Accepting a Challenge: Subbing for Band Members

Over the past weekend I did a couple of gigs with a band that I normally don’t play with, subbing for them on bass. They are a trio made up of guitar, drums/vocalist, and keyboard player who also supplies the low end a la The Doors. The keyboard player was hospitalized due to an emergency and the band was under contract to perform on a Friday night, with a Casino gig that came in for that Saturday night on the Friday afternoon of the first gig. I picked up the gig through the guitarist for the band, we play together in another band (two guitarists and a harmonica player), just under ten days before the Friday gig.

The song list was rather lengthy, about seventy tunes on their website, sixty or so through my friend and another few coughed up on the drummer’s list, so it was about 75 tunes all told that were possible for the gig that turned into gigs. I went through the list and cut out the ones I’d never heard before which pared it down to about 60 or so, about 70% of which I’d either not done before or it had been literally years since I’d performed them. Talk about a challenge. I had, in reality about 9 days to prepare and two rehearsals with the band to get everything in line.

As a sub your primary responsibilities are to get the band through the night and to do your best to make the experience as solid as possible. Regardless, it’s not going to be the same experience as when the band has been rehearsing for weeks/months together in preparation, but as a sub the goal is to get as close to it as you can. I spent quite a bit of time preparing for the gig and wasn’t too stressed about it. I figured that there were going to be mistakes made but they would be outweighed by the things that went really smoothly, and that was pretty much the case.

The first gig went reasonably smoothly and ended up being two sets at a nice venue that was pretty empty. It was a holiday weekend, one of the last where the weather would warrant escaping with friends and family for fun before the warm weather disappears and fall comes to a close. We got a few people out on the dance floor but the people who were present were the regulars who came to drink, watch the Cubs game or shoot pool. We wrapped up around midnight after a 9pm start.

The second gig was at a casino just short of two hours away. It was a pretty cool gig largely because it was fully backlined with full time sound men providing support for three bands over a twelve hour period. We started promptly at six and ran three one hour sets with twenty minute breaks. There were a few tunes that had some issues, but on the whole the evening went well, the dance floor was jam packed with couples shaking it and the casino floor surrounding the bar band area was at least lined three deep outside bellied up to watch.

So far as subbing went it was a successful weekend. I’d done my part to get them through their gigs, they were pleased on the whole, and I had a profitable pleasing experience. Yes, there were some moments where it took me a moment or two to get into the right feel on a few of the more unfamiliar tunes, but they weren’t what the audience noticed as the flow of people requesting band cards and delivering compliments attested. The preparation time spent paid off and, yeah, it was good.


Guitar and Bass Strings: A World of Differences


String choice is one of the areas that most guitarists and bassists have a somewhat hidden passion about. Today there are many options to choose from with various different alloy recipes and coating options that enhance the life of the string. Stylistic differences also come into play and the overall brightness or darkness of the string has an impact on which strings are going to produce the desired effect. For instance, if you are a bassist who employs a lot of slap technique in your playing, you definitely wouldn’t want to put flat wound strings on your Jazz Bass because flats are naturally darker in tone and cut out much of the highs that slap requires in order to successfully produce the sounds. Flats also react differently under the fingers than round wound strings, providing a softer feel and a very mellow tone. This is just one of the many variants on strings that must be considered when choosing strings.

There are also considerations regarding pickup types that must be brought into play. Acoustic steel strings are typically wound with either a phosphor bronze alloyed wire or bronze. If you plan on using a magnetic pickup to amplify the instrument, this will result in a somewhat reduced output from the magnetic pickup. The strings that work best with magnetic pickups are typically steel and/or nickel, which provide excellent response from the pickups. If you’re using an under-saddle piezo or transducer, these respond very well to whatever strings you choose to use because they operate based upon the physical vibration that is being transferred through solid materials.

Different string companies often produce very similar products, with many different advertising methods and brand names that identify product lines under the over all brand. There will be a tonal difference between each type of string they manufacture, although some differences will be very subtle. Beginners generally won’t, most often due to a lack of the informational background required, notice a difference and rely on their instructors or recommendations from other players to make their choices. Often players become very brand and string type loyal for various reasons including knowing what they can expect from a certain string in terms of tone and reliability.

How long a string lasts makes huge difference to most players, and it’s not really about how long until it breaks. It’s about how long you can get the best tone from the string. Strings lose their brilliance and top end sonically over time, eventually producing a much duller tone, and some guitars appear to be more affected by this than others. I’ve had many Gibson guitars, which have a shorter scale length than their Fender cousins, that sounded like entirely different instruments as soon as the strings started to die. One day I’d have this nice beautiful full tone, and the next it sounded horrible and it was entirely due to the strings having checked out. Once I’d restring with a fresh set, bam! The tone was right back in the wonderful zone.

String life is determined by many factors and people are always trying to come up with new methods to make their strings last. String coatings generally due make a difference in how long they last because the coating prevents dirt and the chemicals in our sweat from degrading the strings. Some of the coatings are thicker than others ,which does have an effect on the tone of the string but it’s not unusual for the coated, thick or thin, to outlast tradition non-coated strings by a factor of three to one. Another factor that makes a huge difference in string life is simply washing and drying your hands before you pick up your instrument to play. This cuts down on the amount of grime that is coming in contact with the string from the start. The individual chemical composition of the player’s sweat is a major factor as well. Some folks have absolutely nuclear grad corrosive sweat, and I knew one player who would kill guitar strings in one playing due to the simple nature of his sweat. If you handed him your guitar, you were assured that a string change would be necessary after he played it.

Whatever you choose to use, it will always be a matter of what works best for your individual needs. Regardless of which star uses what, what works for that individual really holds no guarantees for anyone else for a myriad of reasons from those listed above to individual instrumental idiosyncrasies. Finding the right string type for you takes patience and experimentation until you find what works for the present. It might end up being a long relationship, but quality can shift over time within the company producing the string, or you might find that the qualities that you liked from the string in the past are not what you’re looking for in the present. Here’s to happy hunting in the string jungle!