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.)

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