Hey folks! Been a while, eh? I know, you missed me so – let’s not get mushy about it okay?
I’ve been meaning to get back into the land of blogging for a while, but a whole host of things stood in my way (or at least I allowed them to do so). So when they finally fell by the wayside and I wanted to do my first blog in at least a year, along comes an email from a big fan of my old band Wind Machine. Turns out he is a former DJ and a current fretless bass player and was looking for help with his tone, and as such had several questions for me.
Needless to say, this greatly appealed to the teacher in me.
So a two-hour email was returned to him, and upon completion of said email, I re-read what I sent and decided that it would make a fine “first blog back”. So, without further ado…
Allow me to give you a somewhat detailed dissertation on my view of all things fretless in the land of Michael O:
* FINGERBOARDS. I am a big fan of coated fingerboards. The basses I played in the WM days were Tobias 5- and 6-strings built in the early 90′s in Burbank, CA. And as perfect as Michael Tobias’ craftsmanship was, it still didn’t yield the glassy consistency I was looking for, and I found that the issue was in the fingerboard – pau ferro rosewood just absorbed too much of the energy for me. So off I went to Harry Fleishman (he’s a guitar builder of some renown in CA these days), who made a very thick epoxy coating for my board, and it made all the difference. The woodiness of the tone wasn’t compromised, nor was the wood itself – when the epoxy wore down, it was either sanded flat or removed to put a fresh coat on, thereby preserving the wood and preventing string damage. It’s not for everyone, and not all of my current fretless basses have the coating, but it helped me dial in my sound very quickly by giving me a consistent surface to play on.
* PLUCKING TECHNIQUE. One of the things the coating did was highlight my subpar technique, though, so off I went to the woodshed to manually fix my tone. I found that hard calluses on my plucking hand fingers got in the way and would create a light “tic” just before the attack of each note, like the sound made by someone just learning to use a pick. (You can hear a bit of this in the first few records I played on – or a lot of it, if you happen to be ME.) I used to sand them down like you would use a pumice stone to remove your heel calluses – sometimes I’d overdo it and be REALLY uncomfortable during tracking :-/ . Later on I discovered that pulling straight across the strings cleaned up a lot of my tone, as did timing my pluck with the release of the note in my left hand, and I stopped having to sand off my calluses. Thank goodness!
* FINGERING TECHNIQUE. Another major aid to the tone was playing on the very tips of my left hand fingers so I got the best leverage on the string possible without having to squeeze the note; this let me make my “affectations” (slides, smears, vibrato, etc.) with ease without compromising the tone. Means your thumb needs to be on the BOTTOM HALF of the neck – make a “thumbs up” sign with your left hand, place your thumb on the neck where you could push the neck up with your thumb if you wanted, and bring your fingers around. If you already do this, great – if you don’t, it will feel WEIRD. Keep your arm and wrist relaxed and try to get used to it. (Practicing with an unsharpened pencil in the left hand is helpful: hold the pencil with your thumb in the middle on one side and all four fingers on the other, spread out as far as they can go – then try to break the pencil between your fingers. It works!)
* RIGHT HAND LOCATION. Along with pulling across the strings, location made a big difference for me regarding my plucking hand. I usually play groove lines with my hand between the two pickups (assuming you’re playing a jazz bass-like instrument), but when it comes time for the solo, my hand moves to the end of the fingerboard – usually around the 22nd fret on my 2 octave neck. This makes the high notes sound bigger than they would have otherwise, and also forces me to pull the string parallel to the string plane, making the notes blossom nicely. (Yes, this slowed me down a bit, but WM wasn’t really about blazing speed, was it? ) A bassist named Gary Willis has taken this concept to the next level – google “Willis Ramp” and you’ll see what I mean. I have played a few basses with said ramp, and it does indeed make a difference.
* PICKUPS. I’ve had the best luck with the bridge pickup soloed – just like Jaco did. I like the other tones a jazz bass affords me, but for solos I stick to the bridge for the most part.
* BOLT-ONS. About 10 years ago I became disenchanted with neck-through basses – they seemed to all have a natural “dip” in the upper mids (1-1.5 kHz). And the more I played well built bolt on basses, the happier I became with their tone. For many years I played an Ibanez Prestige 6 fretless – mahogany body, wenge neck – and I wish I had had that bass in the 90′s. It was definitely the sound I was looking for all that time. Not to mention the fact that upper-end Ibanez basses often have my favorite preamp in the world – the “Vari-Mid III”, which had a 3 band eq with a sweepable midrange, so I could always find the sweet spot (most often a good bump at about 1.3 kHz – BOY did this help a lot!). That bass was stolen out of my van about 3 years ago. Hopefully some kid in Guatemala has ended up with it and will be the next big thing in about 6 years…
* SETUP. I used to have really high action to get as clean of a tone as I could – I even had Harry make a wooden “bridge pedestal” to take up space between the bridge and the body so I could get higher action for a while. Eventually, though, reason won me over (as well as tendonitis in the left wrist!) and I learned to go for a lighter touch and much lower action. Being gentle was a hard lesson to learn, but it helped a LOT. I now go for a nearly flat board (almost no relief in the neck – ALMOST) and fairly low action.
* STRINGS. Steel strings have great top end but get “clacky” and feel sticky; nickel strings feel nice but sound a little dull. GHS Boomers are nickel plated steel – kind of the best of both worlds. But my REAL favorite lately are Elixir Polywebs. The polymer coating is GREAT for never again having to worry about string slide sounds, and the strings sound good and last much longer than uncoated strings – I had one particular set on an oft-used fretless for nearly two years! I wish I knew more about the strings UNDER the coating, though – I’ve always thought that coating a nickel-plated steel string in the Polyweb (thicker) coating might be the ultimate string. Elixirs are pricey compared to normal strings, but for the tone you get and the life you get out of the string, they’re worth it.
* EFFECTS. I like a little reverb on fretless solos. Not much. And not much else, either. I always considered using chorus on fretless “cheating”. It’s just not right to have to use an effect to cover up poor intonation, as many people do. Chorus in the reverb, maybe, but not on the bass itself… it’s cheating!
* DISCLAIMER. After all that, it’s worth considering that given your physical makeup, your instrument, effects, amplifier, ears, brain, and political leaning, all of the above may do BUPKES for your tone. But I hope not.