answers from top TV experts
More expert assistance from TV's top musician advisers — Rockschool's Deirdre Cartwright (guitar), Henry Thomas (bass) and Geoff Nicholls (drums). If you've got any playing problems write to: The Rockschool Club, One Two Testing, (Contact Details).
I'm having trouble making my mind up about bass speakers, as I have to replace some drivers in a cabinet that's blown. It seems to me that since I bought this trusty old 2x12in some years ago, that fashion has changed and I've seen bass players using 15in and 10in speakers a lot, and even I think 8in speakers. What's your feeling on the differing qualities of speaker size? Does it really make that much difference to the sound? And what should I do with my at-present empty 2x12 cab?
You're right, things have changed, but it's not simply a case of fashion, it's rather that bass cabinets have improved one hell of a lot over the last few years. The types of speaker in a cabinet, along with the enclosures and the cabinet material, will all affect your sound quite drastically. There now seems to be a popular pattern emerging for present-day set-ups: the most popular format is probably the ported cabinet where the port opens up below the holding baffle, extending the low frequencies. You can see examples of these in the ranges offered by Trace Elliot, Alligator, Yamaha, H/H, Laney etc.
As for a preference between 15in, 12in and 10in speakers, the pattern now seems to be a single 15in in a ported cab, or 4x10 or 8x10 in ported enclosures. I have not found any examples of 8in speakers for bass set-ups, though you do find them in Bose and Yamaha PA speakers. 12in speakers aren't used much for bass now — 10in are more popular than 15in because they have a very fast speaker response, and a short area of throw. A 15in throws out the sound into the audience and can deceive you as to your true volume.
In the great majority of the top models on the market, Fane speakers are used. So if you simply want to replace your speakers I would use Fane. HT
I'd like your opinion on bass drum heads. I've been playing quite a few years now and I've noticed that the trend for leaving the front head on or off of the bass drum, and whether to cut a hole in the skin if you leave it on, is changing all the time. What's the current feeling, and what difference does it all make? Currently I'm using a 22in Gretsch bass drum with both heads on and intact. What difference would removal or hole-cutting make?
If you remember, a few years ago it was common for all the drums to be single-headed (except the snare). This made the sound easier to control: easier to tune, easier to mike. It's also a sound with lots of punch and "closeness", but not so much roundness of tone. A single head on the bass drum means you can put a lot of damping in the drum and mike inside it. The heavy damping is done because the bass drum is the biggest drum and is played with a beater rather than sticks, and so is very boomy. By putting a hole in the front head you can keep the front hoop on — which looks better and strengthens the shell — but you can still have internal damping and close miking. The smaller the hole the closer you get to the doublehead sound, though it's never going to be quite like having a complete, properly-tensioned head.
Nowadays, double-headed drums are again popular. Bass drums have been the last to follow the trend — felt damping strips are even making a comeback. As bigger, more ambient drum sounds are increasingly popular, double heads on bass drums are gradually becoming "acceptable". With less damping and with double heads you might find you use a different foot technique — a cleaner strike and rebound. This is actually better technique. Miking a small distance away will probably be better than "close". GN
Have you seen any of the bass tremolo arms? I've seen it mentioned in One Two Testing I think that the Washburn company were bringing some out. What could you do with a wang bar on a bass Henry, is it worth it or is it a gimmick?
West Croydon, Surrey
Washburn UK tell me they're importing a bass wang bar unit called the Kahler Bass Vibrato System. It consists of a replacement bridge where the strings rest on roller saddles. The rollers are connected to a camshaft which is then connected to the whammy bar. The bar can be moved up or down causing the rollers to move forwards and backwards. Thus the sounding length of the strings is changed, and therefore the pitch, creating the desired effect.
This is a very clever system because the tension of the strings is not altered, enabling you to keep the strings in tune. Washburn will supply a unit and fit it to your bass for £150.
There are many possibilities for a bass whammy: you could bend harmonics, do pull-offs like on guitar and then bend the pitch of the phrase, or even play whole chords and take their pitch up or down a semitone. Many happy whammyings. HT
I'm having trouble getting a good sound from my hi-hat and wondered if you could recommend what to do. The cymbals came with an old kit and don't have a name on them they're very 'flat' and 'lifeless'. What do you look for in hi-hat cymbals? Is there more than one type, or is it just a matter of seeing how much you can afford? And lastly, any tips once I've actually got a good pair? Thanks for the Rockschool column which is very interesting.
Not much you can do with cymbals if they're really duff, I'm afraid. You could try cleaning them (with cymbal cleaner or something nonabrasive). When you get a good pair keep them clean and carefully wrapped up. That's it!
As for types there are lots: different weights, sizes, formulae, etc. Write to Paiste, Zildjian and the rest and ask for their brochures. Compare the expensive and cheap ones in your friendly local store: there are some good cheaper ones.
When choosing, try to define the sound you prefer. Do you like to play with the hi-hat pretty tight, just opening for sharp stabs, or do you prefer a more open, broader sound? Do you like the hi-hat relatively high-pitched, "ticky" and unobtrusive, or maybe darker and thicker, filling out the rhythm more? What I'm getting at is that if you can define what you need most, you can compare different sorts in the shop and come home with something useful.
As for tips: cassette-record every rehearsal and listen ruthlessly at home. Does what you play on the hi-hat help the rhythm? You're safe with your snare on two and four in most rock tunes, but the hi-hat? That could be doing any of a dozen patterns... or nothing. GN
Is it worth paying more than what the cheap leads for electric guitars cost? I've seen some expensive leads in my local shop — I think they were made by somebody called Whirlwind. What makes these leads more expensive than the basic type? I noticed that they had a straight jack plug each end, not an L-shaped one one end and a straight one the other end like mine. But do they actually make you sound better?
I think it's definitely worth spending the extra money and buying a good quality, heavy duty guitar lead, and if you can afford it, a spare one as well just in case. I've found that Whirlwind are quite reliable and a straight lead about 15 foot long with straight jack plugs is probably the most versatile kind you can find. The trouble with L-shaped jack plugs is that they won't fit into guitars with recessed sockets (a la Strat) and you can have trouble with some amp inputs, too. If you compare a cheap lead with a more expensive one you should notice that the jack plugs are more heavy duty and are usually fitted with a clamp to hold the lead steady. The centre core and the earth screening are also thicker and stronger — the screening shields out noises and hums from lights, taxi cabs etc — and the rubber coating is thicker and more flexible. This all reduces the chances of the lead cutting out or intermittently cutting out and crackling. Do they make you sound better? Well let's just say that your cheap lead is more likely to fail just as you're about to launch into your grand guitar solo so it can be a question of not making any sound at all. DC
I wondered if you could tell me if there are any good pickups for acoustic guitar knocking about? I've had my Yamaha acoustic for three or four years and I don't want to buy any of those nasty Ovation-type guitars — I want to amplify the sound of my acoustic. Someone told me that Barcus Berry make pickups for acoustics and that they're quite good. Do you know of this or any others, and do they do a good job Deirdre? Thank you.
As I don't actually play an acoustic guitar live on stage I'm not sure I can help you with specific recommendations. All I know is that there are perennial problems when trying to play an acoustic or semi-acoustic through an amp — there's feedback for a start, and many amps add a harsh sound to acoustics, spoiling their warmth. Gibson make a very expensive solid acoustic called the Chet Atkins which has pickups to amplify the nylon strings. Washburn do a cheaper version. I can't speak from personal experience, but I have heard players recommend Barcus Berry and C-Ducer pickups. DC
The guitar player in our group, fast flyer, is always going on to me about how his Strat plays so well with a very low action. I eventually gave up as he kept going on and on, and I tried to take the action down on my Ibanez bass. I think its turned out sounding much worse. Is it true that a lower action will make a bass sound better? I must say I'm beginning to think not.
Well Pete, that'll teach you to listen to guitar players. Seriously, though, a low action on your bass won't necessarily give you a better sound, as you've obviously found out. Apart from the immediately apparent things like checking the neck adjustment and the frets to make sure they're set up correctly, your action should depend on how hard you hit the strings. If you're a thumper and you want to get a meaty, punchy sound then you've got to have a high action. You could try playing closer to the bridge as the strings have more tension there; that would allow you to lower the action slightly without creating buzzing. HT
I've noticed that quite a few modern drummers are incorporating timbales into their set-ups. Could you tell me who makes them, and what sort of variety I could expect to buy? Also, is there any way of adjusting their sound, or do you have to put up with what you get? Or maybe I should stick to a snare?
Timbales are traditionally Latin drums which come in pairs on their own stand, usually played together with a cowbell and cymbal. Cheap pairs cost around £80, and they're OK. A lot of the main drum companies now market their own (dearer). Top quality ones like LP are over £300. I've got a good set of Premier brass-shell timbales, which were a fantastic bargain at about £100 second-hand.
You adjust the sound like any other drum via heads and tensioning. But the whole point of a timbale is for it to sound lively and resonant, so fairly lightweight white heads are usually preferred. To hear what they're really about, rummage through obscure second-hand (or specialist) shops for albums by Latin-sounding musicians, eg Machito, Tito Puente, Mong Santamaria, or, for a rock version, Santana. Go to gigs by "British" bands like Onward International, or Breakfast Band.
The current fashion for using timbales singly or in pairs as part of the rock kit is, however, largely inspired by reggae drummers. Coming from Brum, you should listen to Steel Pulse (then check out Sly Dunbar, of course). The timbale is used as well as the snare drum, so keep both. GN
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