>> write // blaaaags and reflections // evolution of a personal bass guitar sound

Any musician’s sound, especially in jazz, is a personal thing. In fact, for some players, the pursuit and development of an identifiable and individual voice is one of the goals of playing jazz. A musician’s sound reflects the quality of the gear that they own and use, echoes the player’s current conception and perception of music, incorporates a player’s influences, and matures over time. For many players the evolution of their sound can be a lifetime obsession of study and experimentation. Yet, I’ve often wondered whether the gear is the predominant determining factor.

Pat Metheny has said that for a period of ten years he didn’t sit in with anyone or do any sessions without his complete rig. One evening, while on tour, he was asked to sit in with some less-than-satisfactory gear. Someone recorded the evening and gave Metheny the tape the next day and he was surprised to find that he sounded like himself! He also mentioned in same interview that he admired how horn players are “sonically self-contained.”

For many years, I too have admired how horn players can pack up their instrument, be out the venue door, and be home in less time than it takes for me or the drummer to strike down and to grab the wheelie cart in the smelly green room. There is a certain simplicity to the notion of “less-is-more.” These days, for most gigs, I can make one trip from the car to the bandstand with my bass guitar, a backpack for the charts and the cables, a music stand in one hand, and a light weight bass amp combo in the other.

Throughout my playing career, I have been fortunate to be called for a variety of playing situations. There were periods where I have had steady weekly gigs and it is during those concentrated times where my sound evolved and my playing grew by leaps and bounds. Working in the same venue, with the same sound person, and the same band, allowed me to research, develop, and fine-tune my sound. I began to discover nuances and subtleties in my sound that I chose to build upon. Everything else that was extraneous got deleted!

These days, I’m rather content with my setup and so I choose to improve my sound through active listening and the analysis of my influences. I continue to return to listening to my favourite recordings and players to give me an anchor point by which I can assess the current state of my sound. Note choice, touch, feel, phrasing, dynamics, and whatever musicality I have acquired and have developed all play an equal role in my continual evolution as a musician, in general, and my bass guitar sound, in particular. Therefore, I am choosing to be identified through my musicality rather than through the equipment I use. Conceptually, when one listens to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea play the same Fender Rhodes keyboard, one hears two different musicians: same electronics and different musical expression. Or, whether Pat Metheny plays his six-string electric, his Roland guitar synthesizer, or his 42 string Pikasso guitar, one hears ... Pat Metheny.

Nevertheless, to be able to express this musicality means that I need tools that are sensitive. Many bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets today are efficient, light weight machines capable of hi-fidelity, hi-resolution, and hi-definition sound output. I have settled with a particular setup that emphasizes transparency, warmth, and responsiveness.

So, when playing, I assume the mindset that I am dealing with acoustic phenomena that happens to be amplified electronically. Take, for example, listening to an acoustic jazz ensemble that is being supplemented with sound reinforcement, or, a public address system. The sound in the air, while generated originally from acoustic instruments, is still being amplified electronically. Thus, the qualitative aspects of the sound is fundamentally, if not philosophically, altered even if it is imperceptible to the human ears and brain.

I offer to you, dear reader, that this reflection exercise in gear geekery has been helpful in reviewing my own course as I suffered through the common musician affliction known as gear acquisition syndrome. :)


The bass guitars I've loved before ...

Series 10 four string fretted
Years owned and played: 1994 - 1997
Also known as: The Blue Bass
Strings used: Snarling Dogs Electric Bass Growlers Nickel Roundwound
Colour: Blue Sparkle

My first bass guitar was a Korean built Series 10 four string. My father picked it up after work for me from Northwest Music, a local school instrument music retailer, the day I joined my high school band program. It had a split P/J pickup configuration and had two knobs: one for volume and the other for tone. This bass guitar served me well through high school. The finish was a blue-sparkle. It was with this bass that I earned the nickname “Blue Bass” in high school.

How we parted ways:
I sold it to a trumpet player in the band program who was eager to learn how to play bass guitar. In hindsight, I had no idea why I did that. A bass guitar without a bass guitar is like a painter without a paintbrush, or an plumber without a wrench. I must have needed the cash at the time.

Samick five string fretless
Years owned and played: 1997 - 1999
Colour: Translucent brownish-purple
Strings used: D’Addario Chromes Flatwound
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Painted Blank: self-titled; Dramatic Adrift: Nothing Personal

Upon entering the Jazz Studies program at Capilano College, I bought a Samick 5 string fretless from a defunct music store in Downtown Vancouver called Mother’s Music. Doubling on double (!) bass was strongly encouraged at Capilano College, but I had no sincere interest in the larger instrument.

I saw that studying jazz, in general, and the bass guitar, in particular, was always a means towards cultivating my growing relationship with music. I never wanted to be a “jazzer” exclusively, but merely wanted to gain the necessary foundation for pursuing a broader education and career in music. Besides this, Capilano College was the only degree program in Western Canada that offered a four year Bachelor of Music degree with bass guitar as a major instrument.

Studying with Andre Lachance, who encouraged me every step of the way to find my own sound, was a revelation on many different levels. Andre has a love for vintage-type sounds and his approach to playing, in my opinion, reflects the way he hears how the bass should be played.

How we parted ways:
My Samick got stolen when I lent it to a friend for a gig. He reimbursed me for the loss, and with that cash, I bought … another Samick. For some reason, during this time, I was secretly determined to be the first bass guitar endorser of Samick instruments. The indiscretion of youth. In my own way, I wanted to displace Blues Saraceno from the Samick ads often found in musician trade magazines. Perhaps a more charitable solution would be to share the limelight with him as the only two musicians to sing Samick’s praises. Anyways, I digress.

Samick six string fretless
Years owned and played: 1999 - 2001
Colour: Translucent teal with natural maple
Strings used: D’Addario Chromes Flatwound then GHS Progressives
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Dramatic Adrift: Nothing Personal

My new Samick was a six string, neck-through instrument, with brass hardware, and two soapbar humbucking pickups. This bass guitar also had active circuitry. It had a translucent teal finish. It was a fretted bass, but I had the frets yanked out. I yearned for the dark and woody tone of my previous fretless Samick (and I used the same D’Addario Chromes Flatwound strings) but then realized that this new instrument, with all of its active circuitry, made that pursuit counterproductive. I had the fingerboard epoxyed for that glassy, brighter tone, and I started using GHS Progressives strings.

How we parted ways:
I sold this bass guitar (at a profit!) to a fellow classmate at Capilano College who was looking for a six string fretless bass guitar to complement his six string fretted bass guitar. With that money, I invested in a custom Kinal MK5B string fretless.

Samick five string fretted
Years owned and played: 1999 - 2002
Colour: Translucent purple
Strings used: GHS Progressives
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Mark Berube: Fire in the Blue

Sometime in between my Samick six string fretless and my yet-to-be-conceived custom Kinal MK5B, I realized that I needed to have a fretted instrument in my instrumentarium, and so I returned to Mother’s Music to buy yet another … Samick. They were going out of business and they had a massive sale. Clearly, however, Samick instruments were not keeping the Mother’s Music afloat. Like I said, I wanted a Samick endorsement. And, like I said ... the indiscretion of youth.

How we parted ways:
I sold this bass guitar to the same guy I lent my first Samick fretless to (the one that got stolen). He needed a bass, and when I acquired my custom Kinal MK5B fretless, I decided that I would try to focus developing my sound on the Kinal.

2000 Kinal MK5B five string fretless
Also known as: Trinidad 1
Years owned and played: 2000 - 2006
Colour: Cobalt blue
Strings used: LaBella Stainless Steel Roundwound Super Steps then GHS Progressives
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Mark Berube: Fire in the Blue; Amalia Towsend: Amalia; Ache Brasil: Ecos Do Mangue

After four semesters of studying bass guitar with Andre Lachance, an opportunity came up at Capilano College to study with bass guitar specialist Chris Tarry. Studying with Chris really opened my ears to new sonic possibilities and he showed me how to evoke a range of sounds from a bass guitar with alternative and extended techniques.

I remember that my third lesson with him consisted of dissecting the current state of my bass guitar sound. Achieving a range of sounds from a bass guitar meant playing with a light touch, have more wattage for dynamic headroom, and using a responsive bass guitar with natural acoustic qualities. He was endorsing the bass guitars of a local luthier named Mike Kinal and Chris got me in touch with Mike. (I ended up working alongside Mike a number of years later when I started my teaching career.)

After visiting Mike’s shop with Chris on a cold fall Saturday morning, I made the plunge and put a deposit down for a new custom constructed Kinal bass guitar. Relying on my bass guitar teacher’s suggestions, I went with a swamp ash body, a five-piece maple neck, and an unlined ebony fingerboard. I also went with a custom Bartolini Gary Willis soapbar humbucker pickup, an active 2 band EQ (with passive option) and I had Mike make a ramp similar to Chris’s and Gary’s bass guitars. The concept of the ramp is to prevent the fingers from digging in to the strings too deeply and to replicate the feeling of playing over top of a pickup.

Looking back, I did not have a complete vision of what my sound should be and so I relied on Mike and Chris to help guide me. Consequently, I began to quickly outgrow the instrument as my concept of sound evolved. The instrument itself was very well made and well balanced, but, like a relationship gone south, we grew apart.

How we parted ways:
I brought it to all of my gigs, but I just found the sound far too singularly dimensional to be effective in all situations. After a number of years sitting patiently in a case, I went to Long and McQuade and traded the instrument in for a number of instruments including an Epiphone Acoustic Guitar, an Epiphone El Capitan Acoustic Bass Guitar, a Sabian 21 inch Hand Hammered Vintage Ride Cymbal, a Drum Throne, and other supplies.


The bass guitars currently in the bullpen ...

2000 Mexican Fender Jazz five string
Also known as: The Salsa Special
Years owned and played: 2001 - present
Colour: black with white pickguard
Strings used: DR Stainless Steel Lo-Riders then Rotosound Swing Bass 66 Stainless Steel
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Sarah Marshall: All The Dreamers

Once again, I realized that I needed a fretted bass guitar. Fretless bass guitar is to fretted bass guitar as flugelhorn is to trumpet. Specializing in fretless bass guitar was fine during my college studies as I tried to develop a unique voice, but I was starting to get called for salsa gigs and recording sessions. So, once again, I needed a more robust instrument. I went to Long and McQuade one evening and picked out the Fender Jazz. For the first time, I owned a “conventional” instrument.

Playing in the salsa scene also led to a number of opportunities to play aboard some ships of the Royal Caribbean fleet. This ‘Salsa Special’ accompanied me on two cruise ship contracts.

In late 2006, I had a regular gig with Orquesta BC Salsa on Fridays and Saturdays. The Orquesta BC Salsa gigs were dance club gigs that required maximum volume and maximum low end. I brought the Mexican Fender Jazz and the Eden rig in the beginning, but I found myself relying much more on the house PA system to provide the sound.

For Christmas that year, I treated myself to a SansAmp Tech 21 Bass DI. This allowed me to send a super hot signal to the house system, and at that point I just relied on the stage monitors rather than carrying my amplifier setup. It was nice to not have to haul so much gear to the gig! Heck, it was almost like being a horn player … almost.

2006 Epiphone El Capitan Acoustic Bass Guitar four string fretted
Years owned and played: 2006 - present
Colour: sunburst
Strings used: D'Addario XL Nylon Tapesound ETB92

This little puppy was acquired in the package trade that sent the Kinal (and a first round draft pick with future considerations) away. I wanted to experiment with the expressive 'guitaristic' phrasing possibilities. It generally stays out of the case and waits patiently beside my desk ready for when my muse strikes.

2002 Mollerup Trinidad six string fretted
Years owned and played: 2002 - present
Strings used: DR Stainless Steel Lo-Riders
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Chris Trinidad’s Common Themes I, II, and III; Brave Waves: Havens of the Light; Susana Abreu: Latin Roots; Jopoa: Songs for a Troubled Time; Somos Collective: Todo Fluye Asi; Carlos Xavier: Lucha Contra El Tiempo; Subla Neokulintang

2003 Mollerup Trinidad six string fretless
Years owned and played: 2003 - present
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Chris Trinidad’s Common Themes I, II, and III; Susana Abreu: Latin Roots

2009 Mollerup Trinidad six string flatwound
Years owned and played: 2009 - present
What I recorded with this bass guitar: Carlos Xavier: Lucha Contra El Tiempo; Subla Neokulintang; Chris Trinidad's Certain Times

These instruments were designed by Vancouver based bassist and luthier Laurence Mollerup. Laurence approached the design in consultation with me and had me involved at every major stage. I had come to the point where I knew how I wanted to sound. I needed an instrument that was transparent, warm, and responsive to the subtleties and nuances in my playing.

Laurence and I were able to achieve this with hollow acoustic chambers, simple passive electronics by way of a single magnetic pickup and no preamplification, and string through-body loading for extra string tension. The resonance and the openness make the instrument super sensitive to touch. The hollow acoustic chambers and the combination of woods add some complexity to the sound in the same way that hand hammering similarly does to cymbals.

The bodies are made of cherrywood, which has a very similar density to maple, and the tops are various varieties of figured maple. Having a single pickup rather than multiple pickups, I believe, allows more focus in the sound because there is only one magnetic source drawing on the strings. Achieving variety in sound is done through musical-technical means rather than through electronic means. By emphasizing the acoustic qualities of the instruments enables me to concentrate on making music rather than fiddling with knobs and switches.

Chris Tarry, Gary Willis, and Anthony Jackson really turned me onto the idea of getting away from the artificial qualities of active electronics and preamplifiers and relying instead on hand placement, touch, and feel.

I was so happy with the fretted bass guitar that a year later in 2003 I asked Lawrence to build me a fretless version with nearly the same specifications. Having an instrument custom constructed leaves a number of factors to chance: one really won’t know what the instrument will sound like after it’s made. In addition, the interaction between the chosen wood, the electronics and pickups, and the hardware, will also change over time.

I called Laurence in 2008 and after five years of experimenting with the fretless, I found that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the sound. I asked him to call Aero pickups to make me another pickup, we got an aluminum bridge, we changed the body to a lighter density cherrywood, and we added more chambers. The result is a much more open and resonant sound, similar in quality to the fretted bass guitar.

As a result of the modifications on the fretless, I had an extra pickup and an extra bridge. Later that year, I called Laurence again and asked him to build me a third Mollerup bass guitar. I was looking for something I could bring to my salsa gigs where I needed maximum volume and maximum low end. The idea would be to use flatwound strings and for this bass guitar to take the place of my Mexican Fender Jazz.

With these three bass guitars, I am able to provide a wide range and variety of sounds. The quest for the perfect bass guitars are now officially over for me. There is no need to look further!


Amplifiers ...

Fender BX60
Years owned and played: 1997 - 1998

I acquired this bass amplifier from a high school friend who sold it to me for a pretty good price. I had no concept of sound at this point and just needed something to get my bass guitar heard.

Gallien Kruger RB400 + Fender BX60
Years owned and played: 1998 - 2000

I was turned on to the Gallien Kruger RB400 by a fellow classmate at Capilano College. I didn’t have a speaker cabinet, so I plugged it into the effects return of the Fender BX60 bass amplifier. It was probably not the smartest thing to do, and thankfully neither the amp nor the speaker ever blew up, but it did provide me with some very basic and crude amplification. I had little headroom for dynamics before I even understood what having ‘little headroom for dynamics’ meant. For a little while, I also experimented with a Zoom 506 multi-effects pedal in the sound chain.

How we parted ways:
I actually had two Fender BX60s. One got stolen out of the back seat of my car while it was parked in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver (big mistake) while playing with the Aaron Hardie Quartet in the summer of 1999. I traded the other BX60 with fellow Painted Blank bandmember Matthew Rogers for a Fender Princeton 112 Guitar Amplifier.

I traded the Gallien Krueger RB400 back in to Long and McQuade (Canada’s Guitar Center-equivalent) and “upgraded” to the SWR Workingman’s 12 and the Yorkville XC 115 cabinet.

SWR Workingman’s 12 + Yorkville XB115
Years owned and played: 1999 - 2001

For a little while, I was playing these instruments through an SWR Workingman’s 12 with a 15 inch Yorkville extension speaker cabinet. I used this rig on many salsa gigs with the Marlin Ramazzini Orquesta at the Boot Pub in Whistler, BC. There’s nothing really spectacular about this rig other than the fact that it worked well for what I was doing at the time.

How we parted ways:
Traded it back into Long and McQuade for store credit when I acquired the Eden rig.

Eden WT400LE + D210XLT
Years owned and played: 2001 - 2002

When Chris Tarry got an endorsement from Aguilar, he wanted to get rid of his Eden gear. He sold me his WT 400 LE head and his D210XLT 2 x 10 cabinet. For the first time, I was able to access that open and transparent sound that I was seeking. I also had about 400 watts worth of headroom to play with, and that made playing with dynamics much easier, and any nuances and subtleties in my playing were heard.

Eden WT400LE + CXM110 (x2)
Years owned and played: 2002 - present

After tiring of lugging that 85lbs cabinet around town on gigs, I opted for two CXM-110 cabinets. For louder gigs, I would bring two of the cabinets and for lower volume situations, one was sufficient. This rig now lives permanently in my studio as part of my recording setup.

Mark Bass CMD112P
Years owned and played: 2009 - present

Significant strides have been made with efficient amplifiers requiring smaller and lighter power sections. When I decided to retire my Eden rig, I decided on an amplifier combo that my brother-in-law Allan Bacani played. These innovations have made their way into the latest Mark Bass CMD112P combo. When I moved to Northern California, I decided to pick one up at the local Guitar Center. With 300 watts of headroom, and one less thing to carry on the gig, I was suitably impressed.


Strings I have used and experimented with in the past ...

Snarling Dogs Electric Bass Growlers Roundwound SDN 45
String Guages: .045; .065; .085; .105

In high school, I often played with wreckless abandon and I had no concept of touch or feel and so I snapped the strings quite often. These rather inexpensive strings got me through my teenager years of playing bass guitar.

D’Addario Chromes Nickel Flatwound
String Guages: .045; .065; .080; .100; .132

I wanted to replicate the dark and woody sound of the double bass, the preferred instrument of the Capilano College Jazz Studies players and faculty, and along with my Samick 5 string fretless, I was somewhat able to achive that sound using these strings.

GHS Progressives Roundwound
String Guages: .032; .045; .065; .085; .105; .135

Chris Tarry turned me onto these strings as he had an endorsement with GHS. Gary Willis, his mentor, also used these strings. They featured an open core at the bridge saddles, and the mysterious ‘Alloy 52’, a magnetically active metal wrapped around the basic core. They are very bright strings and these worked well with my Samick 6 string fretless.

LaBella Stainless Steel Roundwound Super Steps
String Guages: .030; .040; .060; .080; .100

While I was waiting for my Kinal to be completed, I went about researching different strings. As the 5 string Kinal was originally set for a high C string (like Steve Swallow’s bass guitar), I wanted to find strings that were unique. I came across the Super Steps but they did not have the responsiveness I sought. Furthermore, as with the GHS Progressives, I became aware of a ubiquitous “ghosted” harmonic when I played above the twelfth fret. Evidently, these notes were due to the open core at the saddle.


Strings I now use in the present ...

DR Strings Stainless Steel Roundwound Lo-Riders MH6-130-030
String Guages: .030; .045; .065; .085; .105; .130

I use DR Stainless Steel Lo-Riders as I prefer the feel of these strings. Their technique of compression winding adds mass to the strings and therefore more output is generated. These strings last quite a long time provided I remember to wipe them down after every gig and session.

Thomastik-Infeld Nickel Flatwound Roundcore JF346
String Guages: .033; .043; .056; .070; .100; .136

These low tension flatwound strings are perfect for my third Mollerup Trinidad Bass Guitar. From string to string, the tension is even which makes their playability quite remarkable. Much like the Rotosound strings I explain below, I don’t plan on replacing these strings.

Rotosound Swing Bass 66 Stainless Steel Roundwound RS665LD
String Guages: .045; .065; .085; .105; .130

I have a ten year old set of these on the Salsa Special. The more grease and the more sweat they acquire, the more funk they require! Yes, indeed, these strings will never be replaced. I purposefully don’t wipe them down after gigs and sessions!


Other accessories ...

Ernie Ball Volume Pedal Passive Junior
Anthony Jackson paved the way by demonstrating the expressive possibilities of using a volume pedal. The volume pedal is also a practical tool since my Mollerup Trinidad bass guitars do not have any volume knobs (or knobs of any kind, for that matter!)

SansAmp Tech 21 DI
I used this, along with my Salsa Special, during my tenure with Orquesta BC Salsa. It was nice not having to carry an amplifier each time we played the Gecko Club. This preamp lives in my gig bag in case my onstage amplification ever failed.


Recording Signal Chain ...

From my heart and my head to my hands, to the bass guitar, into the Eden WT400LE. All equalization settings are flat and no compression or limiting takes place on the Eden. From there, one output goes to an Avalon U5 DI and the other output goes into a Millennia Media HV3D. Both channels then go into the MOTU 828 mk II. If the client requests a amp sound, I setup a send from the WT400LE to the CXM110 cabinet and I place an Audio Technica 4050 mic in front of the speaker. This third channel also goes into the Millenia Media HV3D then to the MOTU 828 mk II.

I record both (or three) channels to 48khz and 24bit with no compression and no equalization to tape. This method captures all of the nuances and subtleties inherent in the playing. The two (or three) channels are then phase adjusted, bounced to one mono track, and slight compression or equalization is applied, if required.


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