In this installment of the Find Your Tone series, our resident expert Stew McKinsey discusses the commonly asked question How do I make my (insert bass type here) sound like (any other bass that exists.)
As the guy who answers many of the tone and function questions here at Nordstrand, there are a few things that come up again and again. Sometimes they’re really direct, like people wanting to know the differences between a single coil and a split coil. Sometimes they are really abstract, like players who want to know why their StingRay doesn’t sound like a P-bass. Since I normally write about the nuts and bolts stuff, today I’m writing for those of you who have a bass you want to sound like a different bass.
First, and I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, you have to keep in mind that the factors in tone are not limited to the pickups, electronics and materials in your instrument. Those are absolutely central to the sound you get from your bass or guitar, but you must also accommodate for things like methods of construction, scale length, number of laminations or pieces in the body and neck, hardware, pickup placement and the geometry of the instrument itself.
Not All Things are Created Equal
If you ever want to hear the difference that little things make, check out a 60’s and a 70’s Jazz bass made of the same materials (ash/maple or alder/rosewood). Now there are subtle differences with the pickups, but after hearing the same pickups in these instruments, it’s striking. And that’s moving the bridge p-up less than half an inch closer to the bridge.
Apples and Oranges
But let’s go back to the StingRay versus P-bass issue. Both are single pickup basses, so it should be easy to get one to sound like the other, right?
Not really. Let’s start with their original designs and intended purposes.
The Precision was created to capture in an electronic instrument what the upright bass did in a smaller, more convenient package. This is why it was originally sold with a mute, to kill off sustain overtones. To further reach his goal, the pickup was overwound to the limits of the coil so that it would sound thick and dark, without all the top end response that amplification can bring. Alder and rosewood were the favored wood choice for quite a while.
The StingRay on the other hand came down the line years later when players were after something completely different. By the time this design came across Leo Fender’s desk, players were using roundwound strings and slapping. Funk and disco revolved around the rhythm section in a way that few styles of popular music had. So the choice was made to emphasize those things like presence and the newly popular ‘smiley face’ EQ with massive bottom end and bright top end, but everything scooped out of the middle. This is also why Louis Johnson was involved with the design. Add to that it was the first instrument from a major manufacturer that was active all the time. Ash and maple were the standard woods initially and were much more popular at first than alder and rosewood.
But if you’ve played these two instruments you know that they don’t look or feel the same. The thickness and shape of the neck, the heft of the body and even the placement of the pickup in each are NOT the same. There are similarities, of course, but even playing these without an amp, you can hear differences in how they sound and respond.
This isn’t to say that you need to evaluate the history of an instrument when you modify it, but it’s important to take into account what the builder and designer were trying to do when creating something. The more you’re going against that, the harder a fight you’ll have getting the results you want. No matter how much your Lakland with its J/MM layout, getting it to sound like a 3 pickup, fanned fret Dingwall with its 4-band preamp is just not going to happen. Trying to get a tight spaced 5 string bass with a 35” scale, thick gloss finish, a single pickup and an 18v hi-fi preamp to sound like a vintage J is not realistic. But you absolutely can get qualities of those instruments in yours instead of cloning the tone you’re after.
So how would one go about getting the StingRay to have more of the Precision qualities? There are a couple of routes that will get you some of it. You could remove the preamp and replace the MM pickup with a P, but that would require a new pickguard and not having the possibility of getting the familiar StingRay sounds. Instead, putting a Big SplitMan in the bass with the option of singling out the neck coil will get you a lot more the two different qualities. If the bass has a passive tone control or some way to go active/passive, it will be even closer to the customer’s desired result. Was the bass completely transformed? Nope, but in a world of compromises, this isn’t a bad one. If you really want the P-bass sound, get a P-bass. If you want more of what that instrument offers in your bass, this is the kind of thinking you need to start employing.
We are absolutely happy to help you get more of what you’re looking for in terms of sound and performance, but try and keep in mind just how different the two things are you’re hearing. And feeling. What you’re really doing with this kind of modification is creating a bridge between the two.
In addition to a crew of players of all sorts here, there are a few of us who built or build instruments. In other words, the resources at your disposal when you contact Nordstrand about tone are pretty impressive.
If you would like help achieving your tonal goals, start by answering our questionnaire. Be sure to include your contact info so we can help you sound your best.
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