5 Easy Bass Upgrades

Guitar players are notorious for constantly tweaking, customizing and improving every little aspect of their axe. The majority of bassists tend to be more complacent about the instruments they acquire.

This could be due to the native tendency of bassists to be stoic in the face of vocalists and guitarists who are annoyingly obsessed with the brand of batteries in the stompboxes, the position of the monitors, and the brand of spring water in the green room; we don’t want to cause any more grief.

Still, it would be a shame not to borrow the six-stringers’ propensity towards experimenting with different gear until we get to the tone of our dreams. Here are some of the easiest ways to get a new vibe and great tone out of your existing instrument:

1. Bridge

The bridge is one of the most important parts of a bass’ playability and tone. The mass of the bridge and saddles make a major difference in tuning stability, sustain and playing comfort. Marcus Miller swears by one of the classic upgrades for J-bass, the Leo Quan Badass Bridge.

Since those are no longer being manufactured, consider one of Hipshot’s offerings, which fit a variety of basses and are milled from heavy-duty brass. Schaller’s roller bridges make adjusting string spacing easy and are super stable. Babicz is a newer manufacturer and their Full Contact Hardware bass bridge will let you top-load strings or send them through the body, and either way, the thing is built like an M-1 Abrams tank.

If your bridge reminds you of a flimsy tin can, for less than $100 you can upgrade to something much meatier.

2. Pickups

So many players think that pickups just come with the bass, either a P-bass humbucker, J-bass single-coils, or maybe a soapbar. It’s a crime not to pop in a set of aftermarket pickups, especially if your instrument is anything less than professional-grade.

Let’s take J-bass configurations to start. Seymour Duncan sells pickups that provide a wide range of tonal options. The Antiquity series gets you the sounds of the 1960s J-bass, perfect for Old Skool funk tones. The Quarter-Pound J-bass pickups have fat pole pieces and high output, perfect to cut through the mix in more aggressive music. The Classic Stack puts a humbucker in a single-coil slot, getting you recognizable tones without the hum.

P-bass pickups have just as many options. Aguilar and Lindy Fralin both make P-bass pickups designed to get you back to the sound of 1963, which just happens to be the James Jamerson era. Aguilar’s AG-4P Hot pickups are overwound and use bigger pole pieces to bring that P-bass honk out in the mix.

We haven’t even covered active pickups, soapbars, and the myriad options for the bassist. Again, unless your bass starts out life as a pro-level axe from John Suhr, Mike Pedulla or Stuart Spector, chances are new pickups will be a major improvement.

3. Strings

Perhaps you’re a player who hears the word “strings” and immediately says, “D’addario 45 - 105 Roundwounds, duh.” This is a classic, reliable choice for modern bass tone - but there are many other options out there.

Do you have a P-Bass? If you have never experienced flatwound strings, you may never have heard the classic low-end sounds of the 50s and 60s. Try Thomastik JF344 flatwounds, D’addario ECB82 Chromes, or LaBella LB-0760 “1954 original” flats. Put on some James Jamerson tracks from Motown (which you should be doing everyday, regardless.) Put on some country recorded prior to 1980. Now do you get it?

Listening to Mark King and wondering how to get that super bright slap sound? Get some Rotosound Funkmaster stainless steel strings with the super skinny 30 - 90 gauges. Scoop the mids on your amp and enjoy zingy slap-and-pop nirvana. (and prepare to be fired from your band if you do it on a gig.)

Also, experiment with gauges - get some beefy strings and tune down to low C, or extra-light and tune the bass to G instead of E. Either way, spend less $20-60 and you’ll essentially have a brand new instrument.

4. Tuning Machines

If your instrument is more of a beginner to mid-grade model (under $1000 new) then tuning machines may have been one of the places the manufacturer cut corners to make a price point.

For under $100, you can install heavy-duty, stable tuning machines from Sperzel, Hipshot, Wilkinson, or others that will look cool, stay in tune longer, and even improve sustain by adding mass to the headstock. If you have a Fender for which you want a more classic look and feel, get a set of Fender’s vintage tuning machines.

Hipshot also makes one of the classic bass upgrades, the Bass Xtender, which allows you to drop your lowest note by a whole step. Go from E to drop D with the flip of a lever, quickly and accurately.

Pro-grade tuning machines are rarely thought of as a must-have, but they will improve your life in multiple ways.

5. Strap

One might argue that the strap isn’t really the bass at all, and shouldn’t count. Yet unless you are Anthony Jackson and can get away with playing the gig sitting down (and you, my friend, are not Anthony Jackson) then, chances are, you need a strap to perform. Are you using the $5 one that came with the instrument? Pshaw.

The LM Products leather bass strap has an adjustable wool pad that will reduce strain and improve stability for around $20. PlanetWaves has a unique product that combines a strap lock into the strap itself, which runs around $60.

The Cadillac of straps appears to the Duo-Strap Signature from GruvGear. Ergonomically designed to relieve shoulder pain, this product is more of a leather support system since it uses two straps to guide the bass into playing position. Pricey, but if you are getting to an age where chronic pain is an issue, this may be just the thing for those four-set blues gigs your band is booking.

These modifications are a great place to start if you want to move your axe from good to awesome. After all, there aren’t $1500 boutique overdrive pedals for bassists to spend money on, so we have to be content with economical, practical upgrades that we don’t need to brag about.

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