What is it about the players you admire or listen to the most that attracts you to them? Style? Speed? Choice of Notes? All of the preceding are possible reasons but the single most distinguishing is usually tone. Who amongst us can’t tell when Jaco is playing or Chris Squire or Stanley Clarke? Probably none. I remember being in high school and hearing Roundabout by Yes. The bass sound was so different from anything I had heard before. Melodic, upfront, and a very integral part of the music. I first heard Jaco on Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life – 2 guys with totally original tone on their instruments. Later I heard Jaco’s first album – and realized that some of the tunes on that album weren’t fretless. What is the secret of creating great tone?
Tone on a bass guitar is very different in the components that contribute to it than guitar. Guitar players use generally far more electronic tone changes than bass players do. The main component is the left hand. In an earlier note, I mentioned my approach to fretting the notes by using the whole arm and shoulder.This is important but there’s more. Where the finger lands in relationship to the fret is paramount. Yes, the note will “speak” on a fretted bass guitar anywhere between 2 frets. But where the left hand finger should land is directly behind the fret corresponding to the desired note.
With the right amount of pressure accuracy, you shape the tone of the note and bring out the best that your bass guitar can do. I often claim to students that even a mediocre bass when setup correctly can sound very good – a great bass can sound fantastic! And I can prove it every time. Another component of the left hand tone shaping is the correct use of proper vibrato – fretted or frettless. Proper vibrato on a fretted bass is done by moving the finger parallel to the string – not perpendicular! Perpendicular vibrato will always make the note go sharp and tend to make you sound out of tune. Parallel vibrato gives a gentle sheen to the tone, making the notes take on a very strong musical quality.
Developing that vibrato takes some individual work and time. How often it is used is a matter of taste, which can also be learned.