Friday, December 10, 2010

Back to Bass

As I've mentioned here before, I play guitar and bass (and a little bit of drums, and piano; neither of which I have practiced much of in years).

What I haven't mentioned, is that it's been almost 10 years since I've owned a bass; mostly due to moving around a lot (College, Air Force, then a security consultant, then an IT consultant, finally settled down into a non-travel job 5 years ago but I've moved three times since), and not having the time to get back into it.

I sold, lost, had stolen, or had burned down from under me, all my guitars by about 8 years ago; but about four years ago Mel bought me a guitar for Christmas.

Me being me, I started accumulating gear again; and now I've got a half decent acoustic, a nice Jackson archtop Dinky DKMGT in trans-black flame maple, and a REALLY nice quilted maple trans black Epi Les Paul (all picked up for WAY less than list, either on major discount or used); and a pair for Fender amps for them (a G-DEC 15w 8" practice amp, and a Frontman 212r 100w rewired with 2x12 Celestion vintage 30s).

I've even got a decent multi-effects processor; a Line 6 PODxt-Live that I basically stole from the guy selling it ($300 for it, the Fender Frontman amp, 8 good quality cables - $15 each at least, a Shure SM58 mic worth $100 on its own, a pair of XLR cables, and two mic stands).

Really, as far as guitars go, the only thing I kinda want right now is a really nice custom piece (which I can't really justify the cost of at the moment) or maybe one of the new higher end Godins (really great guitar company out of Montreal, newly expanded and really doing some great things); and a new head and cab instead of my combo amp (I like my combo, but I want a nice head and cab to play with. Thing is, I've got better things to do with $2000... though I'd kinda like the Line 6 spider 150 half stack, at $650...).

Oh and I'd love a thin body 14 fret cutaway Martin, but again, I can't really justify the price (Martin only makes the cutaway as a thin body from their custom shop. Runs about $4,000 to start... maybe $15k the way I'd really like it. And no, there's really no justification for why it costs that much except "because they can").

We've even got a digital piano here,  (a Yamaha YPG-235, which they call a "portable grand piano"), because it's easier to compose with a keyboard, easier to learn a vocal with one, and easier to teach music with one (since the kids want to learn, and we're more than glad to teach them). Plus, it's a half decent drum machine and a metronome, both of which are useful in general.

But that's all just gear, and I want to talk about music first.

The Musician

I've been listening to a lot of modern jazz, fusion, funk, groove metal, prog metal, and progressive rock this past year. Victor Wooten, Billy Sheehan, Jaco, Claypool, Dream Theater, Al DiMeola, Leo Kottke, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller...

I mean I've listened to all of them for years, but that's been MOST of what I've listened to (on my own anyway. Mel mostly listens to country, so I listen to country about half the time just as background noise... I don't consider that real listening) recently.

Listening to all that, I've realized over maybe the last few months, that I really want to get back into bass again; maybe more than I want to play guitar (at least for now)... and given my 25 year love affair with the electric guitar, that's saying something.

Funny thing is how exact that number really is... I know exactly how long it is since I figured out I wanted an electric guitar. It was July 3rd 1985; so 25 years plus five months. 

Anybody know what the significance of that date is? Extra points if you get it without clicking on the link.

What got me interested in bass was something else entirely... and this is going to sound weird... but it was TV theme songs. Specifically, Barney Miller, Night Court, Sanford and Son, and a couple of others.

"Sanford and Sons" was written and produced by music legend Quincy Jones (it's actual title is "The Streetbeater") and the bass on the track was performed by the very well known and respected funk, R&B and fusion bassist Chuck Rainey; who also performed the bass for the M.A.S.H theme (the TV theme, not the "Suicide is Painless" recording used in the movie).

"Miller" was performed by two very well known session bassists, Jim Hughart and Chuck Burghofer; both of whom have performed on literally thousands of famous jazz, funk, and other records. There were two different recordings. Burghofer co-wrote the bass line, and played it on the original recording and the "alternate" version used in the last two seasons, but Hugart played the on air version used in the first few seasons.

The "Night Court" bass line was co-written and performed by one of the greatest bassists (and multi-instrumentalist jazz virtuoso) of all time, Marcus Miller.
NOTE: The "Night Court" and "Barney Miller" themes were both written and produced by the same guy, the late, great Jack Elliott (along with his writing partner Allyn Ferguson); and both are available in full song length versions on Elliotts CDs.

As it happens, the creator of "Night Court", Reinhold Weege, was the head writer on Miller for several years; and he had noted how important the Miller theme was to the shows success... it just stuck in peoples heads, had them thinking about the show. That's part of what a great TV theme gives you.

Relatively unknown except by hardcore fans of jazz, professional jazz musicians, and industry insiders; Elliott was a HUGE force in keeping Jazz alive and well  from the 60s through the 80s. He and Ferguson wrote themes for a dozen or more TV shows; most notably S.W.A.T, Charlies Angels, Banacek, Police Story, and Starsky & Hutch.

Elliott was the music director for dozens TV shows including the Andy Williams show, and the Smothers Brothers show, and was the composer for dozens more films and television shows; as well as the musical director of several jazz bands and orchestras. Notably, he was the long time musical director for the academy awards, the Emmys, and for 30 consecutive years, the Grammys.

Elliott knew talent, and kept as much of it as he could on hand. In so doing, he kept a lot of great talents in the Jazz, Funk, and R&B world employed and playing, for decades, when their particular musical genres weren't commercially viable.
Those shows just had some cool bass playing... In fact, in talking with a lot of bass players around my age, I've found a lot of guys said the same thing... That it was their first exposure to bass as a distinct musical element, not just the background to rock music etc... Judging from the number of youtube videos of people playing the groove from the "...Miller" theme, I don't doubt it.

Then, when I was around 11 or 12, I got into funk (and soul, and classic R&B), punk, and metal, all basically at the same time; and it was all over.

Of course, funk and soul would have been enough by themselves. From James Jamerson with the funk brothers rhythm section on all those great motown records; to Duck Dunn laying it down behind Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and all the Stax greats; to Bootsie locking it in for James Brown and P-Funk; to Larry Graham slapping the bottom for Sly and the Family Stone.

I think it was Graham slappin and poppin that whole damn bass line on "Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" that finally made me say: "that's it, I have to have a bass".

I was lucky enough to be able to find a decent used Squier Standard P-bass, and a little Peavey practice amp, that didn't quite take ALL my money; and I started learning the basics.

I think the first "hard" thing (i.e. a real song that wasn't a basic bass line from a book) I learned to play was the line from Stevie Wonders "I Wish" (which of course Will Smith later used on "Wild Wild West"); one of the few songs of that era where Stevie wasn't playing the bass line himself (either faking it on the clavichord, or just playing the bass - having been taught to play bass "motown style" by James Jamerson in 1965). A lot of folks really love the "bass" on "Superstition" or "Higher Ground" for example, not knowing the bass line in both songs, is actually Stevie faking a slap bass sound on the clavichord (and in most covers, the cover artist will play the lines on bass).

It wasn't until my late teens that I really got into Jazz, when somebody gave me Coletranes "Blue Train"; and I pretty much went crazy buying every CD reissue of a Blue Note, or Prestige etc... record I could find (thus finding Miles, and Monk, and Bird and... yeah... I could easily go bankrupt in a record store, trust me)... and of course, that's how I first heard Paul Chambers (one of the best double bassists of Jazz), Ron Carter (possibly the most recorded bassist of all time), and later Marcus Miller...

Then I started listening to more Rush and Cream than they played on classic rock radio (the entire Disraeli Gears album was a revelation, nevermind 2112)... then Primus came out big... Then Tool.
NOTE: For progmetal geeks, I take the position that Paul D'amour is better than Justin Chancellor... No disrespect, Chancellor is great, but "Undertow" is an all time classic album and "├ćnema" is just... damn. They recorded most of "├ćnema" with D'amour, but replaced him with Chancellor before the tour... Though OK, I'll take the argument that Lateralus is at least as good... I disagree but I see the point.
Then around 1995, I heard Dream Theaters "A Change of Seasons", and it totally blew my brain away.

Then I started listening to the EARLY Chilis records (and I found "Get up and Jump", and Hollywood, and  Jungle Man. and Skinny Sweaty Man... not great "songs", but really great bass playing. I honestly think Flea is the best bassist in rock outside of metal and prog rock) ...

...and I finally started really LISTENING to the really great musicians and music around me, rather than just hearing it.

I had been listening to Mr. Big for years, without ever really getting how amazing Billy Sheehan was (or Paul Gilbert for that matter, but I did at least have an appreciation of shredders).

I had listened to three Chili Peppers albums ("Mothers Milk", "Blood Sugar Sex Magik", and "One Hot Minute") before I ever figured out how great Flea was. Though in my defense, this was post Hillel Slovak, when the Chilis focused less on Fleas rhythms, and more on the vocals and guitar of John Frusciante... and "one hot minute" wasn't very good to boot... but the cover of Stevies "Higher Ground" on "...Milk" alone should have given me a clue, especially since "...Milk" was my first Chilis record).

Finally, I was probably 21 or 22 when I found Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and the incomparable Victor Wooten. Unfortunately, by then, I didn't have a bass anymore... though frankly, trying to play Wootens stuff back then would probably just have permanently discouraged me...

Anyway, what brought me to bass, was the love of the music... and the fact that I'm a total gear queer. I have a total and complete love for gadgets and gear, and a real love for beautifully shaped and figured wood.

I appreciate guitars, and bass guitars, both for the music you can make with them, and as expressions of the luthiers craft; as pieces of art rendered in wood.

Which brings me back to the hardware side of things...

The Gear Queer

Now, when I started playing, over 20 years ago, it cost a serious amount of cash to set yourself up with a decent bass rig... at least $700 to get a playable four string, if you wanted new, from a reasonable manufacturer, with a playable and stable neck, tuners that wouldn't slip, acceptable pickups etc... and they would of course be passive pickups (active electronics were just starting to really be a thing in basses outside of high end professionals and studio guys then).

You could expect to go $1200 plus for something really worthwhile; or over $5k for an Alembic, a Conklin, or a Fodera (but that's an entirely different league, and they're about double that now).

And that was in 1990 money.... $700 in 1990 is about $1200 in todays dollars.

A couple months ago when I started thinking about this, I took a look around... and man, things have changed.

You can get a very nice, reasonable looking bass, with decent passive pickups (EMG basically dominates the market), for under $500... You can even get a 5 string, with a through neck, good tone woods and solid active electrics (though generally not particularly pretty) for like $700.

Amps and cabs have come way down as well.

Back then, you could expect to pay over $500 at least... more likely over $1000 for an acceptable head, and another $1000 for the cab (never mind practice amps. I've never heard a bass practice amp I would bother spending any money on. Of course these days you can get one for under a hunny...).

Now you can get a perfectly acceptable head for $400 (or less), and a pretty decent 4x10 cab for another $400 (or less). You can even get a 450 watt Ampeg with a 4x10 cabinet for $1100 (though your classic Ampeg stack is still going to run you $2000+)

So anyway that very day, I was looking through basses at Amazon, and they had the Dean Edge Q5 ($800 list, usually about $550 street. 5 string, with a quilt maple top, bass body, 5 layer laminate maple and mahogany bolt on, and EMG 40hz passives with an active pre-eq), on special sale, $220...


Unfortunately, it was out of stock (not surprising considering the price), but they allowed backorder at that price so I said "what the hell", and I ordered it.

I figure for $220, I couldn't possibly go wrong.

As time went on, and they never updated my "in stock" date, or ship by date, I started getting the feeling they were going to cancel; but I decided I wanted a bass this year anyway.

In particular I wanted a 5 string; for the extended low range, and the ability to use lighter strings for bending and chording on the high frets while maintaining clean and bright tone, and still having that big beefy bottom B string for deep growl and grumble.

I think I'd like a six string at some point, but not to get reacquainted with the instrument. I don't see a 5 string as being too much more difficult than 4 string, but 6 string clearly is, simply because of the size of the fretboard and the string spacing.

So, I started looking for  a 5 string, preferably with pretty wood, active pickups, and neck through body construction.

Given those parameters I did some research, and came up with a pretty long list of possibilities, all between $650 and $800. So, I budgeted $800 for it; sold a couple of things, saved the money out for my Christmas gift budget etc...

As it happens, Amazon did cancel my order (actually they said they regretted they couldn't tell me when they might be able to fulfill my order, but I could keep waiting if I wanted. I didn't)...

...on Black Friday.

So, it being the number one shopping weekend of the year, and everyone and their mother offering special deals, I decided to take a look around; and man I'm glad I did.

... 'cuz I managed to snag one hell of a deal...

So for my Christmas present to myself this year, I picked up this:

It's a Dean Edge Pro 5: 5 string, 5 layer maple and rosewood laminate neck through basswood body with a bookmatched flame maple top and back, in transparent black, rosewood fingerboard, grover tuners, ABM single string bridges and brass string nut, EMG actives with a 3 band EQ (for 2010 they started branding the pickups as "Dean", but mine is a leftover 2009).

Price: $1000 list, about $700 street.

I paid.... $340

Yeah... No way I could pass that one up.

I was seriously thinking about the Schecter Stiletto Elite 5, or Stiletto Studio 5 (both very similar), both available for around $750-800 ($1200 list) from several places; but when that deal came up on the Dean no way I couldn't take it.

It's likely the Schecters are SLIGHTLY better wood (and on the Elite very slightly better fit and finish); but the Dean has better hardware, better pickups, and of course, LESS THAN HALF THE PRICE...

The other great thing about that deal was though, since I had budgeted $800 and since I had only spent $340 on the bass...

... Sweet, I had enough left in the budget for a real amp; instead of just scrimping up a hundred backs for a cheezy practice amp (like I said, I've never seen a bass practice amp worth spending any money on... though people tell me the Roland Cube is OK).

$440 gets a half decent combo amp on discount.

At first I thought I was going to end up with a decent brand 100 watt 1x15 combo or something similar... but looking around I found a deal on a Fender Rumble 350 watt 2x10 ($650 list) for $440...

I was about ready to push the button when I though just for the hell of it I'd look at what amazon had for cabs and heads.

I had already wishlisted a Hartke 2500, 250 watt head ($329 list, $249 at Amazon) and a Hartke 4x10xl cab ($469 list, $349 at Amazon); so I pulled those up, but together, they would've been over my budget.

However, what did I see in "related items", but a neat little Hartke 210xl, the 2x10 little brother to the 410xl half stack cab...

For $146 ($269 list)....


Ok, I can get the Hartke 2500 for $249 and the 210xl for $146... That's $395 for a pretty decent little setup for my music room.

I was about ready to do that, when I looked down at the related products listing, and saw the Behringer Ultrabass 1800 180watter (list $285), for $143.

Again I say DAMN those are great deals.

OK, combined, that's $289... still under my budget... by $151... So I bought both.

Ok... so 180 watts into a 2x10 isn't exactly a big fat setup. My though was, honestly, I'm not gigging with it, so the 2x10 with 180 watts behind it is probably more than I'll ever need at home.

...but I was being clever.  The Hartke 210XL is voicematched to the other cabinets in the XL product line; and is specifically designed to match up with the Hartke 115XL, a 1x15 cabinet ($399 list, $299 at amazon).

The 210xl has a higher extension, without the bottom, and the 115xl has the big fat bottom without the highs. Together they make a balanced, spacious, clear and defined sound, with plenty of thump; but not requiring the kind of power (or taking up the space) a 15 plus a 4x10 would take (at least 350 watts to really do it justice).

I like the sound of a 2x10 plus a big 15 better than a single 4x10 anyway; and stacked they're a 4ohm load (so you actually get the rated output on the amp) vs. the 8ohm load of each cabinet individually (most decent amps are stable at both 4ohm and 8ohm. Some can handle 2ohm, but most can't. However, stable or not, an 8 ohm load means a lot less rated power. In the case of the Behringer, it's 180watt vs 100 watt).

The one thing I was concerned about, both with the little Behringer, and the small cabinet; was the low B... I thought maybe the rolloff at 31-33hz might be too much for the 2x10 (probably more than 6db), and the power to clearly define that note may be too much for the little Behringer.

More on that later...

So, finally, what to do with that last $151 in the budget...

Hmm... I could get a couple decent pedals for that, or maybe a pedal and a headphone amp... Actually a headphone amp sounds like a good idea, but the Rockman is like $70 and you don't get much for that...

Then I remembered the Line 6 pocketPOD works with bass as well (and there are plenty of bass tones downloadable for it). Plus I don't have a headphone amp for my guitar, and of course it works with guitar... and it's a full multi-effects processor AND a modeler AND a headphone amp...

It's normally $180, but Amazon has it for... YES $129 plus $15 for the external power supply.


So I got a bass, amp, cab, and a preamp/modeler/mep/headphone amp, all for $793.

... or, not quite...

The Player

Everything arrived, and man, the bass is beautiful. It feels great in the hand, and it sounds great... unless I have a CFL light on nearby unfortunately, as the pickups pick up a bunch of noise off them (I may be able to fix that with some extra shielding, and wiring in a noise filter, or I may need to switch to different pickups. My guitar pickups for example don't have that problem).

Most importantly, it PLAYS great. It's got a feel WAY better than any other bass I've played that didn't cost more than $2k.

The amp and cab came in too, and they're great. Good looking, and for the most part good sounding... but for one problem...

...That open low B string I was worried about before.

At low volume, or fretted up past low C, they're fine. Unfortunately,  the amp doesn't have the power or frequency response to handle the open B string. The 210XL seems to handle it alright at low volume, but that's all the Behringer can drive at that low frequency without badly distorting (and yes, it's definitely the amp distorting, not the cabinet).

If it was a regular 4 string bass, it wouldn't be an issue, but that low B is just a killer.

So, I'm going to return the Behringer 180 watt, and get a more powerful amp; either the Hartke HA2500 (250 watt), or the Behringer Ultrabass 4500 (450 watt). That should drive the 2x10 enough to be acceptable (though not perfect), until I can afford the $300 to add on the big 15"; and either should be enough power to drive the two cab stack at 4 ohms.

I'm still very happy with the bass and the 2x10 though; and I'm leaning strongly towards going with the all Hartke solution.