Behind every great punk song, there is a bassist with a gritty punk bass tone holding the band together.
Since punk songs are often played at high BPM, it`s crucial for the bassist to be able to drive the songs forward. While playing fast basslines will partly achieve this, it won`t be enough without a punchy tone that is able to cut through the mix.
Therefore, I`ve written this guide to show you how to achieve a great punk bass tone.
I`ll show you how to set your EQ, and how to adjust it accordingly when playing in a punk band. Then, I`ll show you why most punk bassists use picks, and what strings are the best fit for the genre. Lastly, we`ll talk about instrument choice, and how much it really matters when playing punk as a bass player.
Punk bass tone settings
Given that punk has evolved into various sub-genres, there are many different ways that you can set your bass tone. However, many of these have similarities. Thus, I`ve listed two main ways to set your bass EQ for punk: A modern gritty tone, and a classic low-end heavy tone.
If you are aiming for a modern gritty punk bass tone, try these EQ settings:
This will give you a dirty punk tone that cuts well through in a mix. The exact sound will vary on your gear, but will sound something like this:
If you are looking more for an old-school, classic punk sound, try these settings instead:
This is a sound that doesn`t cut as well through the mix. However, it does well at filling in the low-end and is more in line with what early punk bassists tended to sound like:
When playing in a punk band, you might need to adjust these settings for your band to sound cohesive. Here are some solutions for how to EQ your bass when running into sonic issues within a band:
- The Bass can`t be heard because of the guitars: If you are struggling to cut through the guitars, try turning up the high-mids in particular. Turning up the treble and low-mids can help with this to a lesser extent. This will add brightness to your tone, which will be more noticeable in the mix than bass frequencies.
- The bass is clashing with the guitars – Sometimes, it can sound like the bass and guitars are fighting with one another, rather than playing together. This is generally a result of them playing at the same frequencies. The solution is to EQ the bass and guitars opposite of one another. If the guitars have a lot of mids, turn down the mids on the bass. If both instruments are taking up space in the low-end, the guitars can dial back their bass frequencies, while you dial yours up.
- The band sounds too hollow or not hollow enough – If the whole sound of the band is too hollow, you are lacking low-end. This can generally be solved by dialing up your bass frequencies. Some punk bands prefer this type of hollow sound. Thus, if your goal is to sound hollow, you can achieve this sound by doing the opposite and dialing down the bass frequencies.
Do punk bassists use picks?
While some punk bassists play with their fingers, it is significantly more common to use a pick. Punk bassists commonly opt to use a pick so that they can pick the strings with a noticeable attack and to make fast basslines easier to play.
There are many great punk bassists that played with their fingers. Among them are Karl Alvarez of Descendents, and Chuck Dukowski of Black Black. Thus, if you want to be a punk bassist that plays with their fingers, it`s perfectly fine to do so.
However, if you are looking for a punk bass tone that is typical of the genre, playing with a pick will greatly help you achieve this.
This is because playing the bass with a pick results in a sharper and brighter tone. It also makes the attack more pronounced. As a result, the tone of the bass becomes more aggressive and piercing, which is a great fit for punk.
While bass picks have an average thickness of 0.046″, or 1.17mm, punk bassists often prefer the sound of thinner picks. Within the genre, you will commonly find bassists using picks with a thickness of 0.70-0.80mm, which is thinner than most guitar picks.
“I think the most important thing about playing bass, is playing with a thin pick and playing lightly.”Fat Mike of NOFX – 2021 Loudwire Interview
It is also common in punk to pick the strings close to the bridge of the bass. This adds further brightness to the tone, which helps the bass cut through the other instruments in the mix.
For a fitting bass pick for punk, I thus recommend a 0.027″, or 0.7mm guitar pick, such as this one from DÀddario
What bass is good for punk?
While many types of bass guitars have been used in the punk genre, the Fender Precision bass is the most commonly used instrument. Other common, but less used basses include the Fender Jazz and Musicman Stingray.
It is possible to get a fitting punk tone out of most any bass guitar. However, the Precision bass has a distinct sound that has defined what most of us associate with a punk bass tone.
Many of the bassists featured on my list of the best punk bass songs ever play P basses. Here are just some of the most notable punk bassists that have played a Precision Bass:
- Sid Vicious – Sex Pistols
- Dee Dee Ramone – The Ramones
- Matt Freeman – Rancid
- Paul Simonon – The Clash
- Jean-Jacques Burnel – The Stranglers
- Mark Hoppus – Blink-182
- Billy Rath – Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers
- Chris (Chris #2) Barker – Anti-Flag
- Mike Dirnt – Green Day
The split-coil pickup of the P-bass results in it having fewer tonal options than The Fender Jazz or Musicman Stingray. However, the core sound of the P-bass tends to sit well in most any punk mix and has thus become a staple in the genre despite its limitations.
“It`s not too light, it`s not too heavy. This neck just feels like just a P-bass neck; Not too big, not too small. A friend of mine called them, like, like it`s an AK-47 of basses, you can drag it through the mud, throw it off a truck, cold, hot, tune it up a little bit and it`s ready to go.”Matt Freeman (Rancid) on the American Professional II Series P Bass – 2020 Interview with Fender
Thus, if you are going to get yourself a new bass for the sake of playing punk, I highly recommend opting for a Precision bass.
With that said, instrument choice is not going to make or break your tone. By following the other steps in this guide you will still be able to get a gritty punk tone out of most any bass guitar.
Note: If you opt for an active bass with 2 pickups, such as the Fender Jazz, turn the neck pickup down and the bridge pickup up. This will result in a more piercing and sharper tone than using the neck pickup, which is more fitting for a punk tone.
What bass strings are best for punk?
The bright and balanced tone of roundwound strings makes them a suitable choice for punk bassists. Stainless steel strings and strings with nickel wiring around a steel core are both fitting options for the punk genre.
For punk, choosing roundwound strings instead of flatwounds is a no-brainer. Flatwounds have a smooth and musky character, while roundwounds are bright and zingy, which is exactly what you want when going for a punk tone.
As for material, both nickel wiring around a steel core, and stainless steel will work. I personally recommend stainless steel as they sound bright, and they will have a lot of bite to them when playing fast basslines.
Furthermore, your tone will greatly benefit from using a fresh set of strings. While changing strings often doesn`t sound like the most-punk thing to do, the sound of fresh strings makes for a sharp and fitting punk tone.
This is because roundwound strings lose their brightness over time, which results in a smoother tone that is atypical in punk. Luckily, Bass strings can be rejuvenated and reused several times before you have to retire them.
I recommend getting a new set of stainless steel roundwounds if you are currently playing flatwounds or if you haven`t changed strings in a while. This will do a lot to make your tone brighter and clearer, which will be helpful for attaining a gritty punk bass tone.
So in closing, how do you get a punk bass tone? Use a pick and play the strings fast and without too much force. Pick the strings close to the bridge. Turn the bridge pickup up and neck pickup down if you play an active bass.
Opt for fresh roundwound strings for a zingy and bright tone. For a modern punk bass tone turn up the mid and high frequencies. This will give you a gritty tone that is able to cut through the guitars.
Ideally, play a Fender Precision Bass. Good second choices are the Fender Jazz and Musicman Stingray. If you have a different bass, just play that one. Instrument choice is not paramount when it comes to getting a good punk tone.
If you do all of this, you will get a gritty punk bass tone. Keep in mind though, that punk is all about expressing yourself. Thus, once you get the tone down, don`t hesitate to experiment and get creative with it. That`s what this genre is all about.
It is common for knowledgable punk bassists to incorporate power chords into their basslines. If you are aiming to become a punk bassist, I recommend reading my guide on playing power chords on the bass.