How Fancy Does Your Bass Rig Need To Be?

Thoughts on what it really takes to get the job done

By Jon Liebman
January 31, 2019

As I write this, I’m on a plane, headed for the annual winter NAMM show in Anaheim, CA. When I get there, I’ll be one of 110,000 or so people checking out all sorts of instruments, gear, software, tools, gadgets, accessories – you name it. We’ll see countless manufacturers and vendors proudly displaying their latest offerings, many of which will be loaded with practically every kind of feature you can imagine.

Being confronted with so many options kind of begs the question: What do you really need to get the job done?

When you signed up to be a bass player, you (hopefully) went in knowing that your function is primarily to serve the band in a supporting role. You’re there to lay down the groove, outline the harmony, and make the music feel good. Oftentimes when it comes to bass features and effects, I find having a lot of excessive bells and whistles tends to be overkill, rarely providing anything we need to help us do our jobs as bass players.

I’ve never really been much of a gear-head, mostly because, well, I just don’t get it. Back in the’80s, when the whole tech craze was out of control, I subscribed to all the technical magazines for musicians, I hung out and toured with guys who talked non-stop about music gear (often in very rapid Spanish!), and I tried to learn everything I could about MIDI, which had suddenly become all the rage. Those days, one of my biggest frustrations was feeling like the computer people and the music people just didn’t understand each other, causing me untold grief as I sat there, dumbfounded, in front of my Macintosh Plus and Jambox interface.

I got to thinking about all this during my interview with Shaun Munday, published this week. One of the things Shaun mentioned in the interview was how he didn’t like getting bogged down with an overabundance of knobs and a thousand ways of tweaking the sounds coming out of his instrument; he just wanted a bass that felt good and sounded good, and didn’t require a lot of technical prowess to operate.

While I have a lot of respect for gear-heavy bass players, like Ryan Martinie, Freekbass, Matt Garrison and many others, there’s also something to be said for players in the “less is more” school, who don’t incorporate a lot processing and gadgetry into their sound. Like most everything else, choosing a bass rig is often a matter of taste and preference – and need.

Personally, I like to keep things simple. I use my modified 4-string for almost everything. I play it through a 100-watt amp with basic, “traditional” EQ options, and a cabinet with two 10” speakers. If I need a bigger sound, I might also use second cabinet with a 15” woofer and a horn. I seldom use any effects, though I might pull out the old chorus pedal once in a great while. The upright, with a pickup, goes straight into the amp.

This setup has served me quite well for over 30 years, as I’ve played everything from jazz gigs and Broadway shows to club dates, rock shows and tons of other stuff. For the really big venues, I’ll go through the house system, either by taking the line out from my amp or playing through whatever is provided on the backline. I have a couple 5-strings and some fretlesses, but they’re only used a fraction of the time for gigs and sessions.

It all comes down to being able to give the music what it needs, and finding the means to get it there. I never felt like I needed much in order to make that happen. Give me a bass that’s well made, feels good to play and sounds good and I’m happy.

What about you?

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you think.

In the meantime, check out my interview with Shaun here.

Comments on How Fancy Does Your Bass Rig Need To Be?

  1. Franz Scheurer says:

    Upright I play straight from the amp
    Fretless: the same
    Fretted: I like to use a BossGT 108 processor where I have 4 custom sounds pre-programmed and each is accessible through a simple press of a pedal.
    I use a 100 Watt GK amp and a cabinet with 2 x 10″ speakers
    Good enough for most venues

  2. Terri Templeman says:

    I’ve never been into effects on the bass, I’ve never gone in for fancy gear. I play through a Gallien Krueger head that’s about 20 years old and a Hartke cabinet with 2 10″ speakers. It does the job, sounds great.

  3. Andrew Hudson says:

    You should re-publish your interview with Carol Kaye. Her abundance of gear was a necessity in order to replicate certain sounds of various basses that a producer was looking for. Amps, strings, basses, effects. I tend to agree with you that a good sounding bass is a good sounding bass, period. But that statement neglects the question ‘why does that bass sound so good?’

  4. John Wallach says:

    As an “old guy” player (62! Playing since age 13), I’ve tried almost everything. From my teenage Fender Bassman with a 2-15″ JBL cabinet (which is probably what messed up my back to this day), to an Eden WT-300 setup for years (2-10 and a 115 on bottom), then to Genz-Benz, now to Demeter 800 watt head & two Genzler 112 cabs. The continued logic line–lighter, lighter lighter! My back can only take so much.

    I like the tone and power of the Demeter. Definitely overkill, it’s never been turned up over 4 on any gig. It’s all about the headroom, I never have to worry about distortion from the head unless needed. And it’s light, tubes and D-class, but built like a tank. Best of all worlds.

    The two Genzler cabs–again, not just for volume. I used to play with one cab, but two gives a rounder, fuller tone even at moderate volumes. Playing louder, the entire rig kills! Plus, it’s taller so I can hear myself better if we’re at a smaller job without stage monitors. (FYI, I play blues, rock, jazz)

    Effects–just three, and only occasionally. Analogman Chorus; Boss Octaver; Dunlop Bass Wah. The Octaver & Wah mostly for solos, the chorus on some songs where it adds depth.

    Thanks for publishing FBPO, always a bright spot in my day!

  5. Protean Polymath says:

    I agree. Way too much stuff out there. I’m old school, and followed somewhat the same path that you went by. Let the fingers do the talking.

  6. marcus davis says:

    I don’t need alot of fancy gadgets as long as i get a good solid tone and i can hear myself thats it.

  7. Rick Auvil says:

    In my bass world, playing the correct part is the most important thing. For the symphony, I just need my double bass, my bow, and sometimes a mute.
    Musical shows might require my upright to be amplified, or an electric or two. Usually my Gallien- Kruger 112 does the trick. Maybe a four, a five-string or a fretless.
    Go with the flow, prepare well, open your ears, and lay it down! It’s all music and it’s all great fun!

  8. Alvin Campbell says:

    Although I love to hear other bass players use pedals and gadgets, and I have a few pedals myself, I usually never use them while gigging. Unless the band I happen to be playing with ask for certain sounds. So for me, it’s a good bass, and a good amp/cabinet set up, with my bass set with some nice highs for some popping, mids set just below the middle, and the bass set about 3/4 the way up. The amp is usually set about the same.

  9. Bob Burnham says:

    I use NO effects! I bought the Carvin BXR-500 when it was on sale (before Carvin went out of business)…it replaced an Ashdown Mag 300 (which kept blowing fuses). The Carvin has way more features than I need, but played thru a 2X10 cab, it can handle any size venue and has a built in DI. My #1 bass is a Fender American Deluxe 5 string with the 18 volt active electronics. It can provide a variety of tone for any style from jazz, blues or classic rock. My #2 is a fretless also Fender American J-bass that can approach the sound of a stand-up.

  10. J G says:

    I have learned that, if you want to hear your bass playing at its finest, be sure to protect your ears. Speakers, strings, amps, other gear are only as good as your ability to hear their full sonority. The hard part is finding an ear protection system that does not get in the way of you hearing yourself as you’re playing.

  11. Matt Hudson says:

    I’m in two minds on this one. I love John Stockman’s and Justin Chancellor’s tones. They don’t settle for vanilla tones, and it’s nice to hear different sounds on different songs. However, my other bass godheads (Police Era Sting & Beatles/Wings era Macca) were very effects shy, apart from maybe a bit of Chorus and old school comp. I’ve got a stupidly large pedalboard, and a bonkers amount of pedals. Whilst I love them all, they only get used sporadically (apart from my comp), as most of the time the songs don’t need it. It depends what I’m playing: ‘Traditional’ songs require a more standard sound, but when I go a little more ‘out there’ it’s fun to experiment. I treat my effects collection as a treat my bass collection. Different songs require different tools. I don’t get my undies in a bundle if I don’t use a certain bass for a while, so why sweat it if my effects only get a look in periodically.

  12. Jay Chungo says:

    I switch between various electrics and a double bass…the most important parts of my pedal chain are the ABY, ABCY and volume switches…all the rest just add a certain flavor for whatever genre or just for fun. I play through an Orange Terror Bass 500 hybrid tube head and an Orange SP212 cab which only comes off of 2 on the volume if I’m playing the double (since that channel goes straight to the head)…headroom is everything for me

  13. T. Large says:

    I have been playing for 33 years. For most of that time I used a particular brand in all sorts of variations. All with a 350 watt (nonpro) head from the early 90’s. I’ve had an 8×10,6×10,4×10,2×10 with 1×15,
    And in the last few years I’ve
    Paired down to. The TC electronic rh 450 and an acme lowb 2×10. So far its been a solid combination. I play mostly rock in a 5 piece band with 4 and 5 string basses.
    As for effects pedals. I’ve owned a compression and a distortion/compressor.
    The only one I use is the staight compression pedal. Even that is sparingly.

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