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!


How Bass Players Can Stay Healthy

25 02 2010

Bass player health is a topic that’s widely overlooked. How could you possibly hurt yourself playing an instrument? And is it really possible to injure yourself so badly that you can risk ruining your career as a musician?


Playing bass isn’t always riffs and giggles. Bass players can suffer from a range of health problems, including carpal tunnel, tendonitis, tennis elbow, neck, arm and back problems and even focal dystonia, a rare condition that causes the muscles (usually of the hand in bassists) to lock up, sometimes permanently.

Personally, I have definitely hurt myself playing my beloved instrument. I’ve split fingertips and torn fingernails using improper slapping techniques, and I have developed minor tennis elbow, carpal tunnel and other wrist problems due to playing with improper form for over a year.

Once I realized that the pain I was experiencing could get worse, and could possibly stop me from playing bass, I set out to research how to stay healthy while playing bass, and how to manage and—better yet—avoid these problems altogether.

So without further ado, here are some quick tips for staying healthy while slappin’ de bass:

  • Always warm up before you play. Start with your whole body (anything to get your blood pumping), and do some full-body stretches. Next, warm up your fingers by playing chromatic scales until your hands are relaxed and warm to the touch. Never, ever play with cold hands.
  • Take frequent breaks. Drink water, stretch, move around. Also, if you can, break your practice time into segments, with each segment focusing on a different technique. This way you’re less likely to overdo it, and more likely to take breathers and relax in between jam sessions.
  • Be conscious of what your body is telling you while you’re playing your instrument. Think about your posture and remember to breathe regularly (you’d be surprised how much you might tend to hold your breath while concentrating on a difficult solo). Pay attention to any excess tension you feel in your muscles, and work to correct it by changing your posture or technique.
  • Play songs appropriate to your skill level. While it’s important to lightly challenge yourself, don’t attempt the most difficult song you can find when you’re just learning how to play. Not only will you most likely become frustrated, you run the risk of pushing tendons and muscles too far and injuring yourself before you really even get started.
  • Choose an instrument that fits your body. Playing an instrument that is too large or too heavy for you can cause you to overcompensate, straining muscles and possibly leading to back, neck, and shoulder pain.
  • Finally, do not play through the pain. If you’re playing a song and your left arm is going numb or the tendons of your hands feel inflamed, take a break. If the pain continues to persist even though you’ve been following the above guidelines, seek out a physician knowledgeable about musicians’ injuries.

For more info on musician’s health, check out this website, which has a ton of links to other informative websites and lots of suggested warm-up routines.

Getting to Know Your Bass

18 02 2010

Okay. You’ve got a bass, an amp and a set of earplugs for your roommate: You’re ready to go. But before you can really begin interacting with your bass, you should take a moment to get to know it on the next level. Think about it like a third date: You already know the basics of your instrument, but it’s time to take things a step further.

That’s right. It’s time to get to second base with your bass.

The Anatomy of a Bass

The bass is a type of guitar, but rather than having six strings, a traditional bass has four (you will see a lot of basses with five or even six strings, but I still prefer the good old-fashioned four-stringers, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on). Bass is an octave lower than guitar, providing the ribcage-rattling sounds we know and love.


Strings and Tuning

Bass is typically tuned EADG, with the E string being the lowest and fattest string, and the G string being the highest and thinnest.

To put new strings on your bass, you will probably want a string winder, preferably equipped with a pair of string cutters (if not, just use cheap wire cutters). Also, don’t forget an electronic tuner to tune up your bass’s new strings. These usually run about $10-$20, but they come in handy.

Step One: Inspect your bass with a close, careful eye. Pay attention to how the strings are currently wound onto the tuning pegs. Look at how many times the strings are wrapped onto the post (the fatter the strings, the less they can wrap around—never overlap the string onto itself: it should only touch the tuning post). Find the ball end of the string (the end with the nut on it), and see how it fits inside the bridge.

Step Two: Take a string off (some people do all four at once; I prefer one at a time) by using your string winder and unwinding the string until it’s loose. Then, using your fingers, gently unwind it from the tuning post and slide it out through the bridge.

Step Three: Clean the fretboard with a dry cloth or one with a light application of fretboard cleaner on it.

Step Four: Everyone does this step differently, but I find that comparing the length of your old string to the new one (and subsequently cutting the new one to a similar length) is a helpful way to avoid problems down the road. Lay your new string next to the same one you’ve just taken off the bass. Then use the string/wire cutters to trim it to a slightly longer length than the old string (bass strings stretch over time). Keep in mind that it’s better to leave the string too long and have to repeat this step than to cut it too short and have to buy another set of strings.

Step Five: Place the nut of the new string through the bridge. Maintain tension on the string so it doesn’t slip out. Keeping it taut, place the other end of the string through the groove designed to hold it in the tuning key. Then, using your string winder, wind the string slowly and carefully around the tuning post, making sure that the string isn’t overlapping itself. Repeat until your bass is sporting all-new strings!

Step Six: Tune your bass with the electronic tuner. You don’t always have to rely on this handy-dandy piece of equipment, however: If your E string is in tune (you can do this with a piano or keyboard, ask a guitar player to play an E, or use an electronic tuning website), you can use what’s called the “Fifth Fret Method.”

The Fifth Fret Method: Place your finger on the fifth fret of the (already in tune) E string. Hit that note. Then hit the open A string. If your bass is in tune, they should be the exact same note. And so on: the fifth fret of the A string is the same note as an open D; the fifth fret of the D string is an open G. This site provides more detailed instructions about how to use this method.

Et voilà! You’re ready to rock with some basic knowledge of bass anatomy, new strings and bass tuning skills that would make  Bill Wyman give you a hearty pat on the back.  

A Word on Female Bassist Stereotypes

11 02 2010

Before I can truly begin providing you with bass-related tips, techniques, lessons, and lingo, I have to clear the air.

I know this is an astonishing fact, but some people think that female bassists suck. Many people also seem to think of us as manly (perhaps because bass is seen as an incredibly testosterone-driven instrument). Put two and two together, and, as  Urban Dictionary‘s article for the word “bassist” so eloquently sums up, “a female bassist […] is often stereotyped as a lesbian.” Sigh.

Now we all know that Urban Dictionary is not the most reputable source for information (another entry under “bassist” states that a bass player is “usually a failed guitarist who does not have the skill to play a six stringed instrument.”). But this tidbit sums up the gist of what I’m getting at here: Female bassists have to work a hell of a lot harder to get a little respect.

Case in point: Can you name more than two—no, make that more than one— famous female bassist off the top of your head? Without cheating, I’m willing to bet that you can’t.

As a self-proclaimed and unashamed tomboy, I was always one of the boys growing up. I did everything from jumping off roofs in the neighborhood (wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cape and waving a fake machete around, of course) to pulling my own weight in mechanic school to show the guys that I could do everything they could do, and this has definitely transferred over to my life as a bass player.

Female bassists have, sadly, had to fight through the stereotype that they’re bad musicians for years now. We’ve all seen some bad musicians in our day (that Everclear concert back in ’04 is still stinging my eardrums). But assuming that a musician is going to be bad just because of her gender is just a little discriminatory, don’t you agree?

That being said, even though truly talented female bassists are seldom seen in the wild arena of the music world, they are out there! A few famous ones include Kim Deal (the bassist for The Pixies), Tina Weymouth (the bassist for the Talking Heads), and Jeanne Sagan (the bass player for death metal group All That Remains).

But just because you don’t know their names doesn’t mean there aren’t a ton of lesser-known female bassists out there as well! Among the best are Tal Wilkenfeld (she tours with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton), Rhonda Smith (she played with Prince), Debra Killings, Kelly Ogden (with her band The Dollyrots), Patricia Day (of the Danish psychobilly band The Horrorpops)…and many others. 

So the rather-cliché-but-true moral of the story is: Don’t judge a book by its cover. And on that note, I leave you with this rousingly funky jam by Bassida, yet another Danish bass extraordinaire.