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The bass guitar is an important piece of many genres ranging from jazz to metal, classic rock to country. Often, the bass helps to keep the rhythm and flow of the song, along with the drums, and helps to either emphasize what the electric guitars are doing or, in some cases, serve as the driving force of the melody.
Bass is sometimes considered an afterthought, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In many genres, the bass is a driving force in the overall sound and feel of the song. Listeners might not always pay attention to the bass, but you would notice its absence if it were suddenly removed from the equation.
The bass is typically responsible for the low end of a song and often adds a whole new level of dynamics to a song. A good example of this is AC/DC. In many of their songs, the bass only comes in during the chorus and solo parts, which really amps up the song’s overall feel and makes the choruses stand out.
However, just because the bass is responsible for the lower frequencies doesn’t mean you can’t develop an aggressive tone that stands out among the other instruments. In loud and busy genres like jazz, rock, and metal, it is often necessary to develop an aggressive tone even to be heard.
So, how can we develop an aggressive tone that cuts through a mix?
An aggressive bass tone can be developed by playing with a pick instead of fingers and playing the strings closer to the bridge. You can also increase your bass or amplifier’s mids and treble settings. Further, you can use roundwound strings, install higher output pickups, or use an active instead of passive bass guitar.
Let’s look at what an aggressive tone actually is and some ways to achieve this.
What Is An “Aggressive” Bass Sound?
Like many other subjects dealing with tone, this is partially a subjective idea, but there are some key components that most (but likely not everyone) players will agree on.
First, an aggressive bass sound cuts through the mix. It is an integral part of the music instead of being lost in the background. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is the music’s focal point or loudest part, but it is clearly defined within the mix.
An aggressive sound also features a tighter sound with a bit more mid and treble than just the deep low-end bass tone you might get with a classic stand-up bass.
How Do I Make My Bass Sound Aggressive?
There are many different ways to make a bass sound more aggressive and stand out better within a mix. The only way you will determine what works best for you is to experiment with the options below, either by themselves or in combination.
Some of these methods will be very cheap, and you could try them out and implement them right away; others might take a bit more time or money investment.
One important detail, especially if you are playing in live settings or recording music, is to make sure you listen to your bass in the context of a song. Sometimes you will have an awesome-sounding bass tone by itself, but once it is in the mix, it either gets lost in the shuffle or simply doesn’t sound good relative to the other instruments.
It also matters if the bass will be a central feature in a song or serve as a background instrument, which can change from song to song or even within a song. These nuances should all be considered as you look to develop and dial in your unique bass tone.
Let’s look at eight methods that can help you develop a more aggressive bass tone.
Method #1: Use A Pick
The first method, and one of the easiest to implement, is to use a pick. You might have been told that playing bass with a pick is wrong, but as with many things in music, it depends. I typically do not use a pick, but in certain situations, I will use a pick depending on the tone I am going for in my recordings.
A caveat here is that just because you use or do not use a pick doesn’t mean you will instantly achieve the tone you are looking for. How you play and where you play (more on this in method two) is equally important. However, by adding a pick, you can strike the strings harder, which can help give you that aggressive, punchy tone you are looking for.
Further, in genres like metal or punk, using a pick might not only help the bass cut through the mix but also help you play some of those faster sections that could be difficult by just using your fingers to play. If you don’t own a pick, check out this article offering creative solutions for pick alternatives.
The video below does an excellent job of comparing a pick versus finger-playing across multiple genres.
Method #2: Play The Strings Closer To The Bridge
One thing you should have noticed in the video above is that where the strings are being played changed throughout the video, especially between pick versus no pick playing. This is important, as where you are playing makes a big difference in the tone produced.
Just like with electric guitars, where you are plucking the strings on your bass matters. Playing the strings closer to the bridge will produce a brighter, crisper, and more aggressive-sounding tone than if you play closer to the neck. This is increased further if you have bridge pickups on your bass (more on this in method six).
Method #3: Adjust The Tone Knob On The Bass
If you have never adjusted your bass’s tone knob(s), now is the time to start. Subtle changes in the tone knob can make significant sound changes as it comes through the amplifier. Depending on the type of bass you have, you might have just one tone knob, but some basses (especially active basses) will have more than one.
If you have just one tone knob, it will usually be to control the treble. If you want more treble, turn the knob up. Turning up the treble will make your bass more pronounced in the mix, giving you more of that aggressive tone you are looking for. However, be careful you don’t add too much treble, as sometimes this can make the bass compete with the frequencies of the other instruments in the mix, like the electric guitar.
In general, I play with the tone knob turned all the way up, which typically helps my bass cut through the mix. Sometimes I will dial the tone knob back if I want a warmer and more mellow sound, but this is rare.
Method #4: Increase The Treble And Mids On Your Amp
A somewhat counterintuitive concept regarding the bass is that you don’t actually want the bass turned up too much. Cranking the bass setting on your amp (or bass itself if it has that capability) will often result in a very muddy-sounding tone, the exact opposite of what we are trying to accomplish with an aggressive, punchy tone.
If you need help figuring out where to start with bass amp settings, check out this article I have written about different settings on the bass amp and what they sound like. The general idea is that too much bass will make it either muddy or lost in the mix. Remember, even if a setting sounds good on its own, make sure you listen to it in the context of a mix, as adding other instruments around the bass dramatically changes the sound.
Increasing the treble and/or mids will help tighten the sound of the bass and allow it to cut through the mix better. There is some debate about whether you should cut out the mids and ramp up the treble, or add both, so I encourage you to experiment with different settings until you find what works well for you.
Method #5: Use Roundwound Strings
First, simply putting a new set of fresh strings on your bass should give you a brighter, punchier sound. Strings will lose their luster as they age, and with that aging comes a change in tone, usually sounding duller over time.
The next method is to use roundwound strings instead of flatwound, as stated on Sweetwater’s webiste. Roundwound strings will typically be much brighter-sounding and have much more mid and high-end emphasis than flatwound. Often, roundwound strings are the go-to strings for rock and metal-style bass players as the emphasis on mids and highs helps to cut through the mix.
This doesn’t mean that if you use roundwound strings, you will not have any low end. Don’t worry, the strings will still sound like a bass guitar, but they just help to give you that more aggressive tone. If you don’t know where to begin, check out our article on eight of the best bass strings for metal and drop-tuning playing.
If you would like to hear roundwound and flatwound strings in real time, check out the video below and see if you can hear the difference.
Method #6: Install Higher Output Pickups
Method six is quite a bit more expensive than other methods so far on the list, but it will undoubtedly get the job done. While most stock pickups on electric guitars and bass are usually pretty good, that doesn’t mean they will suit the particular style of play and sound you are going for.
If your pickups aren’t cutting it, upgrading to a higher output pickup, like the Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound P-J Bass Pickups, which run around USD 190, can do the trick. Marketed as helping give punk rock and grunge-style bands their iconic bass tone, these pickups will likely suit your needs.
There are many other options beyond these Seymour Duncans, and most have plenty of associated demo videos on YouTube to help you pick out which is right for you.
Method #7: Use Distortion Pedals And Other Effects
Whether you are a fan of traditional pedals or like to run all of your effects through software and digital amps, adding effects like distortion and sustain to your bass will help give it that aggressive tone you are looking for.
However, if you are going to use distortion with your bass, make sure you dial in your EQ, as sometimes, adding distortion can make your tone very muddy, especially if you have a lot of bass. It is not a bad idea to tweak your mids and treble first and possibly add some sort of compression effect along with your distortion for the best results.
Method #8: Use An Active Instead Of Passive Bass
The last method is the most expensive method. Switching to an active bass or a bass with active pickups will help give you that aggressive tone and will do an excellent job cutting through the mix.
I have a 5-string Jackson Spectra that is an active bass with bass, mid, and treble knobs to give me lots of tone control. While having an active bass isn’t required to be able to cut through the mix, it has been beneficial for my recording. This is especially true when I am working on songs in drop tunings, as sometimes the drop tuning makes it hard to hear the bass in the mix if you don’t use one or more of the methods described in this article.
Below is a good video explaining the differences between passive and active basses.
There you have it! Eight methods that will help you develop a more aggressive, punchy-sounding bass tone.
I hope you have found this article beneficial, and until next time, stay creative and keep on playing!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.