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Newfoundfreedom

Developing "an ear"

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So is this something that comes from experience, or is it some kind of natural talent?

I'm a born again bass player having played many years ago in a school band, and recently having taken up playing again in my 40's. Now back then we didn't have forums like this (we didn't even have the internet) I just learned to play using tab books or following the guitarist. Now many years on, reading this forum you constantly hear phrases such as ' that's a classic P bass sound" or that's definitely a jazz bass, or music Man, or Rickenbacker, it whatever. Or, I use this amp because it gives me this tone, and I use this cab because it gives me that tone. I'll be honest. Listening to songs and in " the mix " the vast majority of time I can't tell the difference. Bass is just bass. Now obviously, there's a difference between sounding good and sounding bad (playing ability aside) but apart from that,  it all sounds much the same to me. Am I missing certain brain cells? To me, (inexperienced though I might be) timing and "groove" are far more important factors then the ever elusive "tone", which seems to be very much subjective anyway. 

Or am I just missing something?

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No, you're not. It really depends on what music you listen to but in some genres the bass tone is mostly the same because it's heavily modified and EQ'ed in the mixing process. Now there's obviously some clear exceptions, but most of the times the bass tone comes from the engineers & the player's hands. Even records where the bass is very prominent like in Rush's Moving Pictures, there was a huge debate on whether Geddy Lee was using a Rickenbacker or a Jazz Bass on Tom Sawyer for ages...because his tone is unique but it comes from him and his setup, not so much from what kind of bass he uses.

Keep in mind that people experiment with different setups for live performances mostly. You can definitely tell a Stingray from a Precision with flatwounds live even in a mix - but then again, if the player uses a very soft touch, the difference will be neglibile no matter what instrument he uses.

There's a lot of nuances and variables to this question that make it tricky. But I'd say that it mostly depends on what genres of music you're listening to and how big is the band. 

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I think owning and playing different basses and amps is probably the best way to get an ear for what a particular instrument or amp sounds like. It's very cool when you plug a notable bass through a notable amp and go "Ah!! THAT'S the sound" - you spend years trying to get close to a specific sound, and usually it's as simple that.

Some sounds are so distinctive, you must surely be able to tell them apart - i.e. Jaco's middly bridge pickup fender jazz bass sound could never be mistaken for a Precision played through an SVT with a pick

 

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1 hour ago, Bob Lord said:

Some sounds are so distinctive, you must surely be able to tell them apart - i.e. Jaco's middly bridge pickup fender jazz bass sound could never be mistaken for a Precision played through an SVT with a pick

Imho it takes a combination of experience and information. One could tell that these two (for example) sound very different, without knowing why, what contributed to the difference. 

I often get frustrated reading descriptions on BC of different "sounds" from different basses or amps or strings and not being able to hear them to fit the actual sound I hear to the description. (Which is something the podcasts could help with?...) 

Some of the better YouTube demos do give you the sound, and sight of playing technique, and technical specs to learn from. We aren't all lucky enough to be able to own and play a lot of different stuff, and even if we did, our own playing ability (certainly mine!) might not be able to explore the differences. For example, I love my GMR fretless, and I know that chrome flats are right for the sound I want to get from it,  but listening to @Steve Amadeo play it was a complete revelation. Not that I'll ever be able to play like Steve, but it gave me new ears and new understanding. 

I'd relate it to having an ear for much simpler things like intervals and chord tones. One of the most important things for me about going through grade exams has been the aural tests - I've really struggled to identify, for example, a major from dominant from minor 7th by ear (although I can use them all in a bassline almost without thinking). My teacher has made me work hard on it, and I'm definitely a better player for that. 

 

 

 

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2 hours ago, Newfoundfreedom said:

In the mix, I can't tell the difference. Bass is just bass.

Yes, it is.

2 hours ago, Newfoundfreedom said:

Timing and groove are far more important factors then the ever-elusive "tone".

Yes, they are.

2 hours ago, Newfoundfreedom said:

Am I missing something?

No, you're not.

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6 hours ago, Bob Lord said:

 

Some sounds are so distinctive, you must surely be able to tell them apart - i.e. Jaco's middly bridge pickup fender jazz bass sound could never be mistaken for a Precision played through an SVT with a pick

 

I'll be honest. Until I couple of months ago when I came across Scotts bass lessons on YouTube, I'd never heard of Jacko. I had to Google the name just to find out who everyone was talking about. Even now I've never heard him play and wouldn't know who he was if I fell over him. 

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2 hours ago, Newfoundfreedom said:

I'll be honest. Until I couple of months ago when I came across Scotts bass lessons on YouTube, I'd never heard of Jacko. I had to Google the name just to find out who everyone was talking about. Even now I've never heard him play and wouldn't know who he was if I fell over him. 

That's not important. Pick a bass you like the feel of, and with at least one tone you can use. Find an amp that amplifies that tone and still sounds good to you at volume and you are good to go. A lot of different sounds and tones can be achieved by using the amp or effects pedals. In a band/jam situation stand in front of the musicians and listen, It will be fairly obvious if the sound you are using fits with the music. If it needs changing then change it.

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Ear training is something that has to be worked on.  Some of us who've been playing a long time maybe did it sub-consciously.  Try listening to a song and instead of taking it in as a whole,  focus on what one instrument is doing,  say the bass,  then switch your focus to the guitar and then the drums.  Really listen as you're focusing.  How the instrument blends with the others,  the volume,  the tone,  the note choices.  Is the bass fretted or fretless?  Is it trebly or bassy?  Is the guitarist using a pick or fingerpicking?  Is the drummer playing his hi-hat or ride cymbal?  The more you focus the more details you hear.  When you go to see live musicians,  really watch them.  OK,  this guitarist is using a Les Paul and I notice it sounds different than when he plays his Strat or Tele.  Eventually you will notice that your hearing of details has improved.  

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12 hours ago, Newfoundfreedom said:

So is this something that comes from experience, or is it some kind of natural talent?

Can be one or the other, but usually both. 

"Developing an ear" is about listening and adapting your playing to the guys around you and the music they are playing. If you do something for long enough you should start to notice more nuances. That learning process will be shorter if you have a natural ability, but with an open mind, asking the right questions and playing with the right people you should be able to easily learning this stuff.

I spent 25 years thinking drummers just hit drums. Then a drummer explained the differences between different techniques, drums and tuning and a lot of what makes a good drummer started to make sense. 

There are successful professional musicians who know none of the technical stuff but have a good "ear" and a natural ability to play. If you are playing bass at the hobby level you really don't need to get into any of that stuff, but knowing at least some of it does make being a musician more interesting and fun.

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I think that the seminars at the numerous Bass Bashes I've been to confirm that most of us can't tell the difference between gear.

I scored 0 on the bass ID test at the last SE Bash (though I did identify one of the two Ricks - the wrong one) - the best score was 4 from 20 IIRC. Similarly there was no consensus on the Amp Heft test - though I stand by what I've always said - Valve amps give a warmer tone that Class D. 

I can identify a friend of mine's playing in a room full of players, what he's playing is a different matter. 

Even if you find a tone you like from a Bass/Amp doesn't mean that you'll be able to emulate it.

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36 minutes ago, TheGreek said:

Even if you find a tone you like from a Bass/Amp doesn't mean that you'll be able to emulate it.

Doesn't mean it's fit for purpose, either. If bass players are getting  themselves noticed, they probably aren't playing for the song. All those bands with a 'feature' bass player such as Cream, Yes, Rush and so on - ground-breaking as they undoubtedly were - aren't necessarily the best examples of what a good working professional sideman should be.

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