The Nitty Gritty: Calluses

1 04 2010

Learning how to play bass can teach you a lot about your pain thresholds.

It takes definite desire and motivation to learn any instrument, but bass is especially difficult for those of you out there with un-callused fingers: Bass strings are notoriously fat and rough, and the action of a bass (the space between the strings and the fretboard) is a lot higher than most regular guitars (requiring you to build up finger strength to be able to create a clean-sounding note).

Also, (if you’re a purist like me) your right hand is doing a lot of finger work as well because you’re not using a pick like a guitarist would: Therefore, the pads of the fingers on both of your hands are going to be screaming for mercy.

Until you build calluses, that is.

Building calluses isn’t that hard (it just requires repetition, basically), but here are some tips and tricks that might help you along in the process:

  • You don’t want to blister. Trust me: Blisters only set you back, and sometimes they’re so painful that they will prevent you from being able to play at all. If you do get a blister, pop it with a sterilized needle, flatten it out, wash it with antibiotic soap, and super-glue it. It stings, but if the show must go on, it works. (Warning: I am not a doctor! Watch out for infection, and when you’re done playing, wash the area again and apply antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid!)
  • Practice ever day. Make yourself sit down and play bass for 15-30 minutes every day. That’s not so long, you can do it! Practicing every day is the only way that your fingers will naturally start to build up skin layers that will eventually form good calluses.
  • Don’t give up. The first few months of learning how to play bass can be frustrating. You’re teaching your brain to tell your hands to do things they’ve never done before; you’re trying to play consistently and establish rhythm, which is tough; your fingers hurt, and the ladies aren’t buying tickets to see you play yet. But keep on truckin’, because I promise: It will get better, and once you have nice thick calluses, you won’t feel a thing, groove-machine!
  • Remember: with calluses comes finger strength. As you begin to fall into the habit of practicing every day you’ll start to develop both calluses and finger strength that will noticeably make playing much easier. Your fingers (unless you started out playing guitar or another instrument structured the same way) are most likely much weaker than you think: Practicing scales and focusing on creating clean-sounding notes (the closer your finger is to the fret bar, the cleaner the note will be) will slowly strengthen your fingers. You can also use one of these gizmos to help you strengthen your digits when you’re away from your bass.

Have fun creating calluses, young grasshoppers! You’re well on your way to bassic bliss!


Just the Bassics: Amplifiers

5 03 2010

As this scene from Spinal Tap famously parodies, it’s surprising how many musicians don’t know anything about the basics of their amplification system (or even their instruments!). Don’t be one of these guys! It’s important to at least know the basics of how your equipment works.

What an Amp Does

Electric guitars and basses are usually passive (although some have an “active” mode as well, powered by a battery inside the instrument), which means that they don’t need to be plugged into the wall to work. Therefore, an amplifier’s job is to take the sounds of the guitar and make them audible through a speaker.

Most amps have three basic parts:

  • A pre-amp:  boosts the guitar’s electrical “signal” with enough power so that it can be driven to the power amp (gets the signal primed)
  • A power amp: takes the signal and gives it more power
  • A speaker: takes the electrical signal and tranfers it into vibrations that we can hear

The Two Main Types of Amplifiers

Understanding amplifiers can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. To introduce you to them, I will talk a bit about guitar amps in general, and then get into the specifics of how bass amps are a bit different.

There are two main types of amplifiers: tube amps  and solid-state amps. (There are also a lot of “hybrids” out there these days, which utilize a mix of the two, but we’re keepin’ things simple.)

Here’s what the inside of a tube amp looks like:

And this is a solid-state amp:

So what’s the difference between these two types of amplifiers? In theory, both of these amps should sound similar: They have most of the same parts, and they do the same thing.

In actuality, however, there are some noticeable differences between them. Tube amps tend to have a warmer sound, but they are also more fragile and require more upkeep (they are also more expensive than solid-state amps). Solid-state amps are usually sturdier, but they tend to have less tone and not as many abilities when it comes to heavy distortion.

Differences Between Guitar Amps and Bass Amps

Bass amps, as you’ve probably guessed, have to be designed a bit differently in order to focus more on the lower sounds. Even though I don’t usually recommend Wikipedia, this article sums it all up: Bass Amplification

Some common questions about this:

1. Can I play a bass through a guitar amp?  Yes. Many bassists, including Robert Trujillo of Metallica, play using “guitar” amplifiers. You just have to be sure the amp isn’t making any grunting noises: That’s a sign that you’re pumping too much bass through it. If your amp starts making funky noises, especially grunting or rattling, turn down the volume or you might damage the electronics.

2. What about if I play guitar through a bass amp? You can do it, it’s not going to damage anything electronically. It’s also not going to sound very good, however: Bass amps are made to amplify the lower range of sound, so you will lose out on some of those sweet 12th fret solos you’re wailing away on. You can also amplify keyboard through a bass amp if you need to for a little while, but don’t go out and buy a bass amp to amplify anything but a bass.

In conclusion: Do your research about your equipment! It’s fun to learn about how stuff works, and you’ll be able to hold your own when all your fellow musicians are yakkin’ on about replacing their vacuum tubes.

Keep slappin’ dat bass!