The first step in getting a great slap sound is to have a fresh set of strings on your bass, and I mean roundwound strings! You need a bright response from your strings, old strings and flatwounds will sound very dull when you slap them. The fresher roundwound strings will give you that initial chime-like sound when you play, so if your strings start to sound dull then it’s time for a change.
You also have to think about the type of bass you’re using to slap and the pickup configuration it has. The three main types are the Fender Precision style with one split pickup, the Fender Jazz with the two single-coil pickups and the Musicman Stingray with the middle humbucker pickup. Most other basses tend to be a variation on these main three.
Split Pickup Configuration
The single split pickup configuration is normally found on Precision style basses, as there’s only one pickup you’re limited to that particular sound. There’s always going to be a very obvious Fender Precision slap sound, one of the best examples of this is the Freddie Washington bassline to “Forget Me Not’s” by Patrice Rushen. This has a very distinctive round yet hollow sound, so for this set up I recommend turning that tone control up all the way. If your bass is active, then halfway will suffice.
Twin Single-Coil Pickup Configuration
The two single-coil pickups found on Jazz style basses have been used extensively by many slap bass legends. The Jazz has been favoured by the likes of Marcus Miller and Larry Graham. A great example of this sound is Marcus Miller’s line in the Luther Vandross song “Never Too Much.” The best setting to go for with this set up, is both pickups volume on full and your passive tone at maximum. If your Jazz style bass is active, then keep your tone halfway up.
Having the two pickups gives you greater variety with tones; you can go for the neck pickup to give you more of a Precision sound, whereas if you go for the bridge pickup, your sound get’s a little more nasal and you end up with more of a Les Claypool of Primus tone.
Humbucker Pickup Configuration
The humbucker style pickup, found traditionally on the Musicman Stingray, is another iconic set up for slap. Like the Precision, you only have one pickup on a Stingray type bass. Best bet here is to crank your tone control to maximum. This is the sound made famous by the likes of Flea and Louis Johnson. It has a very deep, almost aggressive tone when slapping. Check out this tone on the “Higher Ground” cover by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to hear that in-your-face Flea slap sound.
Depending on how hard you play, you should have your bass set up accordingly. You should aim for having some relief in the neck, too high an action makes it very difficult to play, while too low an action won’t give you enough space to bounce your strings off the neck when you slap. It’s the sound of the thumb hitting the string and causing it to ricochet off the neck that gives you this slap sound.
What the term ‘action’ is referring to, is the height of your strings from the neck. If your strings are very close to the fretboard, then this called a ‘low’ action, if it’s quite high off the neck then you would call this a ‘high’ action. You can determining the action of your bass by looking across it and seeing how high your strings sit from the entire neck and adjust your action if you need to in order to suit your slapping style.
Setting up your bass can be quite a tricky undertaking as you will have to fiddle about with the saddles in the bridge and your truss rod, if this is all new to you, then I don’t recommend doing it yourself. Bring your bass to a luthier or guitar repairs (usually found in your local instrument shop.)
The thing that makes the greatest difference when it comes to your overall slap sound is the most important point of all; technique. If your technique isn’t solid than every thing else won’t help that much. Technique is something that I’m afraid just needs to be worked on over time with plenty of practice, but there are some great tips on how to clean up your technique fast..
Pay attention to your slapping thumb. There is a common problem of accidentally hitting the wrong strings or more than one, the best solution is to watch your thumb and practice your accuracy. You need to build up the muscle memory, so check as you play that you’re not hitting any other strings. Start on the E (or low B if you’re playing on a five string) and practice hitting that string alone and accurately, aim to get a clean sound of just that note. Then move on one by one to the other strings on the bass.
You also need to watch out for residual noise, as when you slap a string you create a lot of vibration so you need to be able to adequately mute the unplayed strings. In order to do this, you need to use the fretting hand for muting. Keep this hand in a ‘home’ position as demonstrated in the accompanying video.
You’re basically keeping everything muted by gently keeping your fingers touching the strings until you slap a note you want to ring out, then you simply release the string to unmute it and let the note ring out.
Work on getting this muting ‘home’ position into you muscle memory, once you have this mute technique down, then you will be able to use that on more complex lines by incorporating it into the slap. Les Claypool of Primus uses this technique a lot, check out the bass line to Lacquer Head as a perfect example of this. This technique is also great for your popping hand, it gives you greater control and can make your popped notes really stand out.
If you want to learn more about slap bass, then take a look at my Simple Steps To Slap Bass:
Now, once you have your new strings on your bass, the right set up and good clean technique, you’ll already be sounding pretty good. There are however, a few things we can do with EQ and compression to even out your sound and make your slapping sound even better!
EQ makes more of a difference when it comes to recording, you’re going to want to spend some time on the specifics of your tone and how it sounds in the mix. For live however, a lot of player’s tend to give their EQ the smiley face treatment of boosting the bass and treble, while simultaneously lowering the mids.
I find that this method doesn’t always work in a live setting as you tend to loose definition. I recommend starting with a flat EQ, dropping the mids a little first and listening to it as you inch up the bass and treble. Always compare the unaffected sound with the affected and always adjust your tone within the band mix.
Compression is a great tool for tightening up your slap tone by levelling your volumes between slap and finger style technique, while also subduing any unwanted resonance. Compression is just a way of decreasing the loud parts, while increasing the quiet parts. You don’t want to have too much compression on however, as this can cause you to loose your dynamics.
One of the most popular bass compression pedals on the market is Dunlop’s MXR M87, which I used in this video lesson. Compression is a huge subject so keep an eye out for a video lesson just on this in coming weeks.