Even after all these years, bass guitar and bass players never seem to get the credit that they deserve. Although it is true that the instrument is not as attractive to young music enthusiasts as, let’s say, drums or guitar, it is an essential part of every modern band. What’s more, some would argue that it is of higher importance than the guitar, although this is a completely different discussion better left for some other occasion. Either way, bass players are the glue that keeps everything together, holding down the groove, filling in the lower register parts, and sometimes adding a different twist to songs by adding fills or chromatic passages.
But knowing that bass guitar is pretty underrated, sometimes the players of the instrument do tend to overlook the fact that they need some effects to make more impact as a backing instrument. Or are, perhaps, just discouraged to get into this because of all the lame bassist jokes that they hear all the time. With this in mind, we’ll be encouraging bass guitarists to get into the wonderful world of pedals by looking into some of the essential effects. So let’s get into it.
NOTE: Before we start, bear in mind that this is a “universal” setup, something that would go along for most of today’s styles of music out there. In case you feel more experimental or just think your music requires you to have some other or additional effects to what we shared here, you’re free to get your hands on whatever suits your own needs.
Compressors and limiters
There’s not enough words to describe how important dynamic compression in modern music is, both in the mixing process and for actual studio sessions or live stage performances. But despite its importance, people do tend to overlook it as some sort of an unnecessarily expensive pedal that just takes up space on your pedalboard.
Which is really a shame, especially for bass guitars as the dynamics are of huge importance for a backing instrument. For those not familiar with it, compressor pedals essentially lower the volume of louder parts and amplify the quiet parts – thus the name “compression.” As a result, you get a more controlled and “even” tone in terms of dynamics. In addition, compression can add some sustain to your tone.
While it might be a bit confusing for the first-time users, once you get a hang of it, you won’t be able to imagine your bass rig without one. The controls on it include threshold which sets the level at which the compression kicks in, ratio which determines the amount of compression that is applied, as well some additional knobs like attack, release, and sustain.
As for limiters, this is also a dynamic range compression effect with a very high ratio and faster attack time. In short, they are, in a way, “stronger” version of compressors.
Overdrive and distortion
Distortion is often associated with guitars, but there are some cases when it works well for bass players as well. Whether you want to play something aggressive like “Ace of Spades” or just something mild that requires some dirt to your tone – it will come as a great addition to your setup.
In most cases, a simple overdrive will do the trick. You’ll cut through the mix just enough to accentuate certain parts while still not “drowning” all the other instruments. There’s an abundance of overdrives out there and some bassists might even use pedals intended for guitars. However, knowing there are many specialized bass dirt boxes, you’ll do good with something like Boss ODB-3 or MRX’s M85.
As mentioned in the compression part, dynamic control is essential for a bass player in an active band. Yeah, these might not be that interesting, as they are just a rocking pedal resembling a wah that does nothing else than lowering the volume of your bass. In case you’re in a bigger band or an orchestra, a volume pedal is a must on your pedalboard.
There are a few ways on how you can implement your volume pedal, depending on where you place it in your signal chain. In most cases, it’s probably the best idea to have it at the very end, after all the other pedals. This discussion is probably worth a separate article as there’s some additional stuff on the topic, like the low impedance and high impedance volume pedals. For the end of the signal chain, you’ll need a low impedance volume pedal, and these usually have “L” in their designated model name.
Aside from the obvious rocking part, which is essentially a modified volume knob, there is also an additional control for the minimum volume. This one sets the output volume when the rocking part is set at the lowest position.
While they are, obviously, not effect pedals, tuners are extremely important for every gigging bassist. Sure, a slightly out of tune lead guitar is annoying. Meanwhile, an out of tune bass is a pure disaster and one of the best ways for completely ruining your band’s reputation.
These are pretty simple to use, with a visible display or an array of LED lights that help you tune up your instrument. You can also use a clip-on tuner, but a pedal might be a better option since they completely mute your signal and you won’t have any issues with your bandmates or audience members for tuning out loud at full volume.
In addition, tuners are also buffer pedals, and they affect your tone if you have more pedals in your signal chain. Not to get too much into all the tech details, buffer pedals will help you keep the strength of your signal all throughout the signal chain.
Filters essentially filter out certain frequencies in your tone and either boost or cut them. The best-known type of a filter effect for guitar is a wah-wah pedal, which has a sweepable peak frequency. The peak frequency is altered with its potentiometer, which is in the form of the well-known rocking foot-controlled part.
There are some wah pedals that are specialized for bass guitars, although it’s not that rare to see bassists use standard guitar-oriented wahs. But the filter pedals we’re most interested about when it comes to bass guitars are the ones that impact your tone in such a way that will help you achieve those synth-like sounds. It’s not rare to find them on an average bassist pedalboard these days. What’s so great about them is that you can use a bass guitar to cover the lower spectrum territories while imitating some of those modern synthetic sounds.
Preamps technically allow a more practical operation to an active gigging musician. Each preamp pedal has a DI box in it, meaning that the output is accommodated for not just amps but also PA systems. We all know that powerful amps and cabinets can get quite heavy and bulky. It can get really annoying when you’re touring all the time.
So getting yourself a preamp pedal might be a good solution to this problem. They usually also have overdrive, EQ, and even some additional effects. Some good bass preamps these days include TC Electronic Spectradrive, EBS ValveDrive, and Radial Bassbone OD.
In this article, we shared some of the essential pedals that every active bass player should have. Of course, there are some variations and every bass player will have their own preferences in the process of building a pedalboard. But with these aforementioned pedals, you’ll be covering all the basic areas while serving the song as a backing (yet essential) part of the band.
If you’re generally new to bass pedals but want to get into them, a good option would be to start with a cheaper multi-effects unit and get acquainted with the basic features of individual effects. This way, you’ll find out what pedals you need for your own performances.