GETTING THAT PETER STEELE BASS TONE
...or a close approximation.
(written Jan 2020; latest update Jul 2021)
My younger brother and I attended our first live show in 1995. At nineteen years old, I loved GN’R, Motley Crue, and Metallica, but Pantera was something entirely different. Nothing was more impressive or unique to me than Pantera… until I saw their opener at the Erie Civic Center on March 8, 1995.
Those who knew Peter Steele (born Peter Ratajczyk January 4, 1962; death April 14, 2010) said he was a tone chaser and a gear tinkerer. Through my research, I think "gear tinkerer" is a bit of an exaggeration. He certainly modified his cabinets and updated his equipment more frequently than I had expected, but Peter seemed to be a fairly practical guy - he even used the more common pedals designed for guitar rather than the bass versions.
On this first page, I delve into the gear Peter used, then what I ultimately found worked for me. Due to their lack of relevance, I chose to omit most of Peter's rarer items. There is a second page here that has additional thoughts regarding my choice of effects pedals, including budget-minded options, proven minimalist setups, and alternatives.
Sources: The information here greatly relies on interviews, live footage, and accounts from Peter's personal friends, former techs, and actual witnesses. I did my best to sort out the speculative garbage ...and I found a lot of it out there. There are two particular members on talkbass.com that, over the period of at least ten years, regularly posted what they believed to be unequivocal fact. However, if you read enough posts it becomes clear they were guessing (or regurgitating guesses) because answers changed over time. One was not aware that The Sustainiac existed until 2014, which tells me he wasn't doing much research. "I think he used a thick pick, but it could've been thin." No shit? The other hadn't tried a DS-1 until 2015 (apparently with little success), yet implied it was the main contributor to Pete's distortion during the ten years he posted prior, and simply switching it off was Pete’s clean tone. Peter had, at the very least, a rack of additional components.
Live: Pictured above, one of the earliest TON basses was a fretless Warlock that didn’t last very long, splitting in half during a set. There was a Thunberbird, that was mercilessly hole-sawed, which made an appearance in a self-produced music video. It's been said he bought three Alembics for himself before promoting Bloody Kisses, then the very iconic Esh Stingers (which had bolt-on necks, per a tech that worked on one of Pete's) were used during the earlier October Rust tour. Note the wine bottle dents in the fifth photo. There are two stories as to why Pete ended his relationship with Esh circa 1996: 1) he switched to Fernandes because of their sustainer; 2) he left Esh because their US salesperson broke the tail of Peter’s cat while playing roughly with it. Kenny started using Fernandes at the same time, so maybe it was a double endorsement deal, rather than a case of feline abuse?
Peter originally began to play guitar left-handed at 12yo, then switched to bass shortly after out of fear of his band replacing him with a better guitarist. Apparently, he traded his guitar for a right-handed bass since a lefty bass was beyond the value of his trade-in. Peter was left-handed in every other regard.
After Esh, came the Fernandes Rickenbacker 4000-series clone (latter part of October Rust & World Coming Down tours), and then the all-green Fernandes Tremor (Life Is Killing Me tour). These basses came with ebony or rosewood fingerboards (hard to tell with the paint; the Tremors do look to be rosewood) topping a maple bolt-on neck, though the Ricklone was neck-through. I read an early interview that Peter [initially] preferred 34"scale basses and he insisted on 24-fret models when entertaining endorsements. Pete sprayed most of them himself with Krylon Flat Black and various Krylon Greens.* The body of these basses were ash or alder to help define the distortion. Apparently, only three of the pickguard-less Ric basses were ever made, specifically for Peter and designed by him to be 110% scale so they didn’t look small compared to his stature. Three Tremors were custom-made and I have found nothing telling me what the scale of these were. Those Tremors were exclusively/accidentally painted at the factory with the “wrong shade” of green, but he only received two of them because one got scratched badly. A friend of Pete's became the eventual owner of that blemished Tremor.
* The exact green might have depended on availability, especially in the early years, and appears to include Emerald Gloss (per the friend who owns the blemished Tremor), Fluorescent Neon, and APWA. APWA Green seems most fitting for The Green Man since it is an acronym for the American Public Works Association. In an interview nearly ten years after Peter’s death, Johnny stated the color green they would request for production items, but seemingly rarely got, was Pantone 369. However, searching for Pantone 369, several shades of green do pop up but one is a match to APWA.
Peter's final touring bass was the made-to-order Washburn M-10 (aka M10; Dead Again tour & Carnivore shows). These were only built 2001-2003 in limited quantities at the USA Washburn Custom shops, as well as the M-12 and M-13 models. The models all appear similar, but due to them being custom builds, it's tough to know the specs of these basses. Even Washburn seems to have lost records for these builds. But I believe Peter's M-10 was a 36" scale based on one being listed for sale years ago as such - I only have one example to go on because every other listing I've seen fails to mention the scale. The extra long scale does make sense though, given that Peter had his custom Ric scaled-up and that 36" would arguably help define his B-string better. Doing the math, his Ric was likely to have been at least 36" in scale. These Washburns featured maple necks bolted onto maple bodies, rosewood fingerboards, Badass bridges, and Grover tuners - they are known for their huge tone and their heavy weight, which pushes thirteen pounds.
PICKUPS & ELECTRONICS
* I read a rumor that Peter, just prior to his death, was considering endorsing the Esh Stinger again. These basses may come with humbuckers since this was not initially intended as a tribute to his original Stinger, but rather his new signature model.
His Fernandes Rickenfaker supposedly had a single Fernandes FGI humbucker and I’ve noted that some of his Tremors appear to have one EMG MMCS in them. From what I can tell, Peter preferred ceramic humbuckers, which makes sense as ceramic magnets arguably deliver smoother distortion. In pictures, you will see that his M-10 pickup looks like a MusicMan and I believe it is a Seymour Duncan SMB-4D. Those full-custom M-10 basses seem to be the simplest, containing only a humbucker with a killswitch and a volume knob.
Peter used a sustainer driver at the neck position of his Fernandes basses, although you may not see anything mounted here on his other basses - very odd since he had claimed this was integral to his tone.* Kenny also used sustainers and there are two options for bass. The Sustainiac is one, designed for guitar but can be used for bass with a different circuit board (after leaving Fernandes in 2007, Kenny’s Schecters were loaded with Sustainiacs). Then there is the more-powerful Fernandes bass driver, which is no longer in production and was standard on their ASB-100 models. Peter’s Fernandes Ric-clone, as seen in the 1999 Bizarre Festival footage, had a Fernades sustainer with a toggle killswitch (up was on), two knobs, and two small sustainer toggles. The first knob was definitely his volume, while the second knob and the two sustainer toggles appear to go untouched in that footage. His Tremors were loaded with what appears to be the exact same controls as the Ric, which happens to look exactly like the company’s standard layout.
* I later found that Peter was specifically referring to the Fernandes Sustainer when he made this claim. Obviously, not having one certainly doesn't mean achieving his tone is impossible.
Passive or Active: The tribute Esh Stinger comes with active electronics. Per a close friend, his Fernandes Tremors were wired active and this is the only information I could find regarding any of Peter's instruments on this. The design of an active pickup helps to provide better noise reduction and improved sustain. The actives also do not bleed-off the treble as you roll back the volume like passives tend to do. These three features would certainly all be beneficial to Pete.
STRINGS & TUNING
PICKS & TECHNIQUE
Watch the 1999 Bizarre Festival (Symphony for the Devil DVD) footage to see his picking technique, which employed a lot of up strumming. He will sometimes strum on the neck for chords in fast sections, then go back near the bridge area for single notes to reduce string flop. You can imagine Peter preferring a thinner, more forgiving pick to easily strum his bass’s large gauge strings like a guitar. I have personally gone from using an .88mm for guitar (Dimebag and Hetfield fanboy) to preferring the .50mm, and I buy the black .50mm because they are way easier to lose with my older eyes. So maybe Peter eventually had his .50mm picks made in brighter colors just so he could see them?
PREAMPS & AMPLIFIERS
I was able to verify that the Peavey MAX Bass Preamps were still being used in 2007, but his wattage was eventually provided by Peavey Tour 700 power amps. These Tour 700 amps appear to have been made available around 2006. Peter ran two signal chains to ensure there was still some definition under all of that distortion that he added. One Peavey MAX Bass Preamp was used for an always-on clean tone, then he would engage the second Peavey MAX Bass Preamp for the overlapping distortion signal. It then seems both signals would combine into a single signal, which would then run through the power amps.
It is possible that Peter could have been running the signals in stereo, each into separate power amps and cabs. Some even say three signals due to numerous photos of 810 cabs stacked behind him: one clean, one dirty, and one combination. However, noting the above photo of the Peavey Tour 700 power amps with the green tape (“4x10” or “wedge”), my guess is that if he had run stereo, that had ceased by the later tours.* I personally tried to run two signals into separate amps and cabinets, but did not like the results compared to combining them. The clean signal adds a perfect amount of definition when combined with the distortion signal, but the clean's highs seem overpowering when the signals are kept separate. Also, I am convinced that Peter leaned more towards simplicity as the years went on.
* The "4x10" power amp would be for the crowd sound, and the "wedge" power amp would be for his personal monitor. Andrew Marrapese wrote me that the EQ on the top Peavey 700 makes sense as a monitor amp since Peter would have to rely on that mids-heavy curve to hear himself over the rest of the band.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Peter relied on several Peavey 2x10” cabs and an 1x18” cab loaded with a custom 18" JBL footing each stack because they could handle his bottom end. From a 1996 interview, he was blowing those 10” speakers while on tour due to the extreme punishment he dealt them and Peavey was constantly shipping him replacements - he assured this was no fault of Peavey's, but due to his abusive sound. Per the Peavey catalog, he was endorsing the TVX 410 EX and TVX 115 EX cabs running on 8 ohms, noting the stock TVX 10” cabs have piezo tweeters already built-in. I believe those are TVX cabs in the above black and white photo with the Rickenbacker clone. He’s also been seen with multiple Peavey TVX refrigerators, Peavey Tour 410s, and occasional Ampegs. Aside from them most often containing only 10” speakers, the cabinets do not appear to be as important to the sound as the rest of the rig: they changed often throughout his career and I read a statement from someone in Peter’s neighborhood that he could essentially plug his roadcase into a basic cab at a backyard party to get his signature sound.
* PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER *
Given the above findings, the best route to go before getting into effects is to use an instrument with a bright top end, steering away from those made of darker-tone woods that can muddy up the low end. Although a rarer size to come by, a 35” scale is arguably ideal for BEAD tuning for most players and a balanced set like EXL160BT will help reduce string flop - you will need to properly set the bass up for the detune due to the lighter tension. Look into used Peaveys and LTDs, as they have offered a few 35" models over the years. I advise against the likes of a DigiTech Drop as the tracking is lackluster on the heavier strings, but a viable alternative to making neck adjustments to a 4-string is using a 5-string with standard BEADG tuning. My tests found I reduced a lot of the feedback with certain pedal configurations (especially the Boss DS-1) using a humbucker with active electronics. Peter used several cabinet configurations over the years, so any decent 210 or 410 should get you in the ballpark. When choosing an amplifier, I highly recommend one with an effects loop to make dual signals easier...
INPUT OR EFFECTS LOOP ...OR BOTH?
I ran across an excerpt from a 1996 interview in Livewire magazine where he does verbalize the pictured pedal configuration with the addition of a volume pedal between the CH-1 and DD-3. I believe that he may have only been referencing his distortion chain in this article. A member of a band that played with TON at the earliest shows claims to have seen tandem TubeScreamers. Though several more interviews and witnesses confirm the chain pictured above, Peter's complex tones are not as easy to achieve as this image suggests. Also note that the Level knob on the DS-1 of his pedalboard is glued to max - there could not have been volume unity with the remaining pedals, adding confidence that his clean tone was not achieved by stomping off the DS-1. By many accounts, Peter used a ton of equalization (partly to help tame his feedback) along with pre and post compression, so there was a lot more going on than his simplified Carnviore pedalboard implies.
THE MODIFIED SETUP
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail while explaining this modified setup. However, to see my previous, more complex pedal arrangement that allows for some very cool clean tones, or to read additional details on Peter’s setup that I dug up, and understand exactly why I chose the pedals that I did, see the second page here.
Clean: Starting with an always-amplified clean portion of the signal, I settled on a Boss TR-2 and DigiTech Polara - I’d wager Peter used a Boss RV, but this is what I had and I like it (though I don't like the 125mA draw compared to the 70mA of the RV-6). For the reverb, I originally chose Spring, but found Hall to be a better fit this time around. I was careful with the reverb’s effect level, as too much reverb muddies up the sound when the distortion is added in. The TR-2 adds a bit of creepiness to the signal, which is perfect for a song like Wolf Moon.
Dirty: For the core of the distortion signal, I chose the Boss MT-2. For a short while, I added an Orange Fur Coat for a little nudge so I could put some hair on the tone. The Boss MT-2 is the best single tool for the job here and will do just fine on its own, which is what I ended up doing in the long run. But, if you want to try a fuzz (they are not created equal and the Fur Coat is exceptional), place it before the MT-2. Engaging both pedals in tandem gave me a slightly looser, funner sound that boosts the sustain with only a little bit of extra hissing noise - when I stopped running the fuzz, I also omitted the noise gate since it was overkill. I initially found that the EQ setting on Peter’s CH-1 to be too trebly, so I backed that all the way off for months. But I eventually found that the extra treble from the CH-1 and the MT-2 added more chunk to palm mutes, smoothed out pick scrapes, and made everything sound bigger.
Remainder: The rest of the setup requires several more pedals to split and combine the signal, tighten the distortion, and clean up the tone before it goes to the power amp. These include a Boss TU-3 or other buffered signal splitter/switcher, a passive summer, a graphic equalizer, and an exciter pedal...
Assembly: I start with the cable from the instrument entering the TU-3 (at my feet) and then utilize both outputs: “Output” makes a run into my Boss MT-2, patched to a Boss CH-1, and then into the A/B-side of my Saturnworks Passive Summer; “Bypass” then runs to the front input of my G-K 800RB. The amp's effects loop send exits into a Boss TR-2 and a DigiTech Polara, then the remaining A/B-side of my passive summer. The Y-side of the summer then plugs into an MXR M108S to fine-tune the distortion, and a BBE Sonic Stomp to tighten everything up a little more before circling back to the effects loop return.
Aside from stepping on the TU-3 to choose the clean or distorted channel, the remaining pedals stay on all the time. When the TU-3 is engaged to allow for tuning, only the clean portion will be heard. When the tuner is turned off, the distortion pedals will blend with the bass-defining cleans. To find unity/blend between the two signals, I started with the desired loudness of the clean chain (amp volume), then adjusted the output on the distortion pedals to match. If running out of headroom, there's also the EQ's level control. I highly recommend the TR-2 mod kit from Monte Allums to correct the volume drop when that particular Boss pedal is engaged.
* * *
If you have any interesting details, discoveries, or corrections, please email me. Thanks.
None More Negative
CrankyGypsy (established 2001)