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Adventures in bass tone

Posted on March 19, 2019

I started out on my journey with some strange ideas on bass tone…

Perhaps from growing up playing bass (believe it or not) every Sunday in church, to then going to BassTech in London and studying bass in the late 90’s. In these early days, I had become obsessed with this hypothetical, mystical, super punching bass sound, that was a mixture of my first exposure to being around great bass players and being pretty obsessed with a lot of fusion and solo bass players. And I really had got it all very wrong… What I mean by this is that I had misunderstood how important and quite specific, bass tone can be in different settings.

I was so used to hearing the solo bass players I admired and their pristine, punchy tone that this is what I aspired to bring to any live band I might up play with. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that if these bass players were to be playing with other musicians, they would have undoubtedly modified their approach and tweaked their tone accordingly. I however, kept on trying to shoehorn inappropriate tone into all sorts of gigs…

Light bulb moments

(1) Ozric Tentacles
After playing for a handful of various live acts in my early twenties, varying in style from Metal to Trip Hop, I became obsessed with UK underground psychedelic pioneers Ozric Tentacles. For those of you who haven’t heard of the ‘Ozric’s’, I highly recommend you check them out. The musicality and creativity are really at the highest standard. I fell for their unique approach as it crossed so many genre boundaries, something that really appealed to me. Unbelievably and due to a mixture of serendipitous timing and my own manic obsessiveness (something I will talk about in my next blog), I found myself playing bass for my favourite band! So how did I approach this amazing but daunting task? Well rather than listening to the role and tone of the bass in their music, I approached the bass parts with my usual arrogance and bravado. After all, I had been to a Bass College and I had a bass and amplifier endorsement now! 😉

If you check out any classic OT baselines, you can hear a nice passive Precision bass through a slightly hot valve amp (in this case a Marshall VBA400) would probably have got the job done. So of course, I went in with an active 18v 5 string, through neck bass, into a (at the time) hi-end modeling pre amp, into a huge power amp and into two 4x10 bass cabinets. A rig that was of course taller than me, because that’s what the pros do right?

Now, if I had been approaching things correctly, I could have totally got close to the tone needed with the gear I had. It was the mindset that was the issue in this case, that and a lack of knowledge of tone. I knew one bass sound and was deaf to any others. In fact, since leaving the band, multiple bass players have joined the band and have in fact also used high end 5 string basses and hi fidelity preamps etc. The difference being they all approached the lines and required tone in far more suitable way than I ever did. Including Alan (Hagos) Haggerty, who was at the time front of house engineer for Ozric Tentacles. I remember him trying to help me with my tone and how to lose some of the ‘Porky’ness’ and ‘Honk’ from my Mids. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but now it makes me chuckle.

(2) James LoMenzo.
After leaving Ozric's, I found myself (via the benevolent nature of Hagos) touring again, only this time as a bass guitar tech for James LoMenzo. The first tour I worked with James was when he was playing bass for Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society and then after that, I toured with James again with Megadeth.
James LoMenzo is known for three things. Being one of the nicest people in rock n roll, ridiculous John Entwistle (The Who) level bass chops, and HUGE tone.

Watching his right hand attack and the confidence and ownership of the fingerboard matched with a wall of monster tone night after night, was inspiring to say the least. James was also the first bass player I encountered that used his fingers, (all of them!) slap styles and pick playing. He adapted his style and tone to compliment each track accordingly.

There are so many standout moments from working with James that I could write a whole blog on that…maybe I should. One standout moment was when I was first setting up James’ huge Ashdown rig. I turned on the racks of amps, stood in front of his wall of speaker cabinets and proceeded to test the rig. I was in for a shock.  The tone was SO bright; I had never considered anyone ever using this amount of treble on a bass guitar. It sounded so alien to me, so much clang and bite. It was definitely cool, but felt very wrong to me…so I asked James to come and have a listen.  He took the bass from me, played, smiled and simply said to wait until the others kick in. The rest of the band was ready to sound check. I stood to one side as they launched into a BLS number and I was blown away.

With everything going on, between Zakk's wall of Marshalls, drums pounding away, frantic guitar solos, the lot, the bass was still completely audible…Not just a feeling of bass but every note had impact and clarity. If James had gone in with a very safe bass tone, he would have been instantly lost in a wall of sound, all rumble and no definition. So I blame James for my treble obsession.

(3) Abbey Rd with Eddie Kramer.
About 10 years ago or so, I was playing bass for a blues rock band called ‘The Black Hand’ with Rob Chapman (Chapman Guitars, etc.) During this time we recorded a couple of EP’s at Abbey Rd Studio’s. A dream comes true for pretty much any musician. And to top things off, one of these sessions was to be produced by none other than Eddie Kramer (Producer/Engineer Legend, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin etc.) Again, very exciting stuff!
I had also just recently come back from helping out at a UK music industry trade show where I was helping out and playing on the stand for the company who were currently endorsing me,

So I was feeling rather pumped up. Turning up at Abbey Rd with a car full of high-end modern basses ready to wow Eddie Kramer. We eventually get set in to the process of tracking the bass. Drums were down and sounding great. Big traditional classic sounding rock drums.

Now it was my time to shine. I proceeded to plug in my favourite of the aforementioned high end exotic wood faced, 18v active modern basses. After a quick run though the first track, Eddie Kramer suggests maybe this bass isn’t working for the song. I shrug my shoulders and pull out another equally posh modern bass, followed by another and another… He eventually stops me and asks, “Where is your P Bass’?  P Bass?!?! One of those simple, passive, clanky sounding things without any bells or whistles??? They don’t even have AAA flame maple pickup covers or LED’s in the side of the neck… he must be joking right? Of course, he wasn’t joking at all. I went back into the control room and the recording was played back to me… the isolated bass sounded killer (to my ears) all clean and punchy and hi-fi like. Then he unmuted the drums… and he was right, the bass tone was all kinds of wrong.

On its own, it sounded so good to my ears, but when set in context in a classic blues-rock sounding scenario, it just sounded out of place. Eddie suggested (rather firmly) if I wanted to the right thing for the tracks/vibe/band, I needed to go away and come back with the appropriate tool for the job…a P Bass. I was gutted. After an hour or so of sulking and muttering under my breath, I decided to bite the bullet and call my friend Barry Moorehouse at ‘The Bass Centre’. I explained the situation and before I knew it, Barry was at Abbey Rd with a tatty old looking passive Fender bass. An old one! Not even a new one…what a joke! ;). I proceeded to strap this old relic of a bass on and started to play. Yuk, I hated it! All clanky and rattily, not the tone I strived for at all! Then Eddie played the drum track back to me and asked me to record a take. I recorded the same bass part, over the same drum recording, went back into the control room and took a listen. Damn! All of a sudden the drums and bass sounded appropriate. They glued together and sounded correct in context, like one of those classic 70’s studio recordings. After wrapping up that sessions a couple of days later, I went home sold a bunch of basses and brought both a precision and a Jazz bass. Once I coupled that with just a smidge of that bright biting tone I had picked up from James LoMenzo, I was beginning to get the picture.

I think the short period after this while The Black hand were playing shows to promote these recordings, were some of my fondest moments to look back on bass tone wise. I experimented a LOT. I tried every speaker configuration, wet/dry rigs even guitar amps.

(4) Firebird
The next stage in my musical/tone journey saw me joining the hard rock power trio ‘FireBird’ fronted by Bill Steer of Death Metal/Grind Core pioneers Carcass and the drums throne was occupied by probably my favourite ‘rock’ drummer Ludwig Witt (Grand Magus, Spiritual Beggars). Now, after the Eddie Kramer experience, I was really in full on vintage gear mode, which was handy considering that Bill is very much a lover of early, traditional instruments and tone.  At the time, he was playing a pair of 1950’s Les Paul Jr’s though an ultra rare Marshall JRM50 amplifier. This was my first time playing in a 3 piece; yet again I had some learning/adjustment to make.

While the LoMenzo brightness approach was pretty much getting the job done most of the time.
Whenever it came to a guitar solo, there was a lot of sonic space to fill, without a rhythm guitarist there to fill in the rest. I solved this by adding a touch more distortion than I was used to and by playing Bills vintage Gibson EB3, an Orange Valve amp head and either a 2x15 cabinet or a 4x12. Still lots of bite, but now a whole lot of body too.

Now, Firebird liked to play whenever possible and despite Bill and Ludwig’s heritage, a lot of gigs were not great payers, so we spent most of the time driving to shows, sharing a car and not always taking our own back-line.

I soon had to learn how to be able to dial in an appropriate tone in almost any given scenario, which was pretty frustrating after the previous light bulb moments and having settled a pretty sick sounding set-up. However, this was a major turning point. Learning to make the most of any given gear and how to travel lightly. I ended up settling with just my MXR M80 DI/Preamp/Distortion unit. Small enough to throw in my bass case, with a tone just right enough for my tastes. This way I knew the sound at front of house was always consistent, no matter what awaited for me to plug into on stage. I figured as long as I know out front is sounding cool and the public are hearing a great tone, I can learn to perform with a less than ideal tone on stage.

(5) Keepers Brew - putting it all together
After a while, Firebird slowed down as Bill went back to touring with the newly re-formed Carcass, I was at this point Guitar and bass Tech for the band ‘Ghost’ and they were beginning to get very busy too.
I began to really miss playing bass. As much fun and well paid a good guitar tech job is, I was beginning to really resent being in the wings tuning guitars and not being the guy on stage playing.
I decided in my down time to start writing my own material, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. I had been used to joining bands with existing tracks or bass lines in place and playing/adapting those. I decided it was about time to do something on my own terms. And so began Keepers Brew. The idea was to write music I liked regardless of genre and try to make it into a cohesive audible experience…or something equally ‘hippy’ 😉 KB albums can have trip hop tracks nestled in between PsyTrance and progressive rock.

I decided with Keepers Brew I was going to try to blend my very first tonal goals (from those hi-fi, punchy solo bassists) with the past decade and a half of dialling in the perfect biting rock tone. After all, if I’m writing all the music, I can do what I like now. A very liberating experience, which led to me falling in live with FX units again, recording with a number of very different bass guitars and amps and applying every bass technique that I knew. I was finally bringing together all the years of tone knowledge I had absorbed and felt I was on the cusp of actually being happy with my sound. Then in 2015, the unthinkable happened and I lost my hearing on tour. This is probably a subject for an entire blog post in itself.

Determined to keep playing, I utilised a bunch of modern approaches to still be able to write music, including a wearable sub speaker, finally tuned in ear monitors matched to my audiogram and using a LOT go visualisers within my recording software. With the combination of the correct hearing aids, and in ear monitors and using the visualisers, I was able to keep writing music. I also decided to change my band line-up and approach to performing live. Including moving over to a ‘silent stage’ set-up. Utilising Amp modeling for the guitarist, mesh heads and triggers for the drummer, a midi sax for our horn player and bass DI from me. Luckily, I had been used to sometimes playing without really hearing myself on stage and having to rely in the DI (Firebird) so actually it was less of a learning curve for me than it was for some of the others. Thankfully, my hearing slowly returned and I am back to pretty much ‘normal’ these days.

However, I am still playing with an amp-less set-up (my back thanks me) I am also having fun combining appropriate tones and playing styles for whatever genre I happen to be enjoying playing at the time. Using a combination of modern basses live, as well as passive vintage instruments in the studio and combining that with the new production, recording skills, I learned while writing. It really does feel that I am at a point now where I combining the skills learned throughout my career and putting them into place accordingly. Trying multiple options until the right result is achieved. Having modulated my role from bass player to songwriter/producer, I am listening to the bigger picture and because of this, finding an appropriate bass tone is now a much simpler task.

By greyum.may

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