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The Gollihur Music Blog
Sometimes It's the Small Things.
Upright basses are peculiar things; they're seemingly simple instruments, but there are deceptive complexities in making yours sound and play its very best. Often, seemingly minor changes can pay off with surprising improvements to its tone. Something as simple and inexpensive as a new tailpiece cable may energize the sound of your bass, and there are countless threads on "no cost" changes you can make -- quite a few folks advocate swapping the E and A string on the tuning machines, for instance. Then you have things like soundposts, replacement bridges, afterlength tuning, and more.
As we in the Northern Hemisphere plod into the Winter season, which is a slow gig time for many of us, it might do us well to look over our instruments and think of some of the small things we can do to maintain, improve, and protect our instruments.
So in this month's newsletter, we focus on the "little" things. We've reprinted our annual "winter care" article, and in our FAQ we discuss details about something small that we often take for granted - signal cables. We also focus on some of the "small" products that you might want to pick up (or put on your holiday gift wish list!), so you can baby your bass now that it's cold outside.
Sweat the small stuff - and keep warm!
Conventions. Patterns. We're pretty much all creatures of habit. From the music we enjoy, to the "licks" we play when we improvise, to how we approach problem solving; we often fall back on the familiar, the tried and true... basically, that which seems obvious or comfortable.
It's only natural; cognitive scientists have studied the brain and found that our incredibly complex mind often resorts to "shortcuts" and conditioning to quicken decision-making. It's an evolutionary skill, as it's the sort of thing that can save your life; imagine walking through a forest, and out of the corner of your eye, you see a slithering movement -- and hear a light rattling sound. Chances are, you're 30 feet away before you've even had a moment to go through the thought process of, "hmmm... a slithering thing could be some kind of a snake, and that rattling sound, if it's related, that could be... aw, heck, I'm outta here!"
So certainly, habits and conventions - and learning from one's past - can be very valuable. But sometimes it pays to think outside the box. For instance, as a means for getting off a creative "plateau," many songwriting websites and books suggest changing the tuning of your instrument to something unusual; by changing the familiar layout, it forces you to overcome your habitual note patterns - and find an exciting new path.
So with that in mind, in this month's newsletter I talk about a new way of thinking through the process of getting a good sound when you combine a mic and pickup. And Christopher weighs in on the subject with a new practicing philosophy to try.
If you have come up with a great way to approach your bass from a different angle, drop me a line or post it on our Facebook thread!
Separating the Trees from the Forest
So, I just got back from a retailers' roundtable event with a diverse group of retail business-people. In talking to them, one thing really stuck out for me: the stuff we (meaning Gollihur Music) sell can be complicated. I mean, you've got a rather large number of pickups to choose from, right? And then you've got tons of options for preamps, amps... heck, we even briefly talked about the complexity of choosing strings in our email newsletter back in February.
A few times I looked across the table at someone selling (for instance) laser printer toner, and how easy it might be -- with such a black and white (no pun intended) item -- to direct customers to exactly what they need; "You have a Laserjet 5? HERE'S your toner!" But, with a deeper look, I'd probably find that they have their own crosses to bear. And given my choice to spend the day talking about bass - over pretty much everything else the other folks deal with - I think you know which side of the fence I'm coming down on.
In any case, a recent posting on an online message board got me thinking about how complex choosing strings can be; and how it's easy (and deceptive) to hone in on just one piece of the puzzle - in this case, string gauge. So I wrote a new FAQ to cover the subject of gauge. And I made a mental note to continue to focus on building the sort of resource-heavy website that is (hopefully) providing answers to your questions... even some of the ones you didn't even know you had!
Some Random Gig Tips
Every once in a while, I like to share little random tips I've come up with over the years. Some help you keep track of your stuff, others can save your bacon on a gig. For your enjoyment, and hopefully edification, here is the latest collection (some of these are from Mark and Chris as well.)
- I love the little Avery 05422 (1/2" x 1 3/4") removable self-adhesive labels (or Staples generic equivalent). I jot dates for batteries (9v 4/2/13) and string change dates and stick them on preamps and other electronic devices, the backs of e-bass headstocks, reference settings on amps, preamps, and pedals, etc. They peel off easily and don't leave marks or residue IME. Been using them for years, pick up a pack, they rock. (Non-musical bonus tip: stick one to your credit card and jot down the current rebate categories so you use the right card for that extra cash-back.)
- Similar to the above, whenever I get a new piece of gear that has a "wall wart" power supply, I immediately get out my silver paint marker (it's like a "SharpieTM" but with silver paint ink) and write the name of the unit directly on the power supply. I must have dozens of these AC/DC adapters floating around in various gig bags and closets, and if I didn't mark them, I'd go crazy trying to match them up when needed.
- It can always be a good idea to recheck the contents of your gig bag, especially if it's been a while since your last performance. It sucks to discover that your forgot to put something back that you borrowed for another use. For a list of gig bag contents and philosophy, see our FAQ on What to Bring to a Gig.
- My "preflight gig check," after unpacking my bass post-transit, is:
- look at the bridge to be sure it is centered and a perfect 90 degrees, since it can get bumped;
- check the pickup, wire, and jack (depending on the bass and pickup I'm using) for proper positioning and stability;
- be sure the endpin is out a the right height and tight (I'm short so it's not always retracted during travel)
- listen for physical buzzes or vibrations that might be annoying and/or amplified
- I never assume that the sound engineer at a gig will actually have all the gear that every sound engineer should have at a gig. I like to carry a basic DI box (or use an amp with a good DI) and my own XLR cable, in case the engineer forgets to bring enough of his own. Nice to have backup plan B in the bag.
- Stage volume is key. So many times I've seen bands with (at least) one player whose onstage volume is too loud. Either the drummer is hitting too hard, or the guitarist or bassist has their amp up to unneccessary levels. The problem is that there's so much volume coming from the stage, that the FOH (Front-Of-House) engineer can only try to even up the level of the other instruments to compensate. At this point, the soundman has lost control. If you have a bad mix now (and you most certainly will) it is your fault.
Humidity/Time for Winter Maintenance... (reprint)
It's Winter here in New Jersey, the time when we retreat to the warmth of our homes and avoid sticking our noses outside until Spring grows closer.
If you have a carved instrument, I hope you've been keeping an eye on the humidity and temperature where it "lives." And while it it's rarely necessary to be concerned about moisture loss in a laminated instrument, it's not a bad idea to address it anyway, particularly if you use gut strings.
Take a look at my article, HUMIDITY: Do you need to humidify your Upright Bass? in the Upright Bass FAQs on our site, for details about humidification. You can read about ways to judge your need - and be sure that you keep your bass happy this winter.
And since you're stuck inside, getting cabin fever -- perhaps I can suggest an alternative to sitting on the couch watching the idiot box (and it has reached new lows in idiocy lately, hasn't it?). I tend to look over all my instruments and equipment and do any required, as well as preventive maintenance, so I can avoid mishaps on stage.
With instruments it's a matter of doing a thorough cleaning, removing the dust bunnies from the pegbox, checking to make sure strings are all healthy from pegbox to tailpiece. You can also examine every area for damage, cracks, scratches that need touching up, etc. (That's not much work with my own two basses, since they are pre-war and both very much look like they've been through a war; I very much doubt I could find any new scratches in amongst all the old ones.) Take a close look at your bridge -- to make sure it's in place and perfectly flat-footed on the top of your instrument -- and maybe renew the graphite at the top of the bridge (and nut) so those strings travel smoothly when being tuned.
The electronics side also needs some attention. If you don't have Electronic Contact Cleaner in your gig bag, it may be a good idea to pick some up and perform a little preventive maintenance; it not only helps to clean away existing corrosion or residue, but can also act as a protectant. Spray each of the jacks in your preamps, stomp boxes, speaker cabinets, and amplifiers (unplug first!) Check batteries in your gear and replace them if necessary. A tip -- stick a piece of masking tape on the back of preamps, electric upright bass battery covers, and stomp boxes with the date when you last replaced the batteries.
Physically checking each amp, cab, and cable is a good idea, looking them over for damage, loose screws, rattling grille covers, etc. Cables can get neglected, too, and they should be examined for cuts and should probably also be checked out for proper operation. I also tend to run through the contents of my gig bag, tossing out expired headache meds and unneeded duplicates, checking that I have duplicates of all the right stuff, my flashlight works, etc.
I hope that this gives you something to think about -- besides reality TV -- for these cold winter months. Don't forget to wear gloves to keep those fingertips warm!
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