Last week I picked up my bass and ripped through about ten songs, knowing I wouldn’t be able to do it during the later stages of chemotherapy. It felt good in my hands and after the second song I was locked in–which is always a good feeling. As I was playing I started thinking about the basses I’ve had and how they affected how and what I play.
My first bass guitar was a huge Ibanez Blazer that my Dad bought me when I was 15. I’ve recounted the story of buying that bass before, and it was a good instrument to learn on–to a point. Because it was so big, and set up for funk playing, it was long scale (a long fretboard) and built for fat slapping strings. It would have been ideal to learn any Bootsy Collins riff out there. It had a great tone but wasn’t a good bass for learning fast, technical rock pieces (Rush, Metallica, Zeppelin, etc.) that I was playing at the time. Given their length and action, the strings were moving so much I found it hard to stay ahead of them; my fingers were always behind and I’d drop notes and lose the rhythm. I used this bass through high school and into college, but after I bought a Steinberger it stayed in the case.
The Steinberger I bought from my friend Stas, who was (wisely) playing musical basses through high school, looking for the right one. He started out with a Cort, basically a $100 beginner instrument, moved to a Rickenbacker 4001 and pretty quickly traded that (it wasn’t black like Geddy’s and the action was too tall, IIRC) for a 1976 Les Paul, sold that, and got the Steinberger, sold that to me, and then bought a new Precision Bass. We spent a lot of afternoons sitting and swapping instruments on different tracks, so I remember playing all of these basses, but I didn’t appreciate the feel of his P-Bass until much later. I immediately liked the Steinberger because it was shorter scale, MUCH tighter than the Ibanez, and easier to play technical stuff on. Plus it was compact and weird. I’ve had it since about 1990 or so and played it extensively, and what was liberating about it at first became a liability; with the shorter scale and smaller strings, the action was TOO tight. It has a great tone, it’s fast, and it doesn’t weigh four tons. But because the action is tight, there’s no feel. Somewhere between the booming ropes on the Ibanez and the tight piano strings on the Steinberger, there had to be a sweet spot. But because it was a hobby and not a profession, buying a new bass was never a priority.
When I bought a cheap Jazz bass on a whim last year, I figured it would be a fun toy for the right price that I could easily flip on Craigslist. I asked a friend to pick it up for me, as he lived near the seller, and because he’s a musician he knew what to look for. I honestly wasn’t expecting much but when I got it home I was astonished at how good the setup was. The nicotine-soaked strings, while disgusting, felt amazing, played like a dream, and had a killer tone. I restrung it after washing the body repeatedly and while I don’t like the replacement strings nearly as much the feel is still there. It’s the sweet spot between boomy and tight. I rarely get behind the rhythm and I don’t tire out trying to get a feel out of it. And it feels right in my hands. The scale is perfect–somehow it feels wider than the Steinberger but shorter than the Ibanez. I don’t hunt for frets like I did on the Ibanez and I don’t get crunched up on the high frets like I do on the Steinberger. It’s balanced and friendly.
Upon reflection, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed a Precision Bass as much as I enjoy its cousin. I remember Stas’ bass as being looser than the Steinberger but not by much; maybe that’s just 30 years talking. Having played several in the music store down the street over the years, they feel OK but not right. I never really thought to pick up a Jazz because I always thought they were bigger and heavier, but I guess I was mistaken. Thinking about how much I’m enjoying playing the Jazz these days, I wonder if my high school and college musical pursuits would have been different, knowing I had more confidence in what I was playing and how it felt.
Apparently there’s a pick-up dad band around the corner from here, and they need a bass player at some point. When I get past chemo and surgery and chemo again, I’m going to go look them up.