Want your slap tone to sound more like Victor Wooten, Flea, Les Claypool, Marcus Miller and other slap bass greats? No problem! There are many free and inexpensive tricks, adjustments and accessories that can help you sound like your favorite bassists!
Before we get started, remember that tone is extremely subjective. One bassist's idea of good slap tone might sound horrible to another. You'll need to experiment and practice to find just the right tone for your ears.
The first thing you'll need to get good slap tone is proper technique.
Your overall tone and performance will improve if you keep your slapping hand as relaxed as possible. When slapping or popping, attack by rotating your hand at the wrist only, moving your thumb toward the stings when slapping and pulling your finger(s) away from the strings when popping. Make sure not to rotate your hand more than 30 degrees in either direction, you will be faster and get less fatigued.
When slapping with your thumb, you want the side of the pad/knuckle to bounce off the string just hard enough to slap it against the frets. When popping, place the pad of a finger on the portion of the string facing the floor without using too much or too little of the pad. You want just enough friction so the string snaps lightly against the frets as your finger slides off the string with the least amount of force possible.
You can also experiment with attacking the strings at different points down their lengths, listening for tonal differences. Many bassists slap right over the last few frets and pop very close to the end of the fretboard. Others attack at different points and many even change which part of the string they attack between notes, phrases, songs, etc. Play around and find what's best for you in terms of comfort and sound.
If you haven't been playing bass very long, you might take a few lessons with a good slap bass instructor to work out any kinks in your technique. It is far easier to get things right from the start rather than spending hours un-learning bad habits. Also, remember there are many different styles of slap and you'll need to find the one that sounds and feels right to you. Developing the nuances of your own slap style can take years of experimentation and....
The only way (outside of the Matrix) to develop your technique is practice, practice, practice! You probably won't sound like your slap bass idol the first time you play a bass. In fact, you might not even sound like the pros in your first few years, it all depends on how much and how consistently you practice. In fact, consistency is more important than quantity. It's better to practice a little every day than a lot every three days. Your brain and muscles develop memory faster if they are exposed to practice on a daily basis. If you are serious about playing bass, practice one hour per day minimum. The more consistent hours of practice you get, the faster your slap tone will develop.
OK, on to the easier, faster ways to improve your slap tone!
NOTE: When adjusting your bass, be it string gauges or action height, you run the risk of throwing other things out of adjustment. If you aren't familiar with truss rods, action, intonation, etc., you may want to have your bass adjusted by a professional. Fortunately, most basic adjustments only cost around $40!
Action is the distance between the strings and frets and it has a huge effect on slap tone. In fact, it may be the most important factor. Lower action puts the strings closer to the fretboard, making it much easier to bounce them off the frets. Using less force, you'll be able to relax your hand more, play faster and add articulation to your sound.
"Low Action" is generally defined as 3/32" on the bass strings and 1/16" on the treble strings (measured between string and 12th fret while instrument is in playing position). The author prefers even lower action, slightly less than 1/16" on both bass and treble sides, for his optimum slap tone.
If you are striving to sound more like Victor Wooten and/or similar bassists, try lowering your action. You might be amazed at how much it can change your bass' tone and help you sound more like your musical role-models!
(Bass' action is 0.110" (~1/8") on the bass strings and 0.100" on the treble strings)
(Bass' action is 0.066" (~1/16) on the bass strings and 0.055" on the treble strings)
Hear the difference? Even though the bass' action is higher in the first clip, you probably noticed that the tone was still pretty "slappy". This is because 1/8" action is still reasonably low. Check the action on your own bass. If it is higher than about 1/8" (0.125") you will probably get a much better slap tone by lowering the strings a bit.
Keep in mind that not all basses are created equal, some can get lower action than others. Although it is worth the time and money to get almost any bass set up and have its action lowered, don't expect a less expensive bass to go as low as a high-end bass.
Strings can significantly change the tone of any bass. Newer strings are generally "brighter" sounding and more defined while older strings tend to be more "muddy". Among string styles, round-wounds sound the brightest while ground-wound and flat-wound strings sound more mellow. Additionally, stainless steel strings are tonally brighter than those made with nickel or other metals/alloys.
Not all string brands sound the same either, it is a good idea to try several sets from various companies, listening for your favorites. Different string gauges will also change your slap tone. To the author's ears, lighter string gauges (in the 40-95 range) seem to add definition to any slap tone. Once again, if you want to sound like Victor Wooten, try a set of light or extra-light gauge strings, you'll find they can go a long way to helping you achieve your favorite slap tones!
Be sure to experiment with different settings on your bass itself, whether it has a single volume knob or a multi-knob 4-band EQ.
Another easy adjustment to try for yourself is varying the height of your pickup(s), which generally requires only a small Phillips head screwdriver. Pickups with stronger magnets can affect the vibration and intonation of your strings, so make sure not to adjust your pickups too high. When holding a string down on the last fret there should be 1/16" of space or more between it and the pickup. If your bass sounds funny or a little out of tune after you've raised the pickups, you may want to lower them.
With electric instruments, the amplifier is a major tone-determining factor. Smaller speaker cones (10" - 12") generally add definition to the mid-range frequencies of a bass, while larger speaker cones can pump out significantly more low-end tone but may not quite provide the definition you'd like. If you like the power of a 15" or larger cone but want more definition, try a 2x10", 2x12" or even 4x10" speaker cabinet, you'll get the low-end power while maintaining tonal definition. Of course, you should also try several brands/models of amplifier to find one that works best for you.
Regardless of the amp you use, higher volumes will usually improve your slap tone. You won't have to attack as hard and you'll hear more of the tonal nuances of your slap technique. Furthermore, most amps have at least a 3-band EQ, giving you a wide range of tonal options. The author generally adds a little extra mid and treble to get his favorite slap tone.
Many bass players prefer the slap tone of instruments with active electronics/preamps. Pre-amplification of the bass' signal adds definition to its overall tone. However, there are many basses with passive electronics that have very well-defined tone, so don't assume that you need active electronics to get your ideal slap tone.
There are also many out-board bass preamps (similar to effects pedals) that will do the job of an on-board preamp. They range from $50 - $1000 depending on the quality, features, etc. and you can occasionally find good deals on used ones. Out-board preamps can be particularly helpful if they have a simple built-in compressor or if you plug your bass directly into a mixer or PA system.
Many bass players prefer larger frets for slapping as they seem to increase the metallic, "fret-clack" sounds of a bass. However, unless your bass is already in need of a refret, you probably shouldn't change out all your frets just for tone. Refrets are expensive and difficult and smaller frets can also work quite well for slap. However, if you are in the market for a new bass you might want to keep your eye out for instruments with larger frets.
As you can see, there are many aspects of a bass and its player that contribute to their slap tone. If you experiment with settings and adjustments, practice, develop your abilities and keep an open mind you will be playing the slap tone of your dreams sooner than you think!
Have more questions? Feel free to contact Xylem Basses & Guitars, Anthony would love to hear from you!
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