Written by Dan Schwartz

A recent conversation ‘twixt Uncle Bill and me:

Me: This is great bass playing to me:



Bill: Yup.

Me: I hear many bass players who have shitty tone, and if you don’t begin with getting your tone together, woe be unto you. I’d argue that most have shitty tone. All the speed in the world and flying fingers don’t matter if you don’t have tone. I’ve known this for 50 years, but couldn’t have discussed it for a long time.

Bill: Many bass players just sound like plastic to me. Dunno how else to say it.

Me: Including people that come in for heaps of praise.

I know I’m supposed to be writing “My Cancer Saga, Phase II”. But this conversation transpired in the meantime and I can’t get the topic out of my head.  Tone. It’s everything to me.

What I meant about knowing it for 50 years is that I’ve always been drawn to my perception of great tone — hence, Casady; hence, “Baby You’re A Rich Man”; hence, Danny Thompson.  You may agree, you may have a different set of what you perceive as great, or you may not care. But the more I think about it, the more I know that for me, ‘tain’t the notes, it’s the tone.

I’ve written that the first classical album I owned — my 2nd album, another gift from my father — was the soundtrack to 2001. I love the record (great tones!), but the album that I remember connecting with in a big way (in the early 80s) was the RCA/Reiner of the 1962 recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra — but not the RCA version, the Mobile Fidelity vinyl.  It’s different than the RCA; it has what I refer to as a “glow”, a relatively elevated mid-to-upper-mid, that sounds, I suppose, less real — but that glow, that warmth-like-a-fireside, pulls me in like nobody’s business.

Similarly with the Fabs: people will argue for years about the merits of the songs on Revolver vs. Pepper vs. the white album — I come down on different sides of the argument from day to day. But what pulls me in is, “What tone do I want to hear?” And it’s most often Pepper (or Magical Mystery Tour, which positively glows again, although it’s less balanced than Pepper).

For years my favorite Jethro Tull record was Benefit, even though I knew that I preferred the more acoustic, quieter tunes on Aqualung. Why? The tone of the album — it’s only almost 50 years later that I’m finding versions of Aqualung that have a nice, balanced tone and can finally accept that I like it more, even though I knew all along that the songs were better.

And this — THIS — is what I think might separate audio dweebs from mere music dweebs. I think we seek tone first. I can’t explain it any other way. At least I do, and now that I’ve recognized that I do it, that most of my listening choices are driven by that desire for great tone, I think maybe we might all do it.

It doesn’t mean the most realistic, or the highest-fi. The 50s Glenn Gould “Goldberg” is preferable (to my ears) to the 70’s one. In fact, Gould’s records are a great example of the inherent contradictions of what I’m suggesting: the piano in most of his early records isn’t especially real (the recordings are dynamically flat-ish and pretty band-limited) but it doesn’t matter — they have great tone. They build from the midrange out. Likewise with Keith Jarrett — the early solo piano records are a bit flat by comparison with the more recent ones, but the tone is SO great.

Think about the phenomenal trumpeter Jon Hassell — he’s all about tone. He practices for hours a day still, to keep the tone-generating part of his technique together.

My favorite Grateful Dead albums are “Skullfuck”, Europe 72 and Wake of the Flood — not gloriously hi-fi, but coherent; and again, built from the mids out. In the music that I prefer to play, if we’re doing it as I prefer, I’ve come to realize that like the Dead, I like exploring the tonalities and the “feel” (that is, how the notes are placed in time), and use the notes only as an expression of those two elements.

So this is something to mull over — the relative importance of tone vs. notes.

Of course the notes, the music, has to be there. But I’ve come to think that it’s far less important than great tone (for a player, OR a listener), and by extension, great feel (which is a rhythmic thing).

Timing, tone and lastly note choice. Those are MY priorities.

[Note: the bass-player in the Pentangle video is the sorta-legendary Danny Thompson. He has on occasion played with Richard Thompson, but the two are not related. Confusing, no?-Ed.]

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