I think Randy Jackson said it best, when he said “Ha! Slapping, the ketchup of the bass world!” and it rings true. Walk into any music store and you will usually hear SOMEONE slapping away on a bass (and in full disclosure, sometimes that’s been this guy). It’s fun, relatively simple and while there are traditional techniques out there, it has become very personal, varying from person to person. But one thing we can all agree on is that tone!
Slap bass requires a different tonal approach than your usual playing. Don’t think so? Play fingerstyle in a group, switch to slap in the middle of a song and listen as your tone gets buried.
Strings: Strings will make a huge difference right off the bat. Slap bass usually favors roundwound strings that are fresh and new. That’s not to say you can’t slap with old rounds or with a set of flats, because plenty of guys/gals do it. However, the harmonic content that is found in a new set of strings (stainless or nickel both work great) helps bring out that pop! sound that is so characteristic of slap bass.
Pickups: The pickups in your bass are going to have some effect on the clarity you’re going to be able to get. For those of you with jazz basses (or other two pickup basses), you want to favor the bridge pickup a little bit (check out the “Know Your Volume” for a more in-depth explanation) to give you a tight and dry sound. The hotter the signal output, the more aggressive and tight the sound will be when favored, which is why the Music Man Style pickups are a favorite among many for slap tone.
EQ on the Bass/Amp: The most characteristic slap tone has scooped mids, allowing those sparkling pops! and thundering slaps! to come forward. Easiest way to do this is either cut the mids (if you have a STC-3 active preamp or other 3 band), or boost the bass and treble (effectively scooping the mids) on a 2 band. Of course, unless you’re really quick with your fingers, fiddling with the EQ takes a bit of time. And when you’re onstage in the middle of a song, it’s not the time to do it. However, a bonus of the STC-3 active preamp is the push/pull volume knob that has a slap contour preset, which will allow you near instant tonal switching.
Effect Pedals: There are a lot of options out there for this purpose (and arguably, you could use whatever you wanted), but the ones that are going to help you nail that scooped slap tone are Equalizers, Compressor/Limiters, and Harmonic Expanders. All of these will attack and work with your bass signal in different ways; it’s best to spend some time with whichever one(s) you have to dial in that sound you like. All of these effect pedals are a much handier option to have over trying to EQ on the fly, in the middle of a song, onstage in front of your audience.
Slap bass is a great technique to learn and incorporate into your playing. Part of that technique is getting that sound that will cut through the mix, helping to energize the band and keep the dance floor jumping. My personal “slap bass grail” tone is with a new set of GHS Pressurewounds, the slap contour of my STC-3 active preamp engaged, with a slight compression. What’s the tone that’s your slap sound? How do you get it, and how does it work in a group setting?
Slap Bass Basics – The Thumb Upstroke