Touch also works in conjunction with whatever electronics the bass first sees in the signal chain. The bass reacts differently to your touch depending on whether it first sees a straight preamp, a preamp with saturation, a tube amp, or a solid-state amp. I go for a bit of saturation in a preamp (as long as it’s soft, smooth saturation—not hard clipping) as that tends to absorb some of the percussive transients, giving a smoother tone that works well with subsequent compression. But that’s because with the kind of music I play, the bass tends to be mostly supportive. In small ensemble situations where the bass takes a more prominent role (e.g., jazz trios), a clean preamp will preserve those transients better, letting the bass “take over” a bit more in the mix.
If you’re feeding a compressor, its settings have a huge influence on touch. With lots of compression, you can pluck the string softly for a muted tone, but the volume level will still be relatively high due to the compression. Hit the string harder, and if the compressor has a fast attack, the compression will absorb the percussive transient, making the tone more docile. If the compressor has a slow attack, that initial transient will pop through. In this situation, touch doesn’t only involve working with the bass, but with the electronics as well.
Before we sign off, remember this: The bass doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and your touch interacts with every aspect of it—strings, frets, pickups, and downstream electronics. Optimize these for your touch, and you’ll optimize your bass sound.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Brian Hardgroove, bassist/bandleader for Public Enemy, for his contributions to this article.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.