12-String Bass Rig Theory:

There are a variety of effects that work well when used with a 12-string bass. This series starts with articles about Distortion and Modulation. Other effects will be added soon.

Distortion and the 12-String Bass

by Philip Snyder

Not long ago a well respected musician friend of mine made a comment in passing that bass should always be clean. I quickly pointed out that most 12-string bassists (as well as bassists of other string arrangements) have spent hours upon hours refining their distorted tones in search of that illusive balance between thundering grind and clarity. This comment prompted me to think about distortion quite a bit more than I had in years.

Let's dig way back.

When I was a budding young guitarist circa 1980 nothing captured my fascination more than the distortion pedal. This little box, available in a variety of colors and sizes, held within its tiny metal walls the power to make me a rock god. Without it... no rock-n-roll. I'll never forget the day I purchased my first overdrive (just as good as distortion, only different) pedal and the instant effect it had on my ability to conjure up the demons of rock at will. The circle was complete and I was hooked.

To this very day I'm still fascinated by all things distortion. My pedal board is proof of that. But after years refining the beast of broken signal for guitar I've come to realize that it is a completely different approach that brings bass to a sizzling, snarling roar. So let’s look into this marriage of distortion and 12-string bass.

I cannot think of an earlier example of "fuzz bass" than Paul McCartney's experimentations during the years surrounding "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul". Most 12-string bassists are fond of The Beatles in one form or another so it's no surprise that Sir Paul would have a certain amount of influence here. McCartney's trials with distortion didn't last long but they did lay some serious groundwork in the field that was almost immediately followed by players such as John Entwistle, who would carry the distortion torch for the rest of his life.

One of the greatest examples of distorted bass can be found on Cheap Trick's debut album. Tom Petersson is no stranger to any 12-string bassist, but before the development of the instrument he was already following in the footsteps of his mentor Paul McCartney and driving his amps into pure distortion ecstasy. The song "He's A Whore" showcased a bold Gibson Thunderbird that would not settle for the supporting role behind Rick Nielsen's punk-esque guitar lines. This is most likely where the roots for distortion of the 12-string bass began.

So how do you get a good distorted 12-string bass sound? You have to start with the bass itself.

Let's face it - the 12-string bass is 2/3rds guitar so it has to be treated as such. The fact that you may only play bass lines on it is irrelevant. This is why splitting the highs and lows is so important to the equation. You want to distort the frequencies that the octave strings create, but leave the frequencies of the fundamentals basically alone for clarity. Running two amps is the best and easiest way to achieve this, and is the method of choice for most 12-string bassists. With a dual-amp rig you can dial in the highs and mids on one amp (commonly a guitar amp) and the lows on the other (commonly a bass amp). The amp supporting the highs and mids is where the distortion is focused leaving the bass amp to deliver the lows without interference. By blending the two amplified signals a bassist can achieve a very good balance between solid, audible bottom end and rich distortion. When this combination is used with a 12 it can really emphasize the instrument's ability to sound like a bass and distorted guitar playing in unison.

But what if you are running only one amp? Fear not - a monstrous 12-string bass sound can still be achieved through proper EQ, compression and the careful selection of distortion apparatus. Monty Colvin (Crunchy, Galactic Cowboys) has admitted to using an Ibanez Tube Screamer (overdrive) to drive his amps into rich distortion in the early days of Galactic. The Tube Screamer is often considered the benchmark by which all other overdrive pedals are judged. Its pronounced mid-range boost and warmth have made it a favorite with guitarists for years. Many 12-string bassists have also given the Tube Screamer a spin for the very same reasons with pleasant results. With bass, as with guitar, having clear mids is critically important and the Tube Screamer can certainly deliver in that area.

Overdrive units are designed to do just that - overdrive the signal so that the pre-amp section of any given amplifier will be delivered a hotter signal and begin to break up accordingly. Distortion pedals work a little differently by breaking up the signal before it gets to the amp. This typically results in a considerably more “fuzzy” quality. A simple analogy would be to compare Angus Young’s guitar sound to that of the late Randy Rhoads. Angus’ sound is that of 100-watt Marshall amps cranked to the point where the pre-amp section of the amp is effectively in a state of overdrive - gritty but not fuzzy.  Randy’s sound was based on the MXR Distortion+ pedal run into 100-watt Marshall amps that were set for a more clean sound. The result of this combination is the classic fuzziness for which the MXR Distortion+ pedal is known.

A fuzzy distortion can be useful at times but as a rule it is more difficult to control and get clarity with this type of distortion. Overdrive tends to be the better choice for bassists. There are many different overdrive pedals on the market today, all of which bring different things to the distortion table. The Boss Blues Driver is a nice pedal with somewhat different tonal qualities from the Tube Screamer - less dramatic mid-range boost and a slightly different breakup of signal. Keeley Electronics offers a modification for this pedal that adds depth to this pedal's capabilities.

There are also bass-specific pedals available that are designed to enhance the frequencies that basses produce. Obviously the designers weren’t thinking about the added frequency range of 12-string basses when they were being designed, but these pedals seem to be able to handle the job as if this had been part of the plan all along. The first pedal that comes to mind in this arena is the SansAmp Bass Driver by Tech21-NYC. This pedal has been a staple with 12-string bassists for years and does go a long way towards getting any bassist where they want to be in the world of distortion and overdrive.

Another such pedal is the Hartke Bass Attack. While very similar to the SansAmp pedal the Hartke Bass Attack unit does produce different tonal and distortion qualities. We have reviews for both of these pedals as well as the Keeley in our Reviews section.

Boss and MXR both offer their own versions of bass overdrive pedals as well. The Boss pedal is a straight forward, no nonsense pedal that is simply the bass version of their classic guitar overdrive pedal. The MXR Blow Torch bass overdrive pedal is MXR's answer to the SansAmp Bass Driver.

When asked about distortion Monty Colvin had this so say, "My thoughts on distortion for the 12-string bass: you probably shouldn't use that much or you will end up with a big, mushy mess. You eat up so much space with a 12 anyway, it's really had to hear once you put it in the mix with the guitars. It's a little different for a live thing and when a guitar player is soloing I say 'let 'er rip!' My other thought would be that I've had better success with an overdriven head than with pedals, but that's just me!"

The best course of action is always to try lots of different pedals with your bass and amp if you are not satisfied with the amount or quality of distortion you amp is capable of producing. Every setup and player is going to be different and require different things to achieve the desired goal. Keep in mind that at louder volumes it is frequently true that less is more when it comes to distortion. Too much grind will cause your sound to lose clarity and become muddy. Start your experimentations with the effects dialed low and increase levels slowly so you can hear how the bass and amp react to the changes made.

Modulation Effects and the 12-String Bass

by Philip Snyder

Modulation effects have long since been a favorite of guitar players. Eddie Van Halen certainly made every budding guitarist on the block long for an MXR Flanger back in the late '70s along with phasers and choruses and delays and on and on and on. Bass players too have been known to use an effect or two since those days as well, but what about 12-string bassists? I mean, how much chorusing do you really need? The 12 alone produces the chorusing effect pretty well no stompbox required. So are any of the modulation effects really necessary? Let's take a look at what these effects are capable of.

The earliest modulation effects that come to mind are the wah and octave pedals made famous by Jimi Hendrix. We'll rule the octave pedal right out for obvious reasons. Seriously, plugging a 12 into an octave pedal might open the portal to a parallel universe... or bring on WWIII. We don't need to go there.

Roger Mayer "Octavia" octave pedal in orbit around planet Earth

The wah pedal, or Cry-Baby as it is most often referred to, is a very simple device that is probably the most popular effect on the planet. This popularity is probably because the wah is the most "human" effect in that it is completely interactive with the player. Most effects are either on or off and all settings are pre determined by where the controls are set by the user. The wah is on / off as well, but once the player engages the effect they manipulate it almost constantly for the entire duration. This rolling up and down of the foot-controlled active treble boost creates and almost human voice for guitar giving it a "wah-wah" kind of sound. Hence the name Cry-Baby.

Some guitarists such as Brian May of Queen use the wah to achieve a specific tone. This is done by activating the effect and setting it to certain point or 'sweet spot" and then leaving it along. Either of these approaches might be applied to 12-string bass with positive results. This is primarily uncharted territory for 12-string bassists so anything one does in this area may potentially be groundbreaking. In my limited experience with the 12 and a Cry-Baby the result was interesting and fun.

Phasers can be equally fun. Another favorite of EVH, phasers became standard equipment on guitarists pedal boards by the 1980's and still hold their ground today. The analog phaser creates sweeping sound via phase shifting filters. By controlling rate and depth the effect can be subtle to intense. With this type of effect subtle is usually the best way to go since the overdone effect can come off as cartoonish and really cloud your signal.

A similar effect to the phaser is the flanger. The flanger creates a similar swirling effect to that of the phaser but is delay based rather than filter based. By controlling the rate, depth, and delay time you can dial in anything from a delicate and broad "airy" type of sound to something much more fast and wacky. Again, an effect best used sparingly with a 12-string bass.

Recently dUg Pinnick used an effect that I personally would have never thought of using with a 12 on the song "Pray" from the King's X album XV. The effect was an auto-wah, in particular a Guyatone WR3 Rocker Wah. This little pedal has threshold and decay controls as well as a blend switch. My first guess was that he had used an envelope filter, but King's X producer Michael Wagener revealed the secret to me. While similar to the Cry-Baby wah effect, the auto wah is an on / off type of effect with preset controls. The effect of the auto-wah and the 12-string bass on the King's X song is fantastic and really brings a different voice to the instrument.

The last modulation effect we'll explore here is tremolo. This effect is a simple one to define as it essentially is a controlled volume roll on / off. The rate of the volume sweep can be set anywhere from fast to slow creating anything from a gentle in and out signal fade to a fast machine-gun effect. Many vintage guitar amps came with onboard tremolo and with the resurgence of the popularity of those amps we have recently seen a boom of tremolo pedals becoming available.

These are the modulation effects. They can be fun to experiment with and help create interesting and unusual results. Do not take while driving or operating heavy machinery. Consult your doctor before starting a regimen of modulation effects as they can cause side effects such as the uncontrollable urge to purchase more!