Do you want to sculpt a slap bass tone like the legendary players: Marcus Miller, Larry Graham, and Flea?
In this post, I will deliver my ultimate guide for sculpting an awesome slap bass sound from the ground up. Everything from technique, amp settings and types, guitars, strings, and effects. Let’s dive in…
What Makes for a Good Slap Tone
A great slap bass tone should sound “crisp” “round” and “aggressive.” This tone is achieved with the low-end and high-end frequencies boosted and the mid frequencies ‘scooped’ (kept low). This way, it’ll sound “aggressive” and “piercing” with enough bass to pronounce the pop and slap tones.
Slapping is one of the most famous bass techniques in modern music and is something beginner bass players are often trying to learn. However, it’s important to know how to set up your tone for this playing style.
What’s tricky is that the tone should have enough warmth while also keeping the bite and its “crispiness” in the higher register at the same time.
Fun Fact: the birth of slap bass originated from musicians from western swing bands in the 1920s implementing this fresh technique within their music over the decades, this unique style quickly spread across other genres: funk, rock, disco, and jazz.
The Fundamentals for Slap Bass
Before I discuss amp settings and your gear. Keep in mind, the foundation of any tasty slap bass tone requires proper and optimal slap technique.
This is, without a doubt, the crucial factor that impacts your sound, the most not your amp setting and gear (they are just the icing on the cake.)
You can have the best gear and ideal amp settings but if your technique is poor then your slap bass house will crumble down on a weak foundation layered by your technical ability.
For this reason, ensure your slap chops are practiced until you possess a solid foundation of slap bass technique.
How to Perform the Technique
To get a good foundation, you first need to practice your picking hand. In a way, this is like performing any percussive instrument. First, place your picking hand in a way that gives your thumb enough room to move up and down.
You’ll be using it a lot. At the same time, your index and middle finger should be placed underneath the highest string.
With the thumb, you slap on the bottom two strings, while the index and middle fingers pull up and snap the higher strings. There are some exceptions to this rule, but this is the basic positioning.
At the same time, your fretting hand needs to do additional muting that will determine the length of slapped notes.
You can practice this by slapping an open string and then dampening it with your fretting hand. Coordination between the left and right hand is crucial, as both are important to get a funky and sweet slap tone done right.
Amp Setting for Slap Bass (EQ)
Once you have your technique down. Next up, you should know how to set up your amp to get the best out of your slapping.
While there are plenty of different amps with various parameter settings, some of the same principles apply.
The good news is that it’s possible to achieve a sweet-sounding slap tone on almost any bass amp and bass guitar combination with basic EQ controls.
The first important thing is to cut down on the mids while boosting the lows and high-ends. While slapping, you don’t want to barge into the sonic “territory” of guitars with all the mids in your tone.
One of the easiest ways you can do it is to just “scoop” the mids while leaving out bass and treble as they are or slightly boost them.
This is simple to do an amp with a 3-band EQ, although this setup lacks some much-needed fine-tuning depending on your gear.
How to Dial in your EQ settings
This 3-band EQ graph (pictured above) displays a scooped bass tone. Notice how the mid frequencies are lowered hence the term “scooped.” Whilst the highs and lows are boosted creating this EQ setting optimal for slap bass.
By setting your EQ settings this way you’ll keep both the clarity with highs and warmth with the low end.
The growling mids that easily cut through the mix will be gone, but that’s not much of an issue for slap tones.
But if your amp has more detailed EQ controls, you’ll get more chance to dial in just the right amount of mids.
For instance, many bass guitar amps have two mid controls – one for the amount of mids and the other for mid frequencies.
Slap Bass EQ Setting Tutorial
This video explains everything I have discussed when EQ’ing your amp for the ideal tone for slapping. (Watch Below)
Depending on the type of amp and bass you have, you’ll need to do some detailed testing and tweaking to find your sweet spot.
The general rule is to cut down on the lower midrange while boosting both bass and treble. This is the ultimate “scooped” tone that will pronounce all the important parts of the spectrum for a good slap tone.
Mistakes to Avoid with Your EQ
However, you should be careful not to scoop the mids too much as you’ll completely lose character and definition.
On the other hand, over enhancing the mids in the mix will make your tone “honky” and “quaky” not ideal for a crisp and aggressive tone.
Also keep in mind, if the low frequencies are too low your tone will sound thin and brittle and not deliver enough thump and “aggression.”
In contrast, if the highs are buried and the low frequencies are overbearing your tone will sound too warm and thumpy and not deliver the “crisp” and “bright” slapping and popping nuances.
Of course, there are a lot of factors that impact your bass tone. Depending on the type of bass, amp, and other gear you use.
And because of this, you’ll have to experiment and tweak your available gear the way it suits your needs and tastes.
Best Amplifiers for Slap Bass
While all of the amps, even the cheaper ones are designed to bring quality in different types of bass tones, there are some important features. A very useful one is the inclusion of a more detailed EQ.
Like we already explained, some amps have more control over mids. However, there are those amplifiers with graphic EQs that provide the most hands-on approach in setting up the tone.
Types of speakers are also important. Smaller speaker cones usually tend to enhance the midrange frequencies, but still keep the much-needed definition in the tone.
Meanwhile, larger speakers provide more bass but can make your tone sound too muddy. The perfect solution here is to find a proper combination of an amp head and a speaker cabinet that will suit your needs.
At the end of the day, plenty of bass amps can be set up to give a good slap tone. All you need to do is find the perfect ratio of mids with bottom and high-end.
Great idea here would be to try as many amps as you can within your set budget. Sure, head plus cabinet formation offers more options, but it’s not impossible to make great tones on combo amps either.
Bass amp simulators are awesome for achieving genuine and realistic bass tones without the inconveniencies of recording a physical amp.
You need to check out my detailed roundup post The 7 Best Bass Amp simulators (free and paid) for achieving iconic and sweet-sounding tones that any recording bass player will need. (link opens in new tab)
Best Bass Guitars for Slap Bass
Just like with amps, there are plenty of things to consider when picking the best bass for the slap technique and tone.
But knowing that the technique is so widespread, almost any bass that you can buy today is designed to bring great slap tones.
Some legendary Bass guitars for slap are…
- Fender Standard Jazz
- Fender Affinity Series Jazz Bass
- Fender Precision
- Music Man Stingray
- Warwick Rockbass Corvette 5
On the lower end of the budget some awesome but affordable options include:
- Squier Classic Vibe 60s Precision Bass IL 3
- Squier Classic Vibe 60s Jazz Bass
- Squier Affinity Series Precision Bass PJ
- Yamaha TRBX174
- Yamaha TRBX304
- Sterling By Music Man SUB Ray5
- Ibanez GSR200B Gio
Wood quality and density, sustain, and the guitars natural compression are factors determining the tones you can bring to the game. Which again, all boils down to personal preference.
Keep in mind, it’s more beneficial to attain a bass that feels and plays effortlessly around the neck, so slapping feels comfortable to you regardless of the optimal sound they can produce.
What Type of Pickups?
One of the first things to look into is the type of pickups you have installed. As different pickups deliver various tones optimal for getting that bright “pop” and “spanky” slap tone.
Obviously, it boils down to tastes, but pickup choice influences whether your bass can deliver the classic funk and slap tone that most slap players desire.
Active pickups will often provide more aggressiveness to the tone giving you that ballsy growl and bright highs ideal for pronounced “pop” and “snap” sounds.
Active pickups have been noted to provide more definition and clarity than passive pickups and are usually preferred for players who incorporate a lot of slap techniques in their playing.
The only issue with active pickups is they are more prone to feedback, which can be a problem through a noisy tube amp at loud volumes.
On the other hand, passive pickups, that we find on most of the basses, give more warmth to the tone.
The reason is they have fewer copper windings promoting a “warmer” and “rounder” tone than active pickups.
Determining they cannot offer bright highs, than active pickups can deliver.
Players that pluck with their fingers preferring a warm and deep tone find that passive pickups are better suited to their sound and playing style.
This is not to say that passive pickups cannot deliver fantastic slap tones. To counteract this, you can increase high frequencies and decrease low frequencies with your amps EQ settings or an additional EQ pedal.
The goal is to tweak your EQ settings to achieve your ideal slap bass tone with your available gear.
Pickup Selection: Bridge or Neck?
Of course, knowing that bridge pickups give tighter and more defined and controlled tone, it’s always recommended to use them for a slapping tone. This reason is the sound will be thinner and brighter compared to neck pickups.
This is precisely what you need for the perfect slap tone. Neck pickups are just too smooth for it.
In some cases, you can try and find that balance and blend of bridge and neck, although your tone will rely mostly on the bridge pickup.
When it comes to volume, most players prefer maxing out the volume knob pushing the pickups to dig out the highs and low and provide the maximum amount of drive and aggression for the “pops” and “slaps.”
The Best Strings and String Gauge for Slap Bass
Achieving that bright and aggressive slap tone players want the material and gauge of your strings are crucial factors to consider.
Although everyone’s open to experiment and find their perfect setup, some things will help you get that “snappier” and “twangy” tone. Here’s the 101 when it comes to string choice for different sounds.
This Video Explains All (Watch Below)
Stainless Steel Strings
It is usually recommended to use stainless steel strings for slap instead of nickel ones when getting that bright and piercing tone.
Since the whole point is to have both the “thickness” with the low end and the clarity and brightness with the high end, steel strings will help you achieve that tone.
Stainless steel allow for them crisp ‘highs’ and have more bite and drive, which is why traditionally stainless steel has been the primary choice for slap players for many decades.
In case you really want to avoid mids, it’s a better idea to go with steel strings for a traditional option.
In comparison, nickel strings sound mellow and warm with a throaty sound to them. They’re mostly focused on smoother and more vintage-oriented tones.
They have notably more mids than stainless steel and provide more thump but ultimately lack the piercing highs of stainless steel which slap players will want with their strings.
This is not to say you can not use nickel strings, especially if you want to go for an old school vibe. On the other hand, stainless steel is usually applied for them classic bright and aggressive slapping sounds.
Bear in mind that there’s no “wrong” choice here, as it’s just the difference in the final result.
In some cases, nickel strings can produce great slap tones, but you’ll need some more bass guitar, amp, and effects tweaking to get it tighter.
Roundwound vs Flatwound Strings
With either stainless steel or nickel, you will encounter the choice of roundwound or flatwound string options.
Round-wound strings add more to the brightness and the attack of the tone and the traditional option used by most players over many genres. Roundwound strings are the choice for a bright attack and classic slap bass sound.
Whereas, flat-wounds produce a slightly different tone, mellower and smoother, something you can hear with a fretless bass. Or perhaps a jazz player favoring a warmer and smoother sound.
Although string gauge choice is a personal preference, You’ll want to get lighter string gauges for a great slap tone. Talking of 4-string basses, the .040 to .095 or .040 to .100 would be a perfect choice. In case you’re using lower tunings than the standard E-A-D-G, it’s always a good idea to try heavier strings.
The Best Action for Slapping
Another thing we’ll need to discuss is the string action and how it can affect the tone when slapping on bass guitar.
To those who don’t know, action refers to the string action or the height of the strings above the fretboard.
When the action is lower, it means that the strings are closer to the fretboard. On the other hand, higher action means a bigger distance between the strings and the fretboard.
The general idea for slapping is that you need lower action. This way, you need to apply less force when implementing the technique, and that you’ll be able to easily achieve that recognizable popping tone with strong action.
If the string is higher, it would not only take more force but also more time for the string to hit the frets when slapped or released. As a result, you may experience loss of momentum and the tone will be less “snappy” than you’d expect.
On the other hand, if the action is too low, it may be an issue for the overall comfort of the picking hand.
How to Easily Adjust Your Bass Action
The best idea is to experiment and find your perfect string height. Sure, it may take some time as setting up string action can be a long process, but it’s something you have to do for your optimal performance.
Recommended String Height
According to many sources, the distance at the 12th fret should be at around 3/30 inches for the bottom strings and somewhere around 1/16 of an inch for higher strings.
While it’s usually a better idea to leave the setup and intonation to the professionals, you can still play around with it if you have proper tools.
We would like to point out that the string action in this sense is very subjective. Some players prefer extremely low string action. However, this also means that your bass guitar should be good enough to support this setup without any unwanted buzzing.
Some may prefer a slightly higher action than described as it would provide more comfort for their picking hand.
Recommended Effects Pedals for Slap Bass
While not mandatory, using different pedals and effects will help you enhance and shape your ideal slap tone further.
EQ Pedal for Dynamics
The first and obvious choice is the EQ pedal, which is helpful for two reasons. First, it gives more tone-shaping options, especially if there are more than five frequency ranges to control.
It assists a player with an unsatisfactory response from an amp with your current settings. Therefore, this pedal can dial in more scooped mids and boost bass and treble and squeeze more frequencies from your amp.
The second reason is that you’ll be able to switch to the desired slap tone midway through the live show or a studio session.
And you can always go back to some smoother tones by turning it off. You could dial in a ‘clean boost’ with an EQ pedal for a bass solo within a song to lift you within a band mix so you can be heard.
Compressor pedals can be of great help for slap bass tones. As the technique allows a lot of louder tones with short dynamic bursts, your bass tone can sometimes “pop out” in the mix and burst through the amp or the PA.
A simple compressor or a limiter pedal will keep your dynamics in check and will also help you add more “thickness” and “volume” to your tone.
Dirt for Additional “Balls”
Overdrive and distortion can, in some cases, help you get more aggressiveness and “bite” to your tone.
However, you should keep the gain knob in check and not push it over the limits. Otherwise, you’ll just end up with a noisy mess of a tone.
Wah Wah for Character
If you’re playing funky music or anything that’s bass guitar-centric, you can consider adding a wah, automatic wah, or an envelope filter pedal.
It’s something that will add a new flavor to your tone by following your dynamics, but without making it too messy.
Can you slap on any bass?
You can play slap on any bass. However, different basses will be optimal for the sound of slap such as having hot pickups, steel strings and the bass being constructed of high-quality wood matched with a set up for optimal playability. Technique and amp EQ settings are also very important factors.
Is slapping bass hard?
Slap bass is considered a difficult and technical style to perform but can be achieved with practice and hours spent learning. Slap bass can be difficult for a beginner just starting but basic slap playing techniques can be performed and built upon with enough practice.
How do you slap bass without hitting other strings?
You can avoid slapping the wrong bass strings by visualizing your slapping thumb instead of the fretboard when playing. This develops the muscle memory and accuracy required to avoid slapping the wrong strings. Over time, you will naturally hit the desired strings with enough practice and muscle memory.
Thanks For Reading
If you enjoyed this post you need to check out my related post… Can Guitar Pedals Be used For Bass?
It’s my ultimate guide to knowing whether guitar pedals can sound just as good with using a bass guitar.