What Sets One Bass Player Apart From Another?

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.


About Dwight Mabe

I've playing music since the age of 5...a really, really long time. I've been teaching bass guitar and double bass for over 30 years, writing about music and bass guitar for nearly as long.
This entry was posted in Basics, Tone and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What Sets One Bass Player Apart From Another?

  1. Pingback: How to Play the Bass Guitar

  2. Dwight Mabe says:

    This is reply – typical of those websites written to sell advertising and links to their site.The “method” was derived by skimming text from various websites and re-writing in a poor manner showing no real experience.


  3. Dwight Mabe says:

    Having said the above, some glaring errors in the commentators’ post: “A bass player’s first objective is to play each note with clarity and good tone. This is something that can’t be taught, ” in reality, it can be taught and I teach how every single day. Another erroneous point: “You should be holding the bass with the neck in your left hand with your thumb over top of it and your fingers coming out from beneath it.” wrong again, the thumb over the neck severely limits the movement of the fingers, especially in developing good tone. And again “Take your left index finger and place it on the 1st fret of the fourth string” bad, bad technique. The finger goes just behind and up against the fret, never on top of it. The fret is what actually changes the length of the string and therefore the pitch of the note. Placing you finger correctly as above leads to good clear tone.

    Liked by 1 person

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