Wednesday, June 29, 2005

How long is yours?

Well, how long is it, really? Mine's kind of short, to be honest.

I'm talking about your neck, of course.

That is...the neck of your bass.

Bass guitars, like string basses, come in different sizes. The primary measure is the scale length -- the distance the string spans between the bridge and the nut. Leo Fender's original Precision bass had a scale length of 34 inches. When Gibson got into building electric basses a few years later, they used a scale length of about 30.5 inches. Most modern basses are built to a scale length of 34" or longer.

For better or worse, my first electric bass was a 1965 Gibson EB-0. I had started out as a cello player, and then played electric guitar in several bands. I became accustomed to playing on the Gibson short scale, and found that I could play with a lot of speed, particularly because I played with a pick. The pick also imparted a brighter sound, partially offsetting the EB-0's deep, dark sound.

Once I got to L.A. and started making some decent money playing, I started seeking "improvements" in my tone, and the primary way I did this was by adding pickups and knobs. First was a Fender Jazz pickup near the bridge. Then came a Gibson EB-3 bridge pickup and a Fender Precision pickup. Pretty soon I had a genuine Frankenbass! I ran each signal out a separate jack to a mixer -- a quadraphonic bass!!!

A few years later, in 1973, I picked up a Gibson Les Paul Triumph bass, and that remains my main bass to this day.

All of this is a roundabout way to come to the subject of tone. Short-scale basses are perceived to be at a disadvantage tone-wise. The shorter string length means the same string will be at a lower tension to produce the same note. Lower tension means less sustain, fewer high frequencies, and a generally more indistinct tone. I do own one 34" scale bass, but I really play my best on the short Gibson. So I have had to learn how to get a good tone out of it in different settings.

Playing position:

Today I mainly play with my first two fingers (and occasionally my thumb) when playing in a jazz setting. I anchor my thumb on the neck pickup, and pluck the strings at different spots varying from directly over the neck pickup to almost directly over the bridge pickup. There are several "sweet spots" in there that maximize the tone for each string. Of cours, the closer to the bridge you pluck, the richer the tone will be in upper harmonics. One trick I use a lot is that if I'm trying to play a really sweet low note on the E string, I'll shift my fingers to play it closer to the bridge. This brings out the pitch and really lets it sing. Conversely, I'll sometimes play high notes on the G string by plucking near the neck to give them a mellow tone.


Ah, the eternal quest for the perfect strings. When I started playing, flatwounds were all you could get. I always looked for the brightest-sounding flats possible, particularly for the E string. I often had a mis-matched set, if I found a particularly nice E. String technology has advanced a great deal since those days. I find that I get a nice full sound with modern roundwounds, and a good set that's made explicitly for short-scale instruments has just as much tension and sustain as a long-scale set.


Your choice of amplifier is as personal as your choice of instrument or strings. There are choices to be made: tube vs. transistor; single big speaker vs. multi small speakers; and on and on. I have owned huge tube rigs (and I do mean HUGE -- my biggest rig had 2 18" speakers and 4 15" speakers, and 400 watts of amp). I've also owned a 2x15 Kustom transistor amp, a 2x15 Traynor tube amp, and I currently play through either a Roland Cube-30 (transistor, 1 10" speaker) or an SWR combo amp with a 15" speaker. Something I like to do is to crank the input level up and the output level down. This lets me "dig in" and get a little edge of distortion on the attack of the note if I want it. The Roland also has amp-modeling, a little compressor, and a couple of effects which is very cool.

Also, I have found that getting the amp up off the floor and tilting it back a little has a very positive effect on the tone, at least to my ears. I bought a collapsable stand that lifts the little Roland amp and tilts it back. For the larger SWR amp, I installed removable casters. If I pop the rear casters out, it tilts back quite nice nicely.

Well that's my little rant about bass tone. Feel free to post comments, rebuttals, etc.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Perseverance on the bandstand

The Seventh Street jazz band played last Saturday outdoors at the Visitor Center at Multnomah Falls. We played this gig last year, too. Last year it was viciously hot, and I nearly got sunstroke from the sun beating down on my bald head! This year was decidedly different.

There was a forecast of rain, as there had been for several days previously. Here in Oregon, we realize that rain comes and goes, and you can still schedule events for rainy days. We got set up at about 1:00 PM, and the park rangers provided a couple of canvas shelters, about 12x12 feet each. We squeezed under these, and just as we started the first tune at 2:00 PM, the rain started coming down.

Through the first set, the rain increased in intensity. The flashes of light that I first thought were fans taking pictures, turned out to be lightning. Thunder rolled through the gorge, and the temperature started dropping.

We took a break about 3:00, and huddled under the shelters. There was a place where the two shelters came together, and of course, that's where the water ran off in serious quantities -- right onto the trumpet section. We kicked off the second set, and by then, the only audience members still listening were under umbrellas. Our drummer Joel was defending himself from insects that were leaping off the nearby underbrush onto his drumheads and onto his face. All the players were fighting the cold and wet, and our fingers grew more and more numb. We kept pulling the amps closer into the shelter to try to keep them dry.

Finally, we finished about 4:00 PM and started to pack up. This, of course, was the cue for the rain to stop, and we managed to load out without getting too soaked.

I'll be interested in how some of the younger players in the band react to this less-than-ideal gig. It certainly is not the worst I've had. I recall in the '70s, our band went to Detroit to play a one-nighter on an island in the river between the US and Canada called Bob-Lo Island. We had to ride on a barge with the equipment to get there, and it was hailing the whole way. When we got onstage, we found that our gentle prog-rock melodies were being drowned out by the next band -- Brownsville Station -- "warming up" backstage at more-or-less full concert volume.

I think no experience is truly bad if you get a good story out of it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A few more pics from Fireside

Here are a couple more photos from the Fireside Jam last Saturday:

To see more pictures, take a look at the Portland Jazz Jams Blog.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Los Angeles and old friends

[This is a re-post from May 25]

I think I've finally recovered from my trip to Los Angeles enough to write about it! I was down there May 7th through 14th. This was my first real trip back to Southern California since June and I left there in 1989.


  • Well, it seems to me that they have not repaired any of the freeways since I was last there. They have gotten very, very ratty.
  • Governor Ah-nold is on TV all the time. I don't know who's paying for it, but every single commercial break on every channel has at least one ad with him imploring the populace to "Help me to fix Calli-fawn-ya."
  • During the day, you can get a break from soap operas by watching one of the many car chases live on TV. This has become such a big draw that the TV stations compete with each other for who covers car chases the best. Some stations have equipped their choppers with HDTV cameras, so you can get a really good look at the perp when the cops shoot him. And yes, they will definitely shoot him. If there's anything they understand down there, it's the importance of the "money shot."
  • More than half the broadcast TV stations are non-English, particularly in the UHF band.

Not that I actually spent much time watching TV. I spent the majority of each day hanging out with my 87-year-old Mother-in-law, running errands with her, and swapping stories. She's a terrific person, and I'm glad I got to spend so much time with her at the retirement home she lives in. He home is in Alhambra, which is south of Pasadena. Alhambra has become a largely Asian community in recent years, and at one local market I was able score some rather rare Chinese spices for June to use in cooking (which, of course, benefits me directly!).

In the evenings, I got to visit with some old friends from my LA days. It was very interesting to me that -- almost without exception -- each of these folks seemed to be at or getting close to a turning point in their lives. These are all people who are very special to me, and it was a wonderful gift to be able to spend time with them, share a few laughs about the old days, and catch up on what's been going on in the last few decades.

I'll try to get some pictures posted soon.


  • I'll be at the Fireside Coffee Lodge with Darren Littlejohn and lots of other great Portland Jazzers most Saturdays through the end of Summer at least - 9:00 PM to Midnight.
  • May 18th, 2:00 - 4:00 PM the 7th Street Jazz Band will play at the Multnomah Falls visitor's center out in the Columbia Gorge. We did this last year, and it was a lot of fun.
  • June 30th, 8:00 - 11: PM at C-Bar with guitarist Darren Littlejohn and jazz singer Armonica.
  • July 4th, 5:00 - 7:00 PM the 7th Street Jazz Band will play at Clackamette Park in Oregon City. I don't know too much about this gig, but it's Independence Day, so there will probably be hot dogs, beer, and sparklers.
  • July 16th, 7th Street Jazz Band will play at the Hubbard Hops Festival. I know this sounds corny (or maybe hoppy?), but it's a fun gig.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Getting fired...

Like a lot of musicians, I work a (non-music-related) day gig. Today we had a big layoff. In corporate-speak, that's a "RIF" (Reduction In Force). I still have my job, but a lot of good people don't.

It made me recall the two times I was actually fired from a band.

The first time I was fired from a band was in the mid 70s. I was traveling in Canada with a trio that was backing a lounge singer. It was New Year's Eve, and we were playing the Banff Springs Hotel. The piano player and I decided to drive to Calgary (about 100 miles away) for the day, and drive back in time for the gig. Well, winter being what it is, the drive that took about two hours on the way to Calgary in the morning, turned into a five-hour slog through a blizzard in the afternoon (and evening). We showed up about an hour and a half late, to find the singer doing his best to entertain the audience with just drums for accompaniment. We were both fired the next morning.

The second time, it was such a bizarre scene that I sometimes wonder if I remember it accurately. I was touring in a band that was backing a singer who had been famous at one time. We had been booked into a lounge in Vegas, and I was kind of looking forward to it -- I was going to get a Vegas union card and everything. However, the lounge manager came to hear us rehearse, and she minced no words. I was too tall and too "funny looking" to play in her lounge.

So, fired twice -- once my fault, once due to genetics.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Fun at the Fireside

I'm having a great time jamming with Darren Littlejohn and the other great musicians that come to the Fireside Coffee Lodge on Saturday nights. Last week we had FOUR terrific sax players and a fine young guitarist from California sitting in, as well as the luscious singing of Armonica.

Here's a snapshot of me and the aforementioned young guitarist (Eron) from June 4th:

Part of the fun for me is the variety, and the challenge of playing tunes that I have not played in years (or in some cases have NEVER played). Also, as a bass player, trying to establish a pocket with the variety of drummers that play at the jam really keeps me on my toes. They are all good players, but they are also very different from one another in their approach.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Happy birthday, June

Happy birthday to my beautiful, smart and creative wife, June!