Dynamics vs. Sound… Knobs vs. Hands… I’m one of those few guys (for better or for worse – hahaha) who chose not to have any potentiometer at all on his instruments…. I’ve been playing like that for almost 14 years, and my main influence for taking that decision was perhaps the great Anthony Jackson.
Attending to my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I went beyond that, so I also stopped using a volume pedal as Anthony Jackson still does. My basses are also full passive, so there is not any circuitry in there. I also use very special instrument cables with 10% pure silver content, which are not even made for musical instruments. Those cables cost about $200 dollars per meter… so add up what it costs for two-4 meter cables… luckily the Chilean Audioquest distributor just gives them to me. I also have to add that I set all the amp knobs flat at 12. I’m mentioning all of this because my quest is to look for the purest and cleanest sound possible.
The most important question here is…. why???
I think that the answer is quite simple, and is related to the difference in sound between both options.
Like any regular bassist, I started playing a normal bass with all the potentiometers and active circuitry, but something always bothered me and I couldn’t explain what it was. Finally I came to the conclusion that the thing that bothered me the most was the fact of having to produce any modification on my sound (tone or volume) “while playing” by moving a knob… I found that it was a “not so human” and a very “indirect” way to produce those sound modifications; so to say it… and I want to stress the fact that this is just a personal opinion and a personal option… I’m not the owner of any truth.
But the most important reason for me was not that… Besides the “psychological” facts already mentioned, there was a profound reason that I would say, “I consider far more objective in my opinion”, which is already a sophism — hahaha. This reason is the enormous difference I hear while working the dynamic range with my finger “touch” or my hand instead of doing it with my volume control (which I don’t have). A decreasing in volume has to be accompanied by a difference on the attack of the fingers. A good way to hear this huge difference is to play something and decrease the volume, with the volume knob or the volume pedal, while playing exactly with the same intention, strength and hand position. The volume will decrease, no doubt about it, but if you pay close attention to what you are hearing, there will be something “wrong” (so to say it) in there.
Now try the other option… that’s leaving your knobs and pedals exactly where they are and start decreasing the volume gradually just by plucking the strings softer each time. Go gradually and try to make it look like somebody’s moving down the master volume of your amp. If you work it a lot you’ll get it… and the best thing is that you’ll get a much better result than moving the master volume down while you are playing. Something is going to start making complete sense for your ears and for your overall sensation. Obviously you can do quite the opposite thing, starting from a very soft touch, that means a very low volume, and then starting to increase the intensity of the “touch”.
One of the main advantages of getting use to adjusting all of the dynamics with your hand is the fact that you are able to make those adjustments “note by note”, no matter the speed, something completely impossible to achieve in a proper manner using a volume knob or volume pedal. A really good recommendation to be able to help achieve this purpose is to set little higher volumes on the master volume of the amp, so to have more headroom to work with… I learned that many years ago from the great Gary Willis and it works really fantastic.
What about tone controlling?
Not having filters is the equivalent on a passive bass as leaving the volume and tone potentiometers completely open, or with full “bright” and full volume. On an active bass it is the equivalent of leaving the volume and tone controls on the exact middle of the rotation range of the potentiometers.
That being said, and addressing specifically the tone issue now, let’s imagine we are exactly on the center position of the tone control and we want to adjust our tone increasing the lows… well… just move your right hand a little bit towards the neck and pluck the strings with more “meat” of your fingertips rubbing it a little bit more than usual in order to avoid high transients… or staccatos, which means the same but using a musical term… also, don’t forget to push down the string instead of pulling it… the less the “pulling content” of the right hand fingers while touching the strings, the less treble on the final sound.
On the other hand, if we want to adjust our tone increasing the highs… well… just move your right hand a little bit towards the bridge and pluck the strings with less “meat” of your fingertips, using mostly the very point of your fingertips. Avoid rubbing the strings, and pull them in a more aggressive manner so to be able to increase the transients or staccatos. Also, don’t forget to pull the string a little bit instead of pushing it; the less the “pushing content” of the right hand fingers while touching the strings, the more treble on the final sound. Getting little ‘fret buzzing’ from the strings also adds “highs” to the harmonic content; you do that by pulling and hitting the strings a little harder with the right hand.
On the other hand, if you definitely want a really muffled-muted sound with almost no highs on it. palm mute is the best option to go. I’m sure you know the technique, but don’t think it’s so easy, practice it properly and diligently, be precise and clean and also get more speed from it so to be able to play fast palm muted runs too!
The left hand has also something to say here… if you want a half muted sound not as muted as with the palm mute, just press each note really shortly and softly with the left hand fingertips. That will produce a muted sound with less low frequency content, with less staccato and obviously with a really short duration.
Finally, never forget that one of the most important advantages of not having any filters and knobs on your instrument, is the fact that the harmonic content of the original and “pure” sound of the bass can fully breath untouched… and if you listen really, really carefully, you’ll be able to notice a huge difference.
See you on the next my friends!