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Bass MichaelOlsonBlog


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. :-D

Bass MichaelOlsonBlog


I was sitting in with a friend’s country band several years ago in Denver, Colorado. When he handed me his bass, and I plunked a few notes, I quickly realized that he hadn’t changed his strings since the Clinton administration. I immediately pulled out my wallet and fished out a blue Jim Dunlop Tortex 1mm (I couldn’t find my “potleaf” pick from Pickboy, with the razor-sharp tip), placed the side of my hand snugly against the saddles to create a palm-mute, and picked away to me heart’s delight. After I was done, my friend came up to me and said, “Wow! I’ve never heard my bass sound quite like that before! How’d you do that?” Smiling, I showed him the pick hidden in my hand. “Oh,” he said, crestfallen; “You cheated.”

Cheated?!? Why? Because I found a way to get a decent tone out of an instrument that sorely needed fresh strings? ‘Cause if that’s cheating, I’m burning my rule book in the barbeque tonight after dinner.

Why is it that so many of us bassists regard pick use as sacrelige? Aren’t we allowed to use the same tonal palette that our wimpier-sounding brethren enjoy? It seems that we’re afraid of being called “guitarist wanna-bes” so much that we’re reluctant to explore all of the sounds that we have available to us. Why should we limit our creativity?

I started playing bass back in ’83, when I was 12. (Go on… do the math.) For the first eight years of my bass-playing career, you couldn’t have paid me to use a pick. I always teased my guitarist buddies who came over to jam and then realized that they left their picks at home: “You go on and get your little picks; I’ll wait right here and practice without one.” BOY, did I feel empowered. I never had to look around and see if I could find a pick before I could practice. I never had to worry about wearing them out or breaking them, and having to go and get some more at the music store, and praying that they had the kind I liked. When it came to pick usage, the phrase “holier-than-thou” took on a very special meaning.

In ’91, I began to teach privately, a practice I continue to survive on even today. One day I was showing a student a particularly interesting bass line, and once he started to get it, I wanted to show him how it sounded when someone else was playing on top of it. I began by playing chords high up on the neck, which was ok, but they sounded a little boring and “thuddy…” They just didn’t have that “chime” tone I was looking for, and I had just put on a fresh set of strings not two days ago. I was wondering what to do… and then, I saw it…

A pick! It was laying on the floor, most certainly left behind by a student of an inferior instrument with at least six strings. Self-consciously, I grabbed it, held it like I was feeding a quarter into a soda machine, and strummed (yes, that’s right, STRUMMED) a few notes, and voila! It was a guitar! (Well, close…) My student’s eyes brightened, he smiled, and we had a great time jammimg for the rest of the lesson.

I had a break after that, and one of the guitar teachers and I decided to go around the corner and get a soda. Now, not wanting to be ridiculed for having used such a primitive tool to make music with, I had jammed the pick deep into my pocket…. Unfortunately, not far enough. When I reached in to find some silver, out came the pick. There was nowhere to hide. The guitar teacher just gave me one of those LOOKS, and shook his head. Of course, everybody else at the music store had to hear about it, and I was forced to endure the shame.

But after a while, I thought: What shame? Why is it such a horrible thing to use something that gets you the sound you want? And the answer I came up with is this: It isn’t. It’s that there are far too many guitarists who have lost coin tosses with the other guitarists in their band, and been forced to take up the bass, and they figure that it’s just a big guitar, so they’ll keep using a pick. We’ve all known them; heck, maybe some of you are reading your own press here. Don’t be embarrassed–you have something in common with a lot of fabulous players, including none other than Paul McCartney, who used to think of the bass player as “the fat guy in the back.” And Paul goes back and forth between fingers and picks all the time!

Unfortunately, the lion’s share of bassists who are ex-guitarists lack not only understanding of the role of the instrument, but decent tone as well. And it usually stems from failing to realize that the chunk of wood (or graphite, or luthite, or whatever your strange, space-age bass is created from) hanging from their shoulders doesn’t really react the same as their old friend, the guitar. You just can’t get away with too light of a touch; this instrument is supposed to have AUTHORITY. Big Man On Campus type of tone. And if you’re not putting your all into it, it sounds more like a 98-lb. weakling… or a 3 lb. Hondo.

Now, in order to distance myself from the multitudes of pick players who couldn’t play with a pick, I decided to learn to use it by the way it SOUNDED when I played. I choked way up on the pick so there is barely any tip sticking out, I learned to hold it between one finger and my thumb, and I began to think of the pick as just a sharp finger that could go either direction–up or down. So I began to push and pull the pick through the string… and wow! I had the depth and the clarity I wanted. Then I ran it through an old distortion box, and it was over… I was completely sold on it. I could hold my head up high and say to the world, “I’m a bass player, and…. I USE A PICK!!” (Not very loud, of course… what do you think I am, crazy?)

Don’t get me wrong. I still use my fingers every bit as much as I use a pick, and I always will. Picks are not to be used as “crutches.” I’ve had several students come in and tell me that they use a pick because it was easier for them. So I’d take them through a gauntlet of exercises that would barely make you or I blink, and they’d invariably start to squirm, and say, “Can I try this once with my fingers?”

“Well, I don’t know… Can you?”

And they could, and they would, and so they did… amazing!

Eventually, though, they’d get back to playing with a pick for certain things, so I did my best to teach them how to be selective about when to use a pick and when NOT to. And as time went on, their choices influenced me to become even more accomplished in what I was doing with the pick.

So now I’ve developed my technique so I can play the “tic-tac bass” palm mute style pretty well… in fact, I’ve even developed a quasi-”upright slap” tone from it. It really makes a difference in driving the band. When I first started doing it, the drummer gave me a weird look, but then he began to groove with it, and we had more compliments on our sound than we ever did before! I’ve also gotten into the “machine-gun sixteenth-note” vibe that a lot of the thrash metal bands have embraced. Can’t help it; I grew up on Black Sabbath and Rush. (Don’t tell the guys in the country band, ok?)

So, if you’re one of those who refuses to use a pick just on general principle, here’s some advice: Order a dozen or so picks from your favorite catalog and have them sent in a plain wrapper under an assumed name (so you can remain anonymous), close all of your windows and shutters, lock the doors, turn out the lights, plug in your headphone amp, and give it a try–You never know what you’ll “pick” up!

(GOOD GRAVY, was THAT corny… I oughta be shot.)