by J Simms
This Article Was Originally Published On: February 3, 2015 #Issue15
As bass players and drummers, we all must take into high consideration how vitally important it is to watch our tones. After all, we are the foundation of the groove, so that means taking major steps to become tighter will only improve your band or any recordings to a higher level. Let’s take it back to the basics. The definition of “tone:” quality or character of sound. This definition is self-explanatory in many ways, but unfortunately is often overlooked, which, in my opinion, separates the amateurs from the pros. Those moments when your are dialing in your head during soundcheck as you get a feel for the room, or even the classic duct tape on the snare to try and dampen the attack so it doesn’t annihilate everyone’s ears, are all things we try to make things better for our listeners. We try, but some small things go untreated, like examples of playing with a 22″, clear, loose bass drum, head versus 18″, coated, tight bass drum head. Small things like this can be the difference between sounding good and sounding great! Together, as bass players and drummers, we should ask how can we sound the best possible.
Choosing the right gear for the gig is a great start. Whether it be funk, jazz, reggae, country, or rock, between the two instruments, there are so many different variations of tones to choose from. Wood snare or metal; active bass or passive; tube head or solid state; 4-string bass or 5-string; clear heads or coated heads; stainless steel roundwounds or nickel flatwounds; 1×15 cab or 4×10, etc… Then, even those choices can be broken down even more, depending on your preference, while remembering the quality and character of the sound you’re creating. Picking the right equipment and matching the correct tones for the gig makes such a huge impact on the overall quality of the gig.
The “Different Guy”
There’s nothing wrong with being different, but just remember, if you stand out like a sore tonal thumb, that means the quality has diminished. Don’t be “that guy,” unless your innovation is breath-taking and just happens to work. Stay in the pocket and stay in your lane, tonally. Most tones cannot be recreated. Be yourself; create a new sound! Go for what’s best for the gig or the record you’re playing. You show gratitude by not only playing records correctly by arrangement, but also by matching the tone, which represents more than just a simple sound or EQ or a crack of the snare. Tone represent the hands of the musician. It also represents time periods, and even different parts of the world. Some craftsman put their blood, sweat and tears into the instrument you’re playing, so the tones that come out of are representing them, as well.
I wasn’t quite born yet in the ’70s but I must say that it’s the best era for music, ever. I do understand that the majority of today’s modern-day music stems from the 1970’s. I listen to the early stages of R&B, and rock in the Motown age and I’m amazed by the tones that those great musicians put down back then – without the modern technology of plug-ins and computers. They knew how to find sounds and not step on any toes. The bass drum was never tuned too deep or flat for the bass to be able to float over top of the kick, like a butterfly. Just listen to James Jamerson groove on some of Marvin Gaye’s old tunes to get a feel of this example.
Later in the ’80s, Jaco came in with the middy, harmonic, fusion tone that was a perfect fit for the quick, tight, high pitched drums and the big 24″ bass drums. I can go on about the past musical legends and how they changed everything about how to create a original, yet innovating, sound.
Here are some “situations” that I thought about where the saying “stepping on toes” comes to mind:
Bass players, when playing with a organist, do you listen for frequencies that may clash? Of course, an organist should never play the pedals while a bass player is playing, but the tone of a lower key frequency can sound almost too similar. A suggestion is to not thin out your tone to stand out, but more of a beefed up low-mid, with plenty of clarity in the highs, to be distinct.
Drummers, did you know what snare you choose does matter? The tone of a snare can throw off the groove completely. A detuned ballad snare is low-end frequency theft and will drown out the true tone of the bass, depending of what type of music you are playing. A high-pitch snare, like a piccolo, can be too piercing or not have enough body to compensate for the frequency that must stand out, which is the “2” and “4” most of the time in a song. There’s nothing worse than a snare being too much or not enough tonally, or using one that just does not match the correct setting of music. Choose wisely and tune wisely. Remember, your audience’s ears being pleased is the goal.
I will give an example of my choice of tones that I purposely chose for the Doug Johns Duo set. I have to consider that there are only two instruments in the band, and one actually plays musical notes. I have a process of elimination that helps us sound very big, without sounding like too much. Doug’s tone is very low-endy, with a huge mid scoop and a whole lot of highs, which is a very unconventional tone that only a super player can really play with. My first elimination is that the bass drum cannot have “notes.” Meaning that I have to suck out as much of the tone of the kick as possible, so that his bass can be the vocal piece and stand out the most in the lower frequency range. I want the bass drum to simply be the time keeper and groove driver. Secondly, I have to pick a snare that must cut through all of the low frequencies going on, but not cutting so much that the tone begins to stand out. I usually use a 5″x14″ metal snare of some sort, whether it be steel, aluminum, brass, or copper. The goal is to get a wet tone with a solid punchy crack. A much-needed system of tuning also helps with the feel of the snare that fits the music era perfectly.
What type of tones do you think of when you funk? The first snare tone that comes to mind is the tight, deep tone of Clyde Stubblefield. Even the quick, punchy crack of Dennis Chambers comes to mind; with they way he tunes his snare, you must be good. Dennis’ style of snare tuning and tone picks up everything. You want to go after your own tone, by all means, but listening to some of the pioneers of what music you’re playing is never a bad thing.
My goal is to be as innovative as possible, without making the tone of the music lose its quality. Start off by volume control, working your way to feeling out the room for frequency travel time. Take a little extra time to study they music you’re playing or creating and think about the sound the will be felt, not just heard. Music is a waveform that can change moods in an instant. Good tones make good moods, and I’m a witness to it, because the best of the best have done it for centuries. Keep the good tones vibing in all you do! Remember, your sounds are felt by your audience. Make the best sound possible. Make the people feel good. Watch your tone!