As much as I’ve loved the phrase ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ a big part of my day to day existence is actually dedicated to writing and talking about the nebulous mysteries of tone and sound. In a lot of ways exploring this has meant learning another language, one that is more about sensation and emotion that anything quantifiable. Even though I’ve been a musician for most of my life, one of the few things I’ve discovered is that knowing something and being able to express it are not even close to the same thing. Like a lot of us, what began with finding a way to hear what I was doing on stage grew into trying to understand what makes up the components of a sonic signature. The process never really ends, but it does bring me to the topic of this piece: growl.
Like most of the terms I deal with, the starting point is defining what something means. If I don’t know what someone’s idea of growl is, I can’t help them get what they’re after. And also like most of these things, this particular term means a lot of different things to people. It could be the snarl of Larry Graham in the 70’s or the dark edge of Mick Karn in the 90’s. For the sake of what I’m writing today, the factors I’ll discuss are attack, bass construction and pickups. No preamps, amplification or effects here.
A quick caveat for all discussions of tone and electric instruments: every element between your brain and the sound leaving the speaker (or signal out of a mixing board for those in recording) contributes to tone. This means the way you activate the strings, what those strings are and even your cables have a part in your tone, not just the woods in the bass, its scale length (or lengths), your amp and your speakers. So this is just dipping a toe into the ocean.
Are you an aggressive, physical player or is your touch light? The impact of your style of play on the overall sound you get is something many players overlook and it is absolutely crucial to getting the correct end result. A bassist who really pulls, picks or slaps the strings hard will have a very different envelope to each note than someone who ‘feathers’ the strings. A more physical player may have a bit of growl already in his or her sound, but a player with a subtler attack may be able to get that desired sound easier from an instrument with low action.
Bass construction covers a lot of things, but for this analysis I only want to look at the materials in the instrument and how the neck is attached to the bass. It’s important to account for things like scale length, strings, hardware and even the geometry of body and neck, but that may end up featured in another piece.
Each species of wood has its own qualities and combining them will yield different results. There are reasons for some of the more popular wood combinations (maple necks on P or J basses with ash bodies/maple fingerboards or alder bodies/rosewood fingerboards, for example), but if you have a bass with a mahogany body, walnut neck and an ebony fretboard, getting a classic MusicMan sound is going to be an uphill battle. Whether you are modifying an existing instrument or working out the specs for one that’s going to be built, it’s a good idea to consider the materials in your axe. If the instrument has synthetic, like carbon fiber or ebonol, these will have more consistent characteristics than their organic analogs, but there will always be an ‘x’ factor in sound.
Now more exotic basses will have a top and possibly a back, or a neck that is several pieces of wood laminated together. The rule of thumb here is that the more glue you add to the equation, the more neutral sound you will have. This may or may not play into the edge you’re after, but it certainly affects the overall character of the bass.
Generally it’s easier to get growl from an instrument with a bolt-on neck than either a set neck or one that’s through-body, but this is not an absolute certainty. Again, the various materials and even the scale length/lengths will factor into this, but the more you know about the specs of your instrument, the better off you are for any discussion of the factors in tone.
There are a ton of variables to take into account when trying to pull one sound or another from a chunk of wood, glue, metal, paint and plastic, but paying attention to the thing that’s translating the vibration of the strings into an electrical impulse for your amp to convert to sound is pretty important. So what do you need to know about pickups? What makes one better than another?
Lemme ‘splain. If you’re contacting a pickup company, it’s never a bad idea to know something about pickups, whoever your point of contact is should know enough to help you find what you’re after. That’s what several of us do here at Nordstrand. And better has nothing to do with brand name or design so much as what will work right to get YOUR SOUND .While we would love to be able to help everyone who contacts us reach sonic nirvana, we will never try to sell you on something if someone else makes something that is better suited to your goals.
The easy go-to choice are single coils. The classic J pickups or the mighty Dark Star design are single coils and if you listen to any number of recordings from before the 80’s, you’ll hear all kinds of juicy tone jumping off the wax.
But what about the MM and P pickups? Neither of those are single coils and you hear players coax all manner of nastiness from them! This is true, but why?
In the case of an MM design, the coils are underwound compared to most dual coil designs and they also have a massive magnet load. Underwinding a pickup will give you more top end response, and that is a good way to get growl.
The P pickup is an overwound split coil design. While it was originally designed to replicate a lot of the tonal elements of an upright (particularly with flatwound strings and a foam mute added to the mix), everyone from Pete Fardon of the Pretenders to Matt Freeman of Rancid has found there is more to that design than thump. In the case of these players it’s a combination of aggressive attack (whether with fingers or a pick), having (often) a maple neck for some extra snap, and specific EQ to emphasize the response they wanted.
So all this is to say, when you’re contacting people to get that sound, know how you play, know what you can about your instrument, and have some idea of the specific tone you’re after. If you don’t know how to describe what you’re after, have examples that you can share. At the same time, knowing something about the player, instrument and gear in those examples — and comparing them against you, your bass and rig — will only make the exchange easier.
Also for growl:
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