Tone is a highly subjective matter of taste with no universal rights and wrongs. How you should approach the tone of your bass depends on many factors such as your gear, technique, band, style of music, acoustics and size of the stage & venue, etc. I can’t guide you through a walkthrough of absolute tonal success, but I will talk about my approach which might inspire you to develop your own.
Please remember that a good tone starts with a good setup; check How I Setup My Basses if you need to.
To prevent ground loops, signal losses and many other problems; I typically run the bass into a DI box and send it to the mixer. Parallel output of the DI box goes into my amp, and I use the amp as my on stage monitor. Check this article for reasons & details.
Amp EQ vs Bass EQ
Ideally, I do my main tonal setup by leaving my bass flat and tweaking the EQ of the amp. I use the EQ of my bass for minor tweaks during the gig, which involves tiny boost & cuts here and there (we will talk about this later). The idea is, it is hard (sometimes impossible) to turn back to your amp, tweak the sound, and get back to playing. But it is very easy to make a small adjustments via the onboard EQ with a small hand gesture.
Another reason is; once you cut a frequency, you can’t put it back any more. Think of old dirty strings that don’t ring that well any more – no matter how much you boost your treble, you can’t make them sound sparky when slapping. The same applies to your bass EQ. If you cut some frequencies onboard, you can’t put them back on the amp. Therefore, having a flat EQ on the bass initially is important in terms of frequency abundance as well.
Having said that; I must admit that I occasionally have to leave the amp flat and use my onboard EQ to shape my tone. Typical cases are:
- I might be using multiple basses. In that case; I wouldn’t want to tweak the amp every time I change my bass. Therefore, I leave the amp alone and shape the sound of each bass on it’s EQ board.
- Other players will immediately use the same amp. In that case; the sound guy typically makes a default setting on the amp and prevents you from touching it. In such a case, I’d rely on my bass EQ to shape my sound.
- The soundcheck needs to finish quickly. Sometimes, I’m not given the time to walk back and forth to the amp to shape my sound; first without the drums, then with drums, etc. In such cases, I rely on my bass EQ so I can quickly shape my sound as I’m playing on my feet.
- The amp is peculiar. Some amps simply won’t seem to work well due to their complexity, placement, frequencies, etc. In such cases, I leave the amp be and turn to my good ole bass EQ.
- Lack of an amp. In case I run through a DI, I shape my basic sound on my bass EQ if the sound guy is OK with that. If I change something after losing my sound check spotlight, I let the sound guy know because he might have to adjust something on the board.
The distance between the amp & your standing point is very important. Assuming that you have a mid sized amp, you should be staying around 2m away from your amp in order you can hear yourself. If you are too close, you will be standing behind the point where the sound is actually formed, and you won’t hear yourself well while your band members complain that the bass is too loud. If the stage is small and you can’t get the ideal distance, you might be better off using the amp as a DI only and mainly hearing yourself from the monitor speakers. Or, in-ear monitors. So, keep your distance (if possible) while shaping your EQ and playing on stage.
Your rig isn’t the only factor shaping your sound. The venue size & shape, ceiling height, stage material, amp placement and many other factors play a role on how you sound. You should imagine your bass + head + cabinets + the entire environment as a giant rig producing your sound. Whatever you setup on the amp is only a starting point for your sound. Since you can’t shape your material environment, you’ll shape your amp EQ so that the amp -> material environment will produce the sound you want. Whatever EQ sounds good at home might sound bad on stage, or some EQ sounding good on a certain venue can sound bad on another venue. This means that you can’t have a fixed global EQ setting which works everywhere. You can have a certain sound you like, but how you’ll achieve this sound EQ-wise will differ from venue to venue. So you need to learn and love the EQ.
How you sound alone will differ from how you sound in the mix. After doing your initial EQ, be prepared to tweak it further after you play all together. Another point is; how you sound outside will differ from how you hear yourself on the stage. After setting your amp EQ to your taste, you are going to need to trust the sound guy for how you sound outside. Talk to him/her about your sound preference, but let him/her be the final judge. I also recommend sending him/her your flat signal so they can add / subtract frequencies more accurately (another reason to leave your bass EQ flat initially). Many amps have a pre/post switch or a dry out output (pin or XLR) to enable that.
Key Bass Frequencies
Here is a good bass graphic EQ frequency chart (source unknown):
Here is a more quantitative explanation (source):
- 30Hz – 80Hz: The sub-bass region. Be careful when boosting in this range; your speakers might not be happy if you boost too much. MOST bass rigs CAN NOT do this range of sound too well. Some bass rigs can. Boosting here will add more depth to your tone, but can easily push your rig to the max if you are not careful. Best to not boost this zone too often, if at all.
- 80Hz – 150Hz: The bass region. Boost and cut in this region to change the amount of bass in your sound.
- 150Hz – 500Hz: The magic zone for bass players. Thickens up finger style bass lines. Too much here will cause your tone to sound really muddy. Just enough here will allow you to sit in the mix quite nicely. If your bass sounds too muddy, try cutting in this region. If it needs a little warmth, try boosting in this region.
- 500Hz – 900Hz: Between nasal and string growl. Hard to explain, but do not cut too much here if you are trying to CUT THROUGH a mix. However, reduce this range if your guitarists are midrange heavy players and instead focus playing with the low mids and low end of your bass. Boosting in this region can add mid-range growl to your tone. Cutting in this region can make things clean and pristine.
- 900Hz – 3kHz: The edgy and bright attack range that will allow your finger style notes to have definition and will allow your pick playing tones to stand out. Boosting in this region can bring out attack. Cutting in this region can help create a rounder tone.
- Above 3kHz: Adds fingerboard noise along with more clarity on high notes. Comes through your tweeter. Sounds terrible with a distortion effect pedal – for some, this is a desirable effect. Cutting can bring down the noise without much effect on the signal. Boosting can add a sense of air and space.
You might be wondering whether you need to boost or cut those frequencies. Here is a over-generalized rule:
- If you need to fix a problem, cut the frequency
- If you need to change your sound, boost the frequency
As a general principle, cutting gives better results than boosting because you have a limited headroom. Boosting (especially low) frequencies can fill up your headroom pretty quickly.
If your bass sounds too boomy and you can’t hear your highs, cut the bass instead of boosting the treble. If your bass sounds too punchy and you can’t get enough bite, cut the low mids instead of boosting the high mids. You get the idea. Perceived frequency balance is as valid as actual frequency balance – when you cut the treble, people will perceive the sound to be “boomier” despite you didn’t boost the bass frequencies, and you don’t overpower anything, ending up sounding cleaner.
Here is another trick: If you can’t hear yourself, try boosting your mids before turning the volume up.
Most of the time, a little cut or boost goes a long way. If you feel like you need extreme EQ changes, chances are you don’t have the correct rig to produce the sound you like.
There are alternative approaches of EQ’ing the amp as well; check the method of Dawsons Music.
Having covered the principles, we can move forward and tweak the EQ on the amp.
Start of by setting your bass flat. If you have a passive bass, you’ll want to leave the EQ wide open. If you have an active bass, you’ll want all EQ knobs centered. If you have a StingRay Classic and don’t have a center detent, good luck finding the flat spot.
Set your amp EQ flat as well. If you like the sound coming out with the flat setup, then fine! Don’t play with anything. You may get off with a good sound using a flat EQ at times. However, you’ll need to tweak the EQ in many other cases.
You need to be aware of the gain knob that most amps have. This knob will set the strength of the initial signal coming from your bass. A very low gain setting will leave you sounding weak. A very high gain setting will overpower the amp so you can’t distinguish the nuances of your technique. You need to find a sweet spot inbetween; where you sound strong enough to be satisfied while you can still hear your nuances. In many cases, gain & volume on the amp need to be balanced simultaneously. This means, the amount of gain you’ll need will be different on low & high volume situations. On my Aguilar ToneHammer 500, I tend to set the gain at 10 o’clock while the master volume is around 12.
In terms of EQ setup, you need to know what each frequency does. In case your amp has 4 EQ knobs;
- Bass will define how boomy your sound is – think of the subwoofers
- Low mid will define how punchy your sound is – think of the Precision Bass sound
- High mid will define the nasal / bite amount of your sound – think of Jaco
- Treble will define your presence in terms of string / fret noise – think of the top end of slapping
In case your amp has 3 EQ knobs;
- Bass will command your bass + a bit of the low mids
- Mid will command your low + high mids
- Treble will commad a bit of the high mids + your treble
In case your amp has 2 EQ knobs;
- Bass will command your bass + low mids
- Treble will command your high mids + treble
Different amps will have their knobs set at different frequencies; the information above is just a casual general guide.
Some amps have the option to switch to a graphic EQ. Now this is where you have the most control, but it might be overkill for many players which are not sound engineers. Talkbass has a good explanation of frequencies , but I rarely get there on live situations. If I’m in the studio, I leave that level of granularity to the sound engineers anyway.
Precision Style Basses
I tend to leave everything wide open. If the strings are new and make finger noise, I simply roll off the tone a bit. That’s it. Simplicity at its best.
Active Jazz Style Basses
The settings below would cover my experience with two pickup bass guitars, including Fender American Deluxe Jazz Bass, Fender Custom Classic V, Fender Marcus Miller Jazz Bass, Fodera Emperor Standard Classic 5 and Yamaha TRB 1005.
If the EQ of the bass is boost only (like Fender Marcus Miller or F-Bass), I start by a slight boost on each knob so I have room to cut frequencies. Amp tweaking might be needed accordingly. Otherwise, I start with a flat bass EQ.
First, I solo the neck pickup and setup the amp EQ so that I hear a nice P-Bass sound with some low-mid thump. That’s my starting point.
Then, I balance the pickups flat (with a flat guitar EQ) and ensure that I’m getting a balanced slap tone. Since balanced pickups phase each other out, they provide a natural mid scoop suitable for slapping.
Then, I emphasize the bridge pickup by about 55% (with a slight bass boost on the guitar) and ensure that I have enough punch; minor amp EQ tweaking is encouraged.
Then, I emphasize the neck pickup by about 55% (with a flat guitar EQ) and ensure that I have enough bite; minor amp EQ tweaking is encouraged.
Starting from that point;
- 100% neck pickup leans towards a P bass sound. Ideal for rock, blues, R&B, reggae, etc.
- J bass tones below are ideal for latin, pop, jazz, etc.
- 60% neck pickup leans towards a PJ sound. Ideal for warm finger style playing.
- Pickup balance with slight mid boost (+ optional bass boost) produces a classic J finger style sound. Ideal for balanced finger style playing.
- Pickup balance produces a natural mid scoop. Ideal for slap and funk.
- 60% bridge pickup with slight bass boost (+ optional treble cut) leans towards Jaco. Ideal for growly finger style playing. Also a good framework for Muse-like high fuzz effects.
- 100% bridge pickup with slight treble cut (+ optional bass cut) produces a good solo tone.
During a gig, I either go straight with the P-Bass sound, or I get into the J bass zone and stay there.
For Turkish readers, I have published a video to demonstrate some EQ tips on a passive Jazz Bass.
Passive Jazz Style Basses (VVT)
In my humble experience, the way you would use a passive bass differs from the way you would use an active bass.
- Cut the bridge pickup by 10%, tone by 25%, play loosely over the neck pickup with the fleshy part of the fingers; and you are in the P-Bass ballpark. Great for rock stuff or upright simulation.
- Set everything full, and you get that scooped slap-friendly J-Bass sound. Great for funk, general finger style; and also heavy effects due to hum cancellation.
- Cut the neck pickup by 10%, tone by 25%, play tightly over the bridge pickup with the tips of the fingers; and you are in the Jaco ballpark. Great for growly finger style.
- Solo the bridge pickup; and you get a decent solo instrument.
Passive Jazz Style Basses (VTVT)
On the EQ pedal, I set 120 Hz ++, 400 Hz ++, 4.5 kHz –.
- Duff (Neck oriented, P-Simulation): Neck volume full, neck tone -3, bridge volume 90%, bridge tone full
- Marcus (Balance, super Jazz): Everything full on
- Jaco (Bridge oriented, nasal): Neck volume 90%, neck tone full, bridge volume full, bridge tone -3
- Gürol (Solo): Neck volume off, neck tone full, bridge volume full, bridge tone -3
After setting up the amp as if I have a jazz bass; I have 3 main options on my M-2500.
- For P-bass mode, I simply solo the neck pickup.
- For J-bass mode;
- 60% neck pickup leans towards a PJ sound. Ideal for warm finger style.
- Pickup balance with slight mid + treble boost produces a good balanced J-Bass finger style tone.
- Pickup balance with bass + treble boost produces a good slap tone.
- 60% bridge pickup with bass + mid boost and treble cut leans towards Jaco; ideal for growly finger style + high gain effects.
- For MM-bass mode, I solo the bridge pickup with treble + bass boost & mid cut.
- For solo / chord mode, I simply solo the bridge pickup with some bass cut.
During a gig, I stay in one of those main modes. If I will change my tone from song to song, I pick J-bass mode.
Here is how I setup the initial tone of my Lakland. I start toning my instrument by leaving the EQ flat, balancing the neck & bridge coils at 50% and tweaking the amp until I get a 70’s Jazz Bass sound. Starting from that point;
- Neck pickup solo, slight treble cut and slight mid boost gives a good classic P sound. This setting got a lot of praise at my first rehearsal with a rock band.
- Neck pickup & front bridge coils balanced at 50% with treble cut gives a good sub bass sound. Ideal for reggae, R&B, dance and similar genres.
- Neck pickup & back bridge coils balanced at 50% with flat EQ gives a good J sound (starting point). Ideal for finger style, funk and slapping.
- Back bridge coils at 75% balance with slight treble boost gives a good solo tone.
- Humbucker at 75% with flat EQ produces an agreeable Jaco tone.
- Humbucker at 75% with slight treble & bass boost produces an agreeable StingRay tone.
I never solo the humbucker pickup; because compared to a StingRay, it’s position is slightly closer to the bridge. I advise mixing the humbucker with the neck pickup to preserve the punchiness you’d expect from a StingRay.
MusicMan StingRay 4H
There is a sweet spot setting I like on 3-band EQ StingRay’s which seem to work well with any type of music.
To achieve the sweet spot, I leave the EQ on the bass flat. Using external EQ, I typically boost 120 Hz to increase the body and and cut 4.5 kHz to reduce (but not kill) the signature “clank”.
Why do I need an external EQ for that? Well, the frequencies on the bass are centered around approximately 50 Hz, 500 Hz and 12 kHz; and those aren’t the frequencies I’m targeting for the sweet spot.
However, the onboard EQ is still useful for further tone shaping; like:
- Cutting treble leans towards a vintage sound; leaning towards the P-territory
- Cutting the bass makes solo / chord stuff more articulate
- Cutting the bass & treble and boosting the mids leans towards the Jaco-territory
- Cutting the mids leans towards the slap territory
MusicMan StingRay 5 HS
After I’m happy with the amp,
- Position 1 gives the classic StingRay sound, ideal for in-your-face agro. Treble cut (and optional bass boost) provides a nice Jaco tone.
- Position 2 with treble cut and mid boost gives a good growly solo tone.
- Position 3 is my default and is ideal for pop when left flat. When played close to the neck with mid boost + treble cut, the bass leans towards a P-bass tone. When played close to the bridge with mid boost, the bass leans towards a J-bass / StingRay hybrid with trimmed edges.
- Position 4 is where the notorious volume drop begins; but with slight mid cut, it is favorable for slapping due to the natural volume drop.
- Position 5 is the peak of volume drop; but can be used as a muddy double-bass simulator / sub-bass generator if you boost bass & mids.
In any setting; treble cut removes the modern StingRay sizzle and leans towards a more vintage sound.
Here are some tonal approaches I used when I had this instrument.
- For a balanced mid oriented tone, leave bass & treble flat or reduce equally. Ideal for latin, jazz, pop, etc.
- For a vintage tone, leave the bass flat and cut the treble. The idea is; vintage amps couldn’t produce the treble tones like the tweeters today; therefore it is vital to cut the trebles. That’s ideal for vintage blues / rock songs. A slight bass boost would lean towards a warmer sound.
- For a modern rock tone, boost the bass and leave the treble flat. That will fill the lower frequencies like a wall.
- For a sub bass tone, boost the bass and cut the treble. Ideal for R&B, reggae or electronic situations.
- For slapping or soloing, leave the bass flat and boost the treble. In a 3 band EQ, I would prefer to boost the bass & treble and leave the mids alone; but on a 2 band instrument, this is the best I onboard approach I could think of.
- For chords, cut the bass and boost the treble. That gives a baritone guitar oriented sound if you play beyond the 10th fret.
Those are not hard wired rules, of course; just my experiments on my former StingRay.
In case you have a hard time pinpointing the flat spot, you can measure the 50% spot of each pot and put a sticker there which points up. That way, you can tell the flat spot easier when playing live.
Some songs from the pop rock oriented repertoire of The Flat Band;
- RHCP: 0% blended humbucker. Thats’s how I lean towards a StingRay.
- Fly Me To The Moon: -50% blended single coil. That leans towards a traditional Jazz Bass sound.
- All Shook Up: -100% blend (neck solo), mid boost, treble cut. That leans towards a traditional Precision Bass sound.
- Ele Güne Karşı: +25% blended single coil, bass boost. That leans towards a nasal Jazz Bass sound.
- Hung Up: -100% blend (neck solo), bass boost, treble cut. That gives a deep sub bass suitable for pop and electronic.
- Walk of Life: -100% Blend (neck solo), treble off. That gives a motown oriented Precision Bass sound.
Some songs from the latin oriented Jozi Levi Brazil Project;
- For a deep surdo tone; I use -50% blend in Humbucker. That gives a low-mid emphasized tone which resembles the Brazilian surdo drums.
- For dynamic latin songs like Mais Que Nada or Ponteio, I use a 0% blend (balanced) in humbucker mode. That gives a Jaco-ish nasal tone in steroids. Single coil would lean towards Jaco.
I never solo the humbucker pickup; because compared to a StingRay, it’s position is slightly closer to the bridge. I advise mixing the humbucker with the neck pickup to preserve the punchiness you’d expect from a StingRay.
For soloing, +25% blend in single coil gives the best result. For Muse oriented tones, +25% blend in Humbucker mode gives the best result.
Active basses with 2 / 4 band EQ’s or passive basses will require different approaches, obviously. But how I approach my basses can inspire you into the right direction.
Note that your hand placement and technique also plays a great role in terms of shaping your tone. Leaving your pickup balance centered, try playing close to the neck and attack the strings softly with the meaty part of your fingers – this will produce a very warm and deep tone. Now, play close to the bridge and attack the strings with the top of your fingers as if you would scratch / claw the pickup. This will produce a very bright tone and will also allow you to play 16th notes tighter. Now, play between the neck – bridge pickup with the side of your fingers. This will produce a low mid oriented balanced sound.
The combination of amp EQ, bass EQ and your hand technique will define your initial sound output, and the venue will shape the rest. I have provided my own initial preferences, but you’ll need to work out your own over time and with experience.
After you are happy with your amp EQ and how you can shape the sound with your bass, you can set the EQ of individual effect pedals. Don’t attempt setting the EQ’s of your pedals earlier.
In case you would be interested in getting an agreeable Muse tone, check my post Muse Bass Sound where I share my hits and misses.
I published a video, where I take two short bass solos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1B1Cb6JK_c . I received a few questions about my bass solo tone, so here is the answer.
I was using a Fender American Jazz Bass V with alder body & rosewood fingerboard, all stock. The neck pickup was about 25% off, bridge pickup was on full, and the tone was about 50% off.
The signal ran into the EHX Freeze pedal, which I used to freeze the bass note before starting the solo. That ensures that the bottom end doesn’t get lost during the bass solo. Note that the pedal can be used in chord change situations as well. In my case, I was soloing over a single chord.
After that, the signal ran into the most vital element of the chain: Mr. Black Supermoon. It is a hauntingly beautiful reverb / sway pedal, and this pedal is probably what you were wondering about. That’s how I create the atmospheric sound of the solo. Reverb was pointing at 1 o’clock, and sway & decay were pointing at 3 o’clock.
Finally, the signal ran into my Mark Bass amp. The EQ was flat, VLE pointing at 8 o’clock and VLC pointing at 10 o’clock.
The combination of Freeze & Supermoon can really open up new horizons. I highly recommend tinkering with them.
For the record, here is a picture of my entire pedalboard from that gig: https://www.instagram.com/p/BGYVVZZrgnB/?taken-by=keremkoseoglu . Before you ask, yes, the cat is also part of the board and is named as “ToneCat”.