Watch the Tone and Gear online guitar lesson by Andrew Ford from Focus On: Reggae Bass
When I think of Reggae bass tone I think of massive bottom end, thick, heavy, full low end, just the epitome of bass. Almost stage rattling bottom and fullness but a certain clarity at the same time so that the melodic nature of the basslines can be appreciated. To produce the required deep, rich bass tone for reggae music technique is extremely important, but the type of gear you use will also play a role.
First with basses, the Fender Jazz has been the preferred bass for many legendary players. That being said, many legends have used Steinberger, P Basses, and basses made by other reputable manufacturers. For strings, flatwounds will give you a thuddy, less twangy sound which is more appropriate than the tone of a traditional roundwound string. I personally prefer a coated string such as those made by Elixir, they provide me with the most versatility, clarity and consistency with a full bottom rich and not too bright or twangy tone. Experiment with turning down the treble on your basses eq while using more of the neck pick up if you have a two pickup configuration. Normally you will either have a pickup blend knob or separate controls for each pickup. With a blend knob you simply turn the knob towards the front pickup, with the separate controls you can experiment with turning off the back pickup or using less of it. There are no definitive settings, let the music and your playing style and taste determine your sound.
There are many amps that will work well for reggae music, obviously if you are on a big stage you would benefit from something similar to an Ampeg SVT in order to really move some air and create some rumble on the stage. But these days many manufacturers like TC Electronics, Aguilar and others, sell capable products that would function well. Traditionally 15 or even 18 inch speakers would supply the huge amount of bottom end desired in reggae but today there are 10 or 12 inch speaker combinations that provide similar bottom with clarity. Again, the eq section of your preamp should be set up so that the upper frequencies are minimized and the lower frequencies emphasized.
Reggae is not a technically driven style of music, but there are techniques that contribute to its characteristic sound. First, the right hand can be used in a few different ways. Most reggae bass players are emulating the sound of the acoustic bass. So with that in mind you can play pizzicato style with one or two fingers, looking to place them in that sweet spot which gives you the deep, round, fat tone desirable in reggae. One thing to try is playing closer to the fretboard than to the bridge. As you move closer to the bridge the tone becomes more sharp, thin and edgy, very desirable for some types of music, but not reggae. So on each bass and possibly each song you play it may be a slightly different spot, but between the fretboard and neck pickup is a good place to start on a jazz style bass, on other pick up configurations maybe an inch or less from the neck is a good place to start.
Another right hand technique used by many of the session bass players on those classic reggae hits was to use the thumb. Used correctly this produces a very warm and round tone very effective in reggae. What you sacrifice in facility you gain in fatness of tone. You can also use some sort of foam or other material placed under the strings just in front of the bridge to provide muting and that thuddy sound. In more modern day reggae and reggae influenced music the thumb has been used in a more muted fashion with help from the palm to mute.
With the left hand it is often beneficial to finger passages more in the middle range of the fretboard, where it is warmer and the notes sing a little better. You can also use your fingers not being used to finger a note that will mute the strings for a more upright bass type sound. Of course slurs and hammer ons are useful because of the melodic nature of reggae bass lines.