Useful Stuff to Know » article » Getting that "piano" sound for your Bass Guitar » Apr 6, 04:19 PM

Getting that "piano" sound for your Bass Guitar

The low piano keys have a distinct metallic grumble to them. You may have heard the same type of bright grumble in certain bass guitar sounds, especially in rock and metal. This type of bass sound has way more harmonics than, say, the sound you get from plucking flatwound strings with your fingers on a clean amp.

Why do we want a piano type sound? Because instead of a muffled booming, you get a muscular, defined, agile, powerful type of bass that cuts through. This is especially important in rock and metal where guitar distortion may override bass definition.

How do we achieve the “piano” tone?

Get Good Strings — NEW Strings

First you need strings that emit a rich harmonic content when plucked or picked. Two top choices are:

1) DR Lo-Rider overwound strings. Deep low end, clear piano-like top, balanced mids, lasts a long time. Hex core, stiffer and thus holds up better at lower tunings.

2) DR Hi-Beam strings. More mids and upper mids, brighter top, more flexible than the Lo-Riders. Round core.

3) D’Addario ProSteels. Brighter and clankier than DR, but go dead faster. Also rougher on the frets and fingers, but again they are brighter. They are also 1/2 the cost of DR.

DR strings like the Lo-Rider or Hi-Beams are over/compression wound so that more metal is wrapped on the core string for the same gauge versus other brands. More metal packed together means more longitudinal vibrations, and thus more harmonics. This makes them more similar to piano strings than, say, Ernie Balls. Unlike a guitar, the bass is extremely dependent on the kind of strings used because half of what you hear is the harmonics, which vary greatly with string type. So try some DR strings.

Use Clean Strings

If you must record with old strings and can’t afford new ones, then get a quart of SLX Denatured Alcohol, pour into a large mason jar or tight seal rubbermaid tub, put your bass strings in there and soak overnight (two nights is best). Next day, take out – rub down – dry off, and put back on your bass. Keep the alcohol tightly covered or pour back into the canister. Keep away from flames, don’t breathe in, use gloves. This cleaning technique will restore your strings to 90% new sound.

Use Good Pluck Technique

Second, the way you pluck or pick the strings determines how many fundamental or harmonics are set into motion. The shorter the contact time between pick and string, the more harmonics are generated. Fingers with their wide contact points will give the most rounded and muffled tone unless they are calloused and rough.

For rock and metal, unless you are a pro with finger plucking, try using a pick. If you use a thin flexible pick like a Fender Medium will give the brightest, while a Jazz III pick will provide more bass but less mid/treble. Picking near the bridge is brighter but more twangy, near the neck boomier but floppy. Tortex picks are scratchy sounding and give a lot of bite and harmonic overtones, which assists with the piano tone.

There is a “secret” plucking technique that combines the thump of fingerstyle with the harmonics of a pick. To do this, slap and pluck in one motion. That is, keep the first finger joint (closest to the tip) relatively straight and slap the pad of your finger onto the string, 45 degrees toward the body, so that the string hits the fretboard, and add just a bit of pluck into it as you follow through and release the string. The two should happen almost simultaneously. It should sound very clacky from the string hitting the frets. Through overdrive or rolled down treble, the clack won’t be that bad. But like slap playing, you get more harmonics this way. It’s how you can play with fingers while still cutting through. Low action helps a lot with this. Many metal fingerstyle players use this method.

Keep Your Mids

Third, the actual piano timbre is all located in the mids and upper mids of your bass sound, in the 600-2500 Hz region. On the EQ, don’t scoop your upper mids or muffle all your trebles, you need them. A bass that sounds kind of middy by itself, may end up sounding very nice and defined in a mix with distorted guitars.

Process with Distortion

Easiest way to do this is use a Tech 21 Bass Driver or Hartke Bass Attack pedal. This gives a certain bass sound heard on many albums.

An alternative is to split the bass track into two copies and distort just one of those, then blend. That is, you record DI (directly into the software) first. Then duplicate the track. The first track will be your rounded full bottom, the second your harmonics.

Low pass your first track around 100 to 150 and compress the hell out of it. You want this to be an even tone (especially important for slower metal styles).

Compress and high pass the second track around 500 or higher, so that you get all the tin-canny harmonics from it, then run this through a guitar amp/cab simulator to give it a creamy to raspy (but not fizzy) distortion. You can add a stereo room verb to this as well, thus leaving the bottom bass track mono and the upper just stereo enough to not be boring.

Note: bridge and neck pickups may require different low pass and high pass points.

Then adjust the volume between both tracks to make it sound balanced, full, and defined. You can reduce the rounded track and increase the volume of the distorted track to create a leaner sound, or the opposite for a fuller sound.

In keeping them center panned, the bass remains distinct from the rhythm guitars, which themselves should be panned near full left and full right to create stereo spread and leave the center open for vocals, bass, kick, and snare.

You can send both tracks to a single buss, apply further compression to glue them together, and then some final polishing EQ. Even add some saturation if required.

By having the rounded bottom track, you create fullness to the whole package. And by having the distorted second bass track, the listener can make out the bass line. Since the distorted track is the same recording as the rounded track, the listener’s brain perceives both as one, and it sounds like a full yet distinct bass. The harmonics, accentuated by the guitar amp sim distortion, is what grabs the attention, while the rounded bottom remains in the background as a subliminal supporter of the fullness.

Can you just run one bass track through a guitar amp simulator? Well, the problem is that the distortion algorithm distorts the lower harmonics and fundamental frequency as well, leading to a farting sound. You don’t want a farty bass, but one with clean full bottoms and distorted high-definition highs, and the methods outlined in this article will get you there.

Get Different Pickups

Humbucking bass pickups have two coils in them whose signals combine. Because the coils are slightly apart, each will pick up vibrations from a slightly different part of the string. Because those parts don’t have exactly the same waveforms, some frequencies (certain harmonics) will cancel and some will sum together. The canceling of frequencies may lead to a kind of muted, muddled, or colored sound. This may be interfering with the piano tone. Hence by moving to a single coil pickup, that issue is avoided.

Precision and Jazz basses use pickups who, individually, don’t have a frequency canceling effect because each pickup only uses one coil per string. Hence you will retain more harmonics with those. For instance, EMG offers the 35PX and 35JX pickups, which are for 4 string basses with the 3.5” soapbar form factor. These have different sounds, but they will be clearer than an EMG 35DCX or 35CSX which are humbuckers. Thus putting an EMG 35JX in the neck will give a somewhat middy but very clear tone with lots of harmonics, whereas putting an EMG PX there will give a thumpier, more solid sound with slightly less harmonics but still more than a regular humbucking pickup.