Is wood or p-ups responsible for a bass's sound?
Frankly we are all tired of hearing this question and the ensuing verbal fight. But I keep on bumping in it in one form or another.
I've steered clear from it until now, as it produces more foes than friends. But maybe I've been a coward. So, lets engage.
As it is formulated, it's as pointless a Q as it is impossible to answer to. Even if The One Answer did exist, it would be of little help in building a superior bass.
For argument sake, let's forget that wood's influence on tone in electric basses is minimal compared to acoustic instruments and say that Tone is in the woods. So what? Are we going to choose the best sounding woods - which is what top makers do anyway - and screw the rest? No, right?
So, it's in the electronics. Sure, lets get the cream of the electronics crop then. I've got an old frying pan sitting there, kiln-dried to perfection for the body.
No? OK then, so it is a pointless Q because whatever A we get will be basically useless.
And it is an impossible Q because it is far too generic. Is Manchester United a stronger team than AC Milan? Wanna fight? Is Ferrari a better car than Lamborghini? You and me, outside, now!
We would have to agree - as we usually end up doing when exhausted enough - that wood and pick-ups are only two of the many components linked in a chain reaction - and we're back to square one.
But if MU beats AC M hands down, then asking 'Why did this happen this time around?' might take AC M to recognize mistakes and change strategy for the next match.
Try this for a change - What do truly great basses have in common?
Is it the wood? Yes, but a Steinberger, Basslab, Status, Modulus and Moses would prove that wrong.
Then it's the p-ups. Yes. But a cheep bass mounting Alembic p-ups and electronics will never quite sound like an Alembic.
Hardware then? Yes. But what exactly. A Furlanetto sounds like a Furlanetto with either brass or wood bridge/nut.
Alembic, Sadowsky, Status, Wal and others use own proprietary electronics. MTD, Steinberger, Fodera and others use p-ups and electronics custom-made for them by top makers. So there is no apparent consistency here either.
What is then the common denominator across great basses?
Here's my personal experience. When I lift a great bass I know it with my eyes closed. I instantly feel its stiffness and can almost hear its voice under my fingers.
I lift up a so and so bass and can only feel the weight of parts assembled together.
Great woods assembled with so and so built quality will still sound crap. Yet a top bass sound great even unplugged.
Whether a bass is made of wood, graphite, metal, stone or kryptonite is quite irrelevant to me. I choose between graphite and wood depending on music style and/or mood of the day.
But stiffness is everything. Every great bass I have played is stiff, whatever the building style. Be it a neck through, bolt on, set neck one thing they have in common is that you can't feel the individual parts. The bass feels like one.
Of course great el/p-u/hw will make a so and so bass sound better. But more to the point, the same parts will sound helluvalot better on a bass built the way a great bass should be.
And that to me should end the wood vs. p-ups argument. However there is a more interesting angle to it. Once construction becomes the cornerstone of great basses, then everything else take a different meaning.
Because it all becomes product of a Vision - of unique sound, playability, look and feel. Which is to me a lot more interesting and insightful than finding the silver bullet. Players are interested in great basses with great personality. No one want the Perfect One - if the is such a thing.
Some makers believe in wood tone. They keep electronics, p-ups and hardware the same for every build. Then they experiment with woods. Whichever bass they make will share the same voice. But you'll be able to appreciate subtle differences due to wood choice. It's a wonderful thing. Try a few MTD.
Some others will sound almost the same regardless of woods choice. An Alembic always sounds like an Alembic and so does a Wal or a Status. And God bless them for that.
In either cases, that's the Brand's Voice.
To this point, some time ago I watched a very interesting experiment on UK TV. A guy claimed he could tell a bass only by listening to it.
So there he was, blindfolded and with a dozen basses behind him. One by one the instruments were played by Mr. Mark King, no less. Heck, the guy nailed them all! Which goes to prove that great basses have each a unique voice.
Stiffness is the foundation of it. Each maker achieves it in the way that is more akin to his nature and craft. He then blends in p-ups, electronics and hardware to perfect his unique vision.
Different vision = Different tone.
Which is why there is no universally acceptable A to the Wood vs P-ups Q. And nothing to learn from it.
I might still not know how to build an Alembic. But I sure as hell know which way to look to build my very own.
There. I said it.