The Gary Willis Tone

Okay, this was unexpected but I thought I’d share it anyway. I think I may have just “nailed” the signature fretless tone that bassist Gary Willis has used (both on Tribal Tech albums and his own solo work) with a bass of my own. However, my bass (aside from being fretless) is just about completely unlike his.

The bass is (of course) a Warmoth Gecko 5-string fretless bass.  The neck is made of Purpleheart, with a Purpleheart fingerboard and Ebony fretless lines.  I’ve owned this neck for nearly a year, and it remains one of my favorite necks to play, for several reasons.  Over time it has become very resonant and it impart a nice “woody” acoustic tone to most of my Gecko bass bodies (with the exception of the all-Purpleheart body).  Now I know for a fact that Gary Willis doesn’t (usually) play basses with Purpleheart necks.

The strings are D’Addario EXLs, which I don’t usually use for most of my basses, but they seem to work well and have a nice, consistent, bright tone.  I’m not sure which string gauges they are, but I seem to recall using the 5-string “medium light” set.  So the gauges are probably .045, .065, .080, .100 and .130.  Gary Willis has long been a sponsor of GHS “Progressives” strings, so this is another clear difference.

The bass body is made of Mahogany, with a figured Walnut top.  Again, this is unlike any basses that Gary Willis plays, as far as I can tell.

Additionally, the pickup is different, but I expect it may not be that different after all.  I’m currently using a Delano MC5HE-L which is a dual twin-coil humcanceller.  It’s a bit different from their other “quad coil” pickups in that it contains two twin-coil humcanceller pickups, each of which may (or may not) be similar to their “JSBC” twin-coil inline humcanceller pickups.  But the net effect is that it should sound more like a single coil pickup than a traditional dual-coil humbucker.

Also, I should point out I am using only the “north” half of the pickup (i.e. closer to the neck) and I have the pickup mounted at a specific distance from the bridge.  (Measurements TBD)  With this side of the pickup, I am effectively using the pickup at a distance somewhere between the typical Gecko “bridge” and “sweet spot” locations.  I am familiar with the sounds at both of these other pickup positions, and neither gave me the same combination of harmonics and tone as this pickup at this location.

At this location, using the “south” half of the pickup (i.e. closer to the bridge) gives me a nice, nasal tone with more upper midrange than the typical Gecko bridge pickup location.  That is probably because the south half of the pickup is closer to the bridge.


This isn’t something I was trying to achieve, but it was a pleasant surprise and it gives me some really interesting tonal options.  For some time I was wondering why the Gary Willis signature basses had their single pickup in this location, and now I know why.

Now, how to recreate this formula with a single Delano pickup?  If I order a JSBC pickup and put it in the same location, will I get the same tone?  (Should I order the neck or bridge option?)  Or, for convenience and modularity, should I ask Delano to make a custom SBC “Driver Edition” (i.e. P2 shape) with the armature as an inline twin-coil humcanceller, instead of their usual dual-coil parallel/series humbucking armature?  Would they be able to wind the pickup the same way?

If I went down the SBC route, I would also need to figure out where (i.e. measured from the bridge) I would need to have the P2 pickup cavity routed.  The location is probably the most critical component of this recipe.  I don’t have a lot of pickups with an inline twin-coil (or split-coil) configuration, so I don’t know if other brands (besides Delano) can produce a similar tone.

Much research awaits!

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