Bass Guitar Effects Buyers Guide

When it comes to using effects, bassists usually fall into two categories:

1. Bass is bass. I don’t need no stinkin’ effects.
2. Why should guitarists have all the fun? I want to try every effect ever made.

Personally, I fall into the “less is more” category of effects users: you’re not likely to find me using chorus, fuzz and wah-wah at the same time. That’s because I want my effects to add to, not detract from, my performance. So choosing the right effects for bass takes some thought.

The first use of an effects pedal on bass that I can recall was Paul McCartney’s fuzz bass on “Think for Yourself” on The Beatles landmark 1966 LP “Rubber Soul.” It was –- and remains —- a pretty cool sound. Not much happened with bass effects for several years after that, although both Tim Bogert of Vanilla Fudge and Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone also used fuzz bass to great effect. Elsewhere, bassists like Chris Squire of Yes began using reverb and tremolo in addition to fuzz, and eventually Bootsy Collins became a living, breathing, funk machine through his use of the envelope filter.

These days there’s a wide variety of effects pedals for bassists, and the good news is that many manufacturers have tailored their products specifically for the low end rather than forcing bassists to make do with guitar pedals, which because of their limited frequency range often sound terrible when used with bass. Using lots of effects can't make a bad bassist sound good, but there are times when judicious use of effects can make heads turn. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most common effects available for bassists today.

I list compressors first because compression is probably the most useful -- yet little-used -- bass effect. Also known as a limiter and sometimes built in to a bass amp, a compressor evens out peaks and valleys in the sound of an instrument, ideally giving every note equal volume, raising the apparent volume of the instrument and making it sound smooth. Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, King Crimson) -- whose pedalboard is pictured above -- uses compression well to give his bass an instantly recognizable sound. Using too much compression can lead to your bass sounding “squashed”; used correctly, it can make your bass sparkle and cut through a live mix.

Overdrive (Distortion)/Fuzz
There’s a difference between overdrive and fuzz. Typically, distortion is the tone obtained by overdriving a tube amplifier: a warm, very controlled clipping similar to the tone pioneered by Cream’s Jack Bruce. Modern digital effects recreate the sound of this tube overdrive or , in some cases, actually use a single tube that can be pushed to distortion, then modified by the effects controls. Fuzz is a different animal –- lots of dirt and usually very thin sounding. However, the current crop of fuzzes for bass allow great control over frequency, tone and depth.

All effects in this category use some form of time delay, with echo involving the longest delays. Chorus is a very short delay — so short that the ear perceives the sound as slightly fuller than a single sound, yet not as two distinct sounds. There’s also a very slight pitch difference between the two sounds. It's a great bass effect: Sting uses a very slight chorus effect on “Walking on The Moon” by The Police.

Flanging takes a chorus effect one step further by adding a more dramatic speed and pitch change. If you’ve heard the sweeping whoosh of the vocals on the ‘60s song “Itchykoo Park” by The Small Faces, you’ve heard flanging. Eddie Van Halen also used flanging for guitar back in his band’s heyday. It’s not often used on bass, but can be effective. Phasing again takes chorus one step further, but is not quite as dramatic in pitch change as flanging. Reverb simulates the natural decay of a sound in large, open space. Chris Squire used reverb to good effect in Yes’ “Heart of The Sunrise" on the "Fragile" LP. Echo involves the longest time delays of all and is not used on bass as often as on guitar. Modern echo units can often perform several delay functions from chorus to very long delay in a single unit.

Envelope Filter/Wah-Wah
Envelope filters became popular for bass WDRTH —- When Disco Ruled the Earth. “Yow” and “Wow” became buzzwords for bassists overnight when the Mutron III first hit the market in the mid-1970s. Envelope filters work like automatic wah-wah pedals, which achieve the “wah” sound by changing rapidly from bass to treble via a foot-controlled tone pot. Most major effects manufacturers offer some kind of envelope filter now, and these have settings to control the cutoff frequency of the tone filtering as well as other parameters. Until bass synthesizer pedals came along, a good envelope filter was the best way for a bassist to compete with the synth basslines made popular by the Minimoog.

Bass Synthesizers/Octave Boxes
Bassists became envious when the first synth bass sounds began to roll out of Minimoogs and Arp Odyssey keyboards in the early 1970s. Into the late 1990's, bassists had to use a variety of pedals together to approximate the deep, heavily filtered sound of a synth bass. Even then, the first bass synth pedals suffered from poor “tracking” -- the ability to accurately tell what note was being played and follow the nuances of the players touch. However, recent advances in filtering and tracking technology have produced number of very good bass synth pedals. Among the most promising is the brand new (in March 2010) Markbass Supersynth, which allows the user to tailor settings through a computer interface, then save them as presets which can be scrolled through with a footswitch. The Supersynth also incorporates an Octaver function, allowing the bassist to play notes one octave below or one octave above the actual note being played. Markbass also offers a standalone Octaver pedal, as do several other manufacturers.

Bass Multieffect Boxes
One way to avoid spending nearly $1,000 to have a complete set of bass effects is to buy a multieffects unit, some of which have nearly 100 effects such as those listed above, plus amplifier and cabinet “models“ (a way to make your amp sound like a different amp).

Non-effects pedals
One pedal that is not an effect yet should be in every bassist's or guitarist's box of tricks is an electronic tuner. One that fits in your pedal board can make silent tuning on a dark stage a breeze. Two popular models are the Boss TU3 and the new TC Electronic PolyTune.

Which one first?
With so many choices, which pedal should you buy if you can afford only one? That’s a good question, but one that only you can answer. The style of music you play dictates which, if any, effects you use. I currently use only a compressor, but in years past I ran fuzz, wah, phaser and envelope filter. If you play heavier music but have a small amp that you’d like to make sound larger, something like the Sansamp line of bass drivers can give you a huge sound for little cash outlay. If your amp has built-in compressor, perhaps you can bypass that purchase and head to chorus, fuzz or synth. If you haven’t narrowed down what effects you want, take your bass to your local music store and try whatever they have in stock. And many manufacturers now have sound samples of their pedals online to help you decide what’s right for you. Another good source for input on specific brands is to post a question in MusicGearReview’s Bass Forums, which I moderate. If I can’t answer your question, chances are that one of the other MGR users will have some good info for you.

About Dave

Dave Molter

Dave Molter (“Laklander”) has played bass professionally for 45 years. He is a freelance writer and moderator of the Music Gear Review bass guitar forums. Dave’s bass influences include Paul McCartney, James Jamerson, Chris Squire and Tony Levin. His primary bass is a Lakland 55-94 five-string. Dave uses Genz-Benz amplifiers and Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats or Lakland Nickel Rounds strings. He would still like to be a Beatle. Send questions or comments to Dave