When it comes to the musical elements of a song, bass, and bass players are pretty underrated. Even among bass players, bass sustain is not a high priority. If you’re playing parts like the intro to “Panic Attack” or “Hammer Smashed Face,” the bass sustain isn’t really something that matters that much, but there may be times when you have to record a ballad or something that requires sustained notes because of its sonic texture. If you play funeral doom metal, you really need sustain. We will discuss how you can improve your bass sustain here.
Alter pickup height
The distance between the strings and the pickups not only affects their tonality; it also plays an important role in the amount of sustain you will have. With your pickups too close to the strings, their magnetic effect will dampen the vibratory capacity of the strings. As you lower the pickups (easy to do with an ordinary screwdriver), the magnetic effect weakens and your strings will hold for longer.
As you lower the pickups, you will also slightly reduce their output. It’s really worth listening critically as you adjust your pickups, finding the best balance of output and sustain for your style.
You may find that your pickups do not provide the sustain you are looking for at any height. If you’re using old strings, putting in new strings will help things a bit, but it’s not economically practical to try dozens of string types in search of more sustain. There are multiple things to do with your bass before you go down the signal chain.
Fix hardware issues
Your bass strings only touch the bass at a few places, namely, the tuning machines, the nut, the bridge, and the tailpiece. If any of these components are loose, they will reduce the overall resonance, damping the vibration of the strings. Ensure that your bridge hardware is taut and rattle free. Buzz from the saddle can reduce sustain drastically. The nut is pretty much a set and forget component, but you do have a plastic nut on your bass. Remember, the correct setup is key to great bass sustain.
Use compressor pedals to sustain
The compressor pedals give you control over the dynamic range of your instrument. By applying compression to your bass tone, you can effectively add sustain. A simple compressor pedal offers studio-quality compression with minimal setup. Or you can go for a sustain-focused pedal. It’s essentially a compressor too, but having a specific knob labeled Sustain can eliminate some of the confusion when it comes to dialing it in.
If you’re not yet experienced with using compression, it may be a rabbit hole to dive into.
Get a little creative
The techniques we’ve discussed so far will definitely help add sustain to your bass, without changing its center tone. But what if you don’t want it to sound like a typical bass? What if you want the kind of sustained buzz you’d get from a bowed cello? You can hold certain devices next to a string and the string will get excited. It’s a distinctive sound and is best suited to more adventurous styles of music. If you don’t want to alter your playing style, there are some pedals that will create a micro-loop of whatever note you are holding, holding it until the effect is turned off.
There is no single way to sustain the bass.
If your instrument is in tip-top shape and you just want more spaciousness and sustain, add a simple compressor pedal. If you are one of the highly creative and adventurous types, you should get a sustained pedal or handheld device.