To wrap up this “Factors in Tone” series, Stew McKinsey wants to address the single biggest component in your sound: YOU.
While builders, dealers and players can offer you advice and opinions, always remember that no one plays like you. No one else has your touch, your magnetic field, your life experience or your instincts. And no one knows what you want or what kind of character you naturally produce like you.
Here at the shop, we are fortunate to have a wild array of musicians with eclectic taste and wildly different skills. I regularly hear several people play the same instrument through the same rig without changing any of the controls or amp settings. It’s like hearing multiple basses or guitars! If you’ve seen any of the videos on our YouTube channel, you’re acquainted with Carey’s right hand and what it does to the strings, but you may not know about Mo’s “series fingers” or Adrian’s ability to cull something like a P-bass tone from most anything he touches.
So if you haven’t listened to this aspect of your own playing, investigate it. Hear what it sounds like when you play others’ instruments. Over the years I’ve learned that my attack produces a sharp attack (the “single coil” counterpart to Mo’s gift to find the wonderful fatness in any bass’ sound), so I need to factor that into any decision I make about instruments or gear in general. Where some players will make a J-bass sound lush and full, my natural inclination is to find whatever in its character will cut through a mix. This is really convenient live when I play with a band, but it also means that I need to be really conscious of what I’m doing in a solo or an intro, and I need to be careful in the studio so my sound isn’t too harsh.
Everything that I wrote about in the previous pieces is valid because what contributes to your sound is a combination of so many things, but nothing is as significant a factor as you. Are you an aggressive player or do you feather the strings? When you pluck, are you using more of the meat of your fingers or do you play more using the tips? Where on the strings do you tend to play, closer to the neck or the bridge? Have you ever listened to playback of something you did and been surprised?
We can help you to find more of the sounds you want, to enhance or downplay certain tonal qualities, but at the end of the day you need to remember that you truly are unique. Even how you think about playing, both in terms of your technique and the way you think of the music, is absolutely singular.
I once had the experience of watching Marcus Miller sit down with an 11-string fanned fret bass and put it through a practice amp with a single 8” speaker. The instrument in question used a wild array of woods (none of the ones in Mr. Miller’s ’77 Fender) and its custom pickups went through an equally custom preamp. Want to know what it sounded like? Marcus!!
Jaco Pastorius used to say ‘the sound is in the hands’ and there is serious truth to that. If you’re figuring out what that sound is and what you want it to be, we will do what we can to help you get it. But remember, it’s all processed through your brain and heard by your ears. We don’t have either so keep that in mind when you’re looking for whatever tone it is you’re after. And may your explorations in the world of tone be great!