- Strings The modern sound of bass guitars is largely due to John Entwistle of The Who. Entwistle went to Howe Industries asked them to make a set of bass strings that would give him the brilliance and sustain of a piano. Up until this time bass strings were only flatwound and not very good. No matter the bass, the tone was usually a somewhat thuddy and lacking definition. Entwistle’s strings became the Rotosound RS66 string set. This allowed Entwistle to sound, in his words “like a bass guitarist, instead of a bass player”. In current times, most bass guitarists use roundwound strings. There are lots of varieties and brands, each with their own distinctiveness. I experimented for many years and always came back to Rotosound RS66. While travleing on the road frequently, I would change sets every other gig. That was expensive, even in the 80s. Sometime in the 90s, the quality of Rotosounds became very inconsistent. I received some literature from DR Strings and tried a set. I was hooked. On my vintage Fenders, they were perfect and would last several times longer than the Rotosounds. Bottom line though, is that everyone needs to find the best string for their bass guitar. Thomastik even makes flatwound strings that sound great (although they aren’t my cup of tea). A good starting point if you are playing a Fender Jazz Bass (or similiar design) is DR Low Riders. If you are playing a frettless, try the Lo Rider Nickels. Both come in several gauges – I recommend the medium whether you play a 4, 5 or 6 string. I have heard in the last year that Rotosound has made a comeback in their quality.
- The Right Hand The right hand is also part of tone. While in college, I was priviliged to see Andres Segovia, Julian Bream and Christopher Parkening all in the same year. The classical guitarist uses 2 basic strokes for single note playing – the rest stroke and the free stroke. The rest stroke is where when you pluck a string, that finger comes to rest on the next lower string. This accomplishes a “fatter” sound and sets up the the next finger to continue the phrase. Free strokes are used for legato notes by allowing the string to continue to vibrate. The second role of the right hand is related to where you pluck the string in relation to the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. Playing closer to the end of the fingerboard gives a softer sound. The closer to the bridge the more mid-range the sound becomes, allowing you to cut through in important moments. Playing closer to the bridge also works better for faster playing due to the tightness of the strings.
- Your amplifier Of course the amp has a lot to do with the tone. The choices are immense and require just going through several models and manufacturers. The only advice I have here is to make sure when buying an amp to take your primary bass with you to test out the amp. Music store basses are quite often poorly setup and have less than optimal strings (as much as I love a Fender Jazz bass, the strings Fender sells with them with are horrorible).