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What do you play to test gear ??

Tom Capasso

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DavidMPires recently checked out some MarkBass stuff and asked this question. Some years back we had a thread about what we do when testing gear, but I couldn't find it. There are plenty of new folks, so I thought it a worthy topic.


I have a set of songs that I like to play, though I find myself "aimlessly wandering" the fretboard way too much. I'd love to play to recorded music or with another instrument. You'd think by now I'd make sure I had an mp3 player handy for this purpose...


I play:

  • The Beatles' "Something" - makes my hands move around the neck, but it's soft and lush and a ballad. There's no room for "noise".
  • Elvis Costello "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" - combines upper register sound with lower - are they both clear, the right volume? Is the tone thin on top/boomy on bottom?
  • Cactus "Brother Bill" - there's a riff on the IV chord of this blues that I've been playing for a long time - seems a good test of something, and it's fun!
  • XTC "Mayor Of Simpleton" - no, I can't play it well, but it tests spacing for me.
  • Allman Brothers - lots (usually "Trouble No More") - I can get into a bit of a groove with this and see if things feel "natural"
  • Buddy Miles "Them Changes" (or Rolling Stones "Live With Me") - gritty rock riff stuff, is a "comfort" test, and let's me see what it sounds like to hit hard
  • any song my band is currently working on

I don't necessarily play all of those every time (though the first three almost always come out). And there are lots of songs that I've used more than once but aren't my main test lines (Nick Lowe's "Breaking Glass" and Genesis "Lamb Lies Down" come to mind).


I have found it very helpful to use the same lines from instrument to instrument, and from day to day. I've played the same instrument a week apart, and liked it one day but not the other (usually my opinion has gone down when this happens). At least I know that my "test lines" were the same, and my feeling isn't based on one line over another.


I was at a store recently and went through many basses. I wondered if the store person considered me limited or methodical, because I kept playing the same music.


Apart from being able to hear myself in a busy store, I try to tune out other people. Many of these songs are unknown to the young, and appreciated by the more "experienced", so I don't have to feel self-conscious. Sometimes people recognize the lines and comment (this happens most with "Chelsea"), and that's a nice extra (that they can recognize the line through my playing and fiddling with the equipment).




Acoustic Color


Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars and keep your feet on the ground. - Theodore Roosevelt

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I have a few riffs of my own that I try out because that's what I would be playing on the (eventual) new bass. I also like to see what Free's "Walk In My Shadow" bassline sounds like. On acoustic guitars, I like to try "Wildwood Flower", as well as stuff of my own that I'd be likely to play on the new guit.
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For a bass: I will tune it up and then check the intonation so I know the basis of what I'm about to hear. Then, through an amp set totally flat, preferably one I'm familiar with, I play every note on the bass (open, fretted, harmonics) as slow whole notes so I can hear how the note blooms and decays. Then I will run through a series of two-octave scales to see how it feels moving up and down the neck. Finally, if the bass has pleased me to this point, I will just jam some random stuff as I go through the control settings and hear all the tones possible from the instrument.


For an amp: I will use my own bass or, if I stumble on something to check out while window shopping, I'll grab a Jazz bass off the wall. Then I will play long notes while I adjust every setting on the amp to see how each control affects the sound. I make sure it is cool for me to turn on up, not for long or for wailing, but I'm not buying an amp until I "KNOW" when it will break up.


My attitude has always been: When I'm spending my very hard-earned money, I'm auditioning the gear, nobody is auditioning me.


The groove is in the spaces.



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I usually play some of whatever I'm working on or learning at the moment. That's sort of what I'm "focused" on so it makes a good litmus test. I also play dominant 7 arpeggios, ending on the G string, to test for dead spots. Think Duck on "Key to the Highway."
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Usually just the bass line to Prince's "Kiss". For bass gear, I just make sure it looks good. If it does, then it is likely good enough to do the job.




For a bass, I just play a walking line or two and make sure the bass feels good. Then I play some octaves and check for dead spots. That's about it. I know what I like as far as pickups and electronics and discount the sound of an instrument in a store using store equipment to a certain degree.


For amps and cabinets, I buy based on specifications for certain manufacturers I trust more than others and based on real-world experience with gear I have used previously. Testing in store doesn't usually help me understand how something will sound on stage or in studio.


Unless I am getting something custom (ala my Mike Lull M5V or my Rob Allen MB-2), I try to buy somewhere that has a good, no-hassle return policy. Love them or hate them, I have never been "done wrong" by Musician's Friend. When I purchased my Geddy Lee signature Jazz, the first one had a wicked neck S-curve; they send a return shipping slip and turned around a new one in three days.

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To test out Basses:


First, I usually plug them into an Ampeg combo that's lying around and set all the EQ flat. I get the bass I am interested in and ask for a strap because every bass feels good when it's on your lap. I strap up to the approprate height, plug in and tune up. I'll just hold it for a minute and play some open strings and harmonics just get the feel of the instrument.


If I am satisfied with the bass up to that point, I usually switch gears and play some Beatles' tunes, usually 'I Saw Her Standing There', 'Birthday' or 'Eight Days a Week'. If I am playing a 5 string, I then proceed to play some tricky Dream Theater licks that utilize and isolate that low B.


Other snippets/riffs would include:

School's Out - Alice Cooper

My Friend of Misery (bass intro) - Metallica

My own wacky material


To test out Combos, heads, cabinets:


I almost always use a 5 string MusicMan Stingray with the EQ set flat and the pickup selector all the way towards the rear pickup. Since I mostly play a 5 string bass, I first like to emphasize playing that low B, open E riffing and such. My song list is pretty standard from the above mentioned. From my experience, almost all rigs sound good in the store, because those bass rooms are so tiny and the sound fills up the space rather quickly. This display ploy can trick many players into buying a piece of equipment without really testing it. I try to bring the cab/head out of the little room (if I can) and set up near those 'other guys' and see how it sounds. Most times I keep the EQ on the head/combo set flat and adjust to taste.

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I don't play a lot of songs - I usually just noodle around and improvise stuff all over the neck to get a feel for how the bass sounds/responds everywhere. I also tend to play a lot of chords in the 12th+ fret area to see how it's intonation is. There are also a couple of warmup exercises that I will do that cover the whole neck - basically C major patterns that start low and go until you run out of neck.


The one song that I have been playing quite a bit lately when trying stuff is "The Real Me" just because it's all over the neck.


With amps I do much of the same but play with the features - a lot.

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Usually when I try out basses I check the tuning and then do some 12 bar boogie stuff or major scales down low to get the feel of the neck. then some upper neck arpeegios and harmonics and listen for the tone and sustain. I do some octave slaps and listen for the response of the bass. I don't shred because that's not what I do and I'm kind of crappy at it.

Lydian mode? The only mode I know has the words "pie ala" in front of it.


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I normally tune up, check intonation, run a few scales, blues line and maybe some arpeggios. Song wise I'll play the opening to Turn The Page by Rush to hear how chords sound, Orion or the end line to Under The Bridge to hear how the bass sings. To check balance across the strings I play one of my own lines which uses all the strings from the B to the C. I normally do this only if its quiet and I try and do it as quietly as possible.


The only time that I ever have been asked about what I was doing while trying a bass when playing the intro to Sweet Child of mine using tap harmonics, the Guy asked me to show him what I was doing. I used it to irritate guitar players for fun!! lol

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Most any piece of gear I've ever bought I bought simply because it seemed to fit my need at the time. I never really know if my purchase was a good one or not till I've used it for three months.


Except for that way underpowered GK Backline amp I used to own. I kinda knew that one right away.

Things are just the way they are, and they're only going to get worse.

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Basses - a couple scales or octaves, a bit of elementary slap at modest tempo to hear the difference in 'thump' and 'pop' tones (the intro to Play That Funky Music White Boy or just a few 5ths and octaves), and usually a couple of licks Rocco-style. The key is to play songs or styles that are applicable to what one might gig with, try not to show off. I have walked in on a couple of Tulsa's chops masters at GC, the friendly ones might show a thing or two.


Amps - grab a passive bass, usually a run-of-the-mill P/J like a Yamaha or Peavey Zodiac(:love:). Set all the EQ flat, undo any functions like compressors, graphic EQ, tone shape buttons. I start by getting a feel for the amp 'au natural' and work every knob to see how much effect it has.


PS - while typing this I have been listening to

. I'll stop typing and go practice now.
- Matt W.
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I tune first and the tear off some Rush and Primus. That usually tells me everything I need to know.

Whether it's a bass or amp it has to get that growly "twank" or forget it.

"He is to music what Stevie Wonder is to photography." getz76


I have nothing nice to say so . . .


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So I guess I'm the only guy who plugs into an amp, turns it all the way up throws the bass at the display case? Whichever bass has the coolest crack or gouge in it after hitting the ground is the one for me.


It also sounds cool.


But I have to keep going to new stores to buy gear. Fascists.



"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

--Sun Tzu

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