Play in time, with gigantic groove, great taste, and gorgeous bass tone and you'll have your listeners enraptured by your playing. This video contains LOADS of tips you can use straight away as well as some food for thought regarding your quest for killer bass guitar tone.
1. Hand Placement/Attack
You can change your tone drastically by where you pluck (from over the neck to by the bridge) and the intensity of your touch and attack. Listen to Jaco plucking by the bridge:
Here's Geddy Lee attacking the strings hard between the neck and bridge:
Jimmy Haslip plays over the neck at this point in the clip below but changes things up often.
2. Jazz —> Precision
Joe Osborne was famous for using a Fender Jazz bass strung with flat wounds. He would solo the neck pickup and roll off the tone knob to create more of a Fender Precision tone. This allowed him to produce the kind of tone producers were looking for whilst enjoying the greater playability of a Jazz bass neck.
He's not doing it in the next example but it's a cool video nonetheless!
3. Palm & Left Hand Muting
Using these two techniques changes the attack, sustain, and decay of each note. This changes the presence of the bass within a band setting and is great for simulating the sound of a double bass or for certain styles like hip hop.
4. Wood/Strings: Dark to Bright
Think of bass tone as being on a spectrum going from dark all the way to bright with everything in between. The tone wood of your bass body and neck, plus the strings, pickups, amp, and your playing techniques contribute to the shade of the bass tone.
Learn which tones fit with which musical style (and know that isn't any fixed rule for this: more trends that seem to work).
Dark Bass Guitar Tone
Bright Bass Guitar Tone
The main types of pickups are the Fender Jazz, Fender Precision, and MusicMan humbuckers (note that Leo Fender was involved in all three). There are countless other pickups but these are probably the main trilogy you will see in basses. Different instruments have different pickup configurations, all of which change the tone of the bass.
Yes you can change your tone through playing techniques but, being an electric instrument, effects (not to mention amps) can play a big role.
7. Active or Passive?
A passive bass like a vintage Fender does not have any onboard EQ or preamp. An active bass does and is usually powered by a 9v battery. Many studio players favour passive instruments with a strong clear tone. Mix engineers and producers like to be in control of EQ at the mixing stage of a production so not using any on your bass in this situation is usually a good idea.
Live, many players opt for an active bass as it's easier to control EQ directly from the bass depending on the style or genre of the song. There is no wrong or right here, go with your needs. Basses like the new Fender Ultras or the Sire basses have the option of disengaging the active circuit, making the bass passive and giving the best of both worlds.
All three technique involve different attack and therefore unique sonic characteristics. I think it's a good idea to know how to do all three so you can choose what you need for a particular piece of music. This can really help shape your bass tone.
9. Know Your EQs
Active basses allow you to shape your EQ (which is really just a volume knob for specific frequencies) as do controls on your amp and EQ pedals. The latter is an incredibly useful pedal to own, giving you the option of a different tone or to hit a pedal with a certain frequency that works well.
The Boss Bass EQ is a classic, affordable option.
Don't be drastic with your use of EQ. Small changes go a long way and if you make sure you have a good sounding bass in the first place, you will have a bass that doesn't need too much tone sculpting. However, having the option at your fingertips or feet is extremely handy.
Be a detective. Go on forums, read articles, go to gigs, and listen to your favourite records. You'll soon find out what gear you like and, more importantly, the techniques and methods that players use to present their bass tone to the world.
Finally, don't get obsessed by the quest for perfect tone or for the piece of gear that will maybe, finally turn you into a bass demon! Sadly, this quest is never ending. Work on your musical skills whilst being aware of the gear that will help you translate your musical ideas to the listener.
It's a very fun, rewarding journey and an important part of your bass journey.