Meeting a new bass: It's like being on a blind date every night
Phase II – Getting the bass to play and sound as good as possible
So, you’re sure the rider went in months ago. You’ve just gotten into town. You’re pretty happy that the accommodations are decent and that you had a chance to get something to eat before you arrived at the venue. You arrive with the full band, and as the drummer reviews the drum set-up and the MD reviews the stage layout you, for the first time, meet the bass you’ll dance with tonight. You’ve got perhaps 30 minutes before the first notes are struck to be ready with the bass. What do you do?
(Meeting a new bass: It's like being on a blind Date every night - Phase I available at www.TrevorWare.com/blog)
I typically think of this job in two phases: Phase II – get the bass to play and sound as good as possible; and Phase III – get the amplified sound as natural as possible. I roughly attribute ¾ of my time to Phase II.
I’ll typically jump right into playing the bass. As I play a bass for the first time I like to close my eyes and both feel and hear the bass. I’m looking for quality of sound, including how well the bass speaks and the color of the tone. I’m also experimenting with what works best on the bass. I play the full range of the fingerboard and across all strings looking for any dead spots or buzzes on the fingerboard (I find that these are typically cause by ruts or divots in the fingerboard. This typically require a fingerboard be re-planed and cannot be corrected in a few hours. These become areas of the bass to avoid.) I’ll play the bass pizzicato and arco. I try to simulate what I might play that evening and understand, “if I play this on the fingerboard, then this will be the result”.
Next, I focus on the bridge height. The bridge height impacts how comfortable it is to pluck the strings as well as how well the bass speaks at full volume. I like relatively high strings so the bass can be as loud as possible & I can "dig in" to swing the band. If the bass arrived with bridge adjusters installed you have the opporutintiy to make easy modifications to the bridge height thereby impacting playability. The thing I’d have you remember if you are adjusting the bridge is to be sure to reduce the tension on the strings by detuning and make minor adjustments (perhaps a ¼ turn at a time) as you go. Just as with a tuning peg, a small adjustment can make a big difference).
So with the data collection phase complete its time to operate (or at least make the improvements you can.) The first thing I’ll do at this point is give the bass a good visual inspection. Basses are amazing instruments held together by pressure, precision alignment & a little glue. Check for pressures & alignment. Look for anything that looks misaligned or out of place. If there is a buzz can I identify where it’s originating? Are the strings properly draped over the nut which could impact string spacing? Is the bridge straight on the bass (before I make an adjustment to the bridge height I’ll always looks at the bridge alignment)? Frequently adjustments to height can be corrected by ensuring the bridge is fully upright and not slanted toward the fingerboard or tailpiece. This simple adjustment (again made with the string tension reduced) and also make a bid difference in how well the bass speaks. Fundamentally, you want to have all the components even and aligned before making other adjustments.
In truth, the number and kinds of adjustments you can make on the fly are minimal. Remember, time is typically of the essence and any changes you’ll make to the bass should be made quickly so that you and the other performers can sound check with the sound of the bass that will be used during the performance. The adjustments you’ll typically be able to make center on the strings and bridge. The goal of this process is to have a bass that plays well and sounds as strong as possible on its own. The secondary goal is to know what may not work on the bass so that it can be avoided.
Before I leave this phase, after making any desired adjustments, I always clean the bass. I typically ask for a stage towel, dampen it with water, and go over the entire bass. The real focus is on the fingerboard. You’d be surprised how effective cleaning a fingerboard can be in improving playability. I find that many basses haven’t been cleaned for years, so that speed, dexterity and sound are limited by residue on strings and fingerboards. Try this on any bass, regardless of how clean it looks, and tell me if you find a difference. However, I don’t stop at the fingerboard. As I clean every inch of the bass I have another opportunity to look in close detail at the construction. To me, cleaning is also a gift to the bass and the bass owner. It’s a way for me to say to the bass, “OK, its me and you. Let’s give them all we can tonight.”