Tools Of The Trade

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Bassists can be incredibly picky when it comes to their instrument. We’ll obsess over body, neck, top, and fingerboard wood, neck profile, string spacing at the nut and bridge. And pickups? Single coil, dual coil, humbucker, coil tap, stacked humbucker, 60’s or 70’s spacing, series, parallel, samarium cobalt, neodymium, ceramic, pole piece diameter, preamp voicing, infinite eq band ranges . . . . . . let’s just say there are a lot of options out there. This has led to a very large market of boutique luthiers and builders who cater to the customer’s every customization. Not only that, but there is a large community of players that constantly buy, sell, and trade their used custom basses for other custom basses.

Until recently, I was very much into this scene. The common denominator in every custom boutique instrument I’ve played and owned is that while the build quality is FANTASTIC and super comfortable, I’m unable to get the sound that I really want out of instruments with active preamps. I was always trying to find that sweet spot with the pickup blend knob, always trying to dial out the right amount of mids, always trying to get the sound of a passive tone rolloff from an active treble cut, etc. I never did find that perfect combination of knob settings that would let me be heard, but also never compete with the range of the guitar, keys, or drums.

People talk a lot about the tonal flexibility of an instrument, and most take that to mean lots of options with EQ and switches and whatnot. I’ve come to realize that REAL tonal flexibility is the ability of the instrument to be as simple as possible while fitting perfectly into any mix in any genre without competing against other instruments’ frequencies. What this has led to, for me, is the capitulation to the two major Fender designs. The Jazz bass, with its two passive single coil pickups, has lows and highs in the exact right place. If you want mids, roll off the neck pickup and play near the bridge. The Precision bass sounds voiced a little higher to me, and is still within that perfect range where it just “fits in.” And a single passive tone control is still the most musical way to EQ a bass that I’ve ever found. This simplicity is so elegant and functional that it has become the basis for many high-end companies’ products. Right now I’m waiting on a bass to be completed that follows these design principles. I’ll make a video on it when I get it. This setup may not sound as nice and “smooth” as some of the new, modern pickups and electronics when played alone, but it really shines in a group setting. And that’s the role of the bass 99.9% of the time anyway.

So while the great luthiers out there certainly are creating amazing products that are built to minute tolerances in neck relief and string height and whatnot, and incorporating new and complex pickup and preamp systems that offer a lot of customization, I have found myself going the opposite direction. The simpler something can be while fitting into any situation, the better. That’s been my experience in the last couple of years or so.