GETTING THAT PETER STEELE BASS TONE
...or a close approximation.
(written Jan 2020; latest update Feb 2020)
My younger brother and I attended our first show in 1995. At nineteen years old, Pantera was the band that impressed me the most. I loved GN’R, Motley Crue, and Metallica, but Pantera was something completely different. Cowboys From Hell was unlike anything I had ever imagined possible. Nothing was more impressive or unique to me than Pantera. Well, 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, so nailing down his rig is especially difficult since he was constantly customizing it. Through my research, I think "gear tinkerer" is a bit of an exaggeration. He certainly modified his tweeter-less cabinets, but Peter seemed to be a fairly practical guy - he used the more common pedals designed for guitar rather than the bass versions. Personally, he seemed more into experimenting than modifying, trying out and changing equipment often over the years.
Sources: The information here greatly relies on interviews, live footage, and accounts from 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 sole contributor to Pete's distortion during the ten years he posted prior, and simply switching it off was his clean tone. I invested a lot of time to only experience frustration with their suggestions. Keep in mind that my discoveries may not be definitive - for example, I read a post from a bassist that opened for him in 1990 that swears Pete was using a Tube Screamer at the time.
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 a few appearances. I believe 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 into the October Rust tour. 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 mainly left Esh because their US salesperson broke the tail of Peter’s cat while playing roughly with it. However, I’ve seen it mentioned by a former tech in a 1999 conversation that he had an Esh with a sustainer pickup, but that could have been added after 1996 or merely referring to the piezo bridge it had. Also, 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. Later, one of his bands [requested] that he play right-handed ...so, he retaught himself. Note the lefty Alembic Epic above.
After Esh, came the Fernandes Rickenbacker 4000-series clone (my favorite; latter part of October Rust & World Coming Down tours), the all-green Fernandes Tremor (Life Is Killing Me tour), and the made-to-order Washburn M10 (Dead Again tour & Carnivore shows; note the Ampeg cab behind him in the one photo). These basses were 34” scale 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 might’ve been neck-through or a set neck (there is a "ridge" below the 24th fret that is causing me doubts that it was a bolt-on). He always insisted on 24-fret models when entertaining endorsements and sprayed most of them himself with Krylon flat black and emerald green gloss. The body of these basses were 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 so small compared to his stature. Three Tremors were custom-made and exclusively 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, who is a talkbass forum member, became the eventual owner of that blemished bass.
Pickups & Electronics
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 M10 pickup looks like a MusicMan and I believe it is a Seymour Duncan SMB-4D. Those full-custom M10 basses seem to be the simplest, containing only a humbucker with a killswitch and a volume knob. His other basses with sustainers obviously required additional controls to manage their options.
Peter used a sustainer pickup at the neck, although you may not see anything mounted here on some of his basses - odd since he had claimed this was integral to his tone.* Kenny also used sustainers and there are two options for bass: The Sustainiac, which can be used for bass with a different circuit board (after leaving Fernandes in 2007, Kenny’s Schecters were loaded with Sustainiacs); the more-powerful Fernandes bass driver, which is no longer in production, but was standard on their ABS-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 went untouched in that footage. His Tremors were loaded with what appears to be the exact same controls as the Ric. Though I’ve not found proof, a close friend of Peter stated that Washburn graciously installed a Fernandes driver on one of Peter’s USA-made custom M10s.
* I later found that he was specifically referring to the Fernandes Sustainer when he made this claim. Obviously, not having one certianly didn't mean achieving his tone was impossible.
Passive or Active: 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 provides better noise reduction and improved sustain. The actives also don't bleed-off the treble as you roll back the volume like passives do. At the time of this endeavor, I could discern little difference between the stock humbucker on my active 2017 ESP LTD F-4E and the original passive jazz pickup in my late-1990s Fernandes Vertigo in regard to quietness and sustain. However, the Vertigo's generic pickup's passive signal became a terrible mess once it passed through the distortion effect. So I'm not convinced this is as important as other pieces of his gear ...a quality pickup is what is important.
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?
* It’s possible that Peter could have been running the signals in stereo, each into separate power amps. Judging by the photo of the Peavey Tour 700 power amps (green tape), I am confident that he wasn’t doing this, at least not in the later tours. Also, I tried to run my signals into separate amps and cabs, 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 can seem overpowering when the signals are separated.
Input or Loop: I personally started with, and still use, a 1991 Gallien-Krueger 800RB head into 1991 Hartke 410 and 118 cabinets (no piezo tweeter). I saw that he was using Hartke 410 cabs in a 1995 performance on French television, but that was probably the house equipment. I realized very late in this quest that the best option was to bypass the 800RB preamp, skipping the front panel’s input jack, and run everything into the effects return on the back so I was only using the head’s power amp. This kind of tightened everything up by preventing the tone controls of my 800RB’s preamp from coloring the signal. For my setup, I begin by plugging my BEAD-tuned bass (ESP LTD F-4E with EXL160BT strings) into a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner.
Clean Chain: Remember from the amp section that Peter’s sound was achieved with two signals, which he combined at a Marshall ABY box. With live footage from the Bloody Kisses tour seeming to have heavier effecting on the clean signal than later tours, Peter stated he added ambiance with a tremolo (probably the Boss TR-2) and a reverb. The reverb pedal was certainly a Boss (which he preferred due to the brand's ruggedness), but the specific RV model is unknown to me and probably irrelevant. However, I read that the basis of his clean signal can be closely mimicked utilizing only a Boss BF-2 Flanger, so I bought one to minimize the number of pedals.* I patched the bypass jack of a TU-3 to the BF-2 input and then into the A-jack side of my Saturnworks ABY passive splitter/summer. This produced a fairly thin tone since I was omitting the head’s preamp, so I threw another pedal between my TU-3 and BF-2 to give it some body. The Electro-Harmonix Bass Big Muff with the sustain all the way down does a really nice job at this. Actually, some of my other distortion pedals that were lying around (not the DS-1) seemed to also work, with the gain at minimum. However, messing with the combination of the two signals later on, I found that I didn’t absolutely need this extra "preamp" pedal if the signals shared a quality equalization pedal after the summer box.
* Why does a single BF-2 work as a poor man's solution for the TR-2 and RV combo? Per the Boss website, the BF-2 "produces extreme jet-airplane sounds to mild delay and chorus sounds." I loved this pedal so much, that I immediately bought a second BF-2 along with a DOD FX72 for my guitar rigs. The Boss BF-2B should also work here, but it is said to produce a slightly more subtle effect (it only effects the higher frequencies to maintain low end definition) that sounds a little less metallic. Less metallic is generally more natural, and therefore more desirable ...but then again, Peter liked that sizzle. Keep in mind that all of the BF-2B pedals had circuits that stepped-down the input voltage by 3volts because they were designed for 12volt ACA adapters. However, there are several easy workarounds that don't require the Boss ACA-120 adapter: 12volt output from a pedal board supply brick; using a 9v battery; daisy chaining from a PSA-powered pedal; circuit bypassing by removing a diode and a resistor.
Core of the Distortion Chain: My distortion signal begins at the output jack of my TU-3 - this way the clean signal (from the bypass jack) is always on and the distortion will combine with it when the tuner is engaged. Again, both signals running simultaneously allows the clean signal to help define the distorted low end. In the photo of Pete’s pedal chain, note that the distortion signal passes out through the output jack of the TU-3, rather than the bypass jack. The bypass jack allows the signal to be heard even while tuning, whereas the output jack is muted during tuning. This would have allowed Peter to engage the tuner to mute his distortion signal, essentially making it his channel switcher.*
* I later opted to maintain the set-up, but instead use the distortion pedal as my channel switcher. See Additional Thoughts at the very bottom for quick details on that.
After the DS-1 failed to deliver, I attempted to find something that could mimic Peter’s Peavey MAX Bass Preamp. I had already tried a Tube Screamer and an SD-1W, but neither did the job. I even stacked the DS-1 into the chain on either side of them with no luck. I have a long, loving history with Ampeg’s VH-140C guitar amplifiers, so I hoped a PLX FX Spirytus might give me the smooth, searing, sustain-laden bass distortion I was looking for. The pedal is awesome, but not what I was looking for here. However, placing the DS-1 before the Spirytus did kick it in the right direction a notch. Then I saw a Reddit post where someone claimed to have “accidentally gotten a Peter Steele sound” with a DOD Carcosa Fuzz. I ran it with his same settings and also tried tweaking it, but this pedal just wasn’t right as it seemed a bit too aggressive. However, something was telling me to keep trying fuzz, so I ordered an Electro-Harmonix Bass Big Muff. This was finally getting me where I was wanting to go, especially with the slight sustain the circuit added.
I eventually ran across a bassist on YouTube going by thegreenbandits and read in a comment reply that he was simply using the direct output jack (cabinet emulator) of a DigiTech Metal Master into a mixer and then into his computer to get a decent approximation. Seriously?! The out-of-production Metal Master was a rival of the infamous Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, marketed to hair metal guitarists. I had read a few posts mentioning the MT-2, but had written them off. The more I was thinking about it, the more the “it sounds like a can of bees” effect made sense: searing fuzziness without the compression of a typical fuzz circuit. I ordered one of each. The Digi arrived first and I couldn’t believe it - it wasn’t exactly Peter Steele, but it was pretty damn close. The MT-2 has a more tweakable design with additional tone knobs and an adjustable gain. Placing the Bass Muff in front of either is interesting since the compression seems to smooth out the waveform a little and add some sustain. However, the trade-off is the Muff also makes the lower notes and palm mutes a bit muddy. For other cheap options, some seem to have had luck using a Boss HM-3 Hyper Metal, Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal, or a Biyang Metal End to get something similar to Peter's distortion. I imagine the Boss ML-2 might be a viable option, and for something for nearly nothing, there's the Behringer HD300. So, if you happen to have one of those lying around already, give it a try and please send me your opnion or a sound clip.
I couldn't verify this, but I believe Peter was running his bass into the Peavey preamps, then placing the Boss pedal chains between the preamps and the power amps, like an effects loop. I recalled how terrible a lone DS-1 had done in the loop, but how well it performed feeding the Spirytus. So, I wondered if the DS-1 may have been used to push the Peavey preamp instead? Placing the MT-2 at the end of the chain definitely smoothed out the harshness of the DS-1, getting me a more aggressive sound I associate with footage from the Bloody Kisses tour. I then played with the settings and found that if I had a lone MT-2 with the gain maxed, I could get a similar (though slightly more aggressive) tone with the MT-2 set at half the gain and the DS-1 at Peter’s settings. Engaging the DS-1 in this configuration added that sizzle and pushed the harmonics better, but at the expense of tightness. The DS-1 in front of the Metal Master (it has an internally set gain) produces a truckload of sustain, which can turn into feedback ...this could be a plus to some. Using the MT-2 or Metal Master on their own is a perfectly fine option when trying to minimize pedal usage, and I eventually chose to omit the DS-1 altogether for a smoother tone.
Remainder of the Distortion Chain: Referencing the above pedal board photo,* I added a CH-1 and then a DD-3 to the distortion signal. With Pete’s settings, the CH-1 actually changes the tone a little, adding a subtle metallic sound that he seemed to have favored. There is a bit of confusion surrounding the DD-3, especially since the photo shows two different settings. I do recall a quote from Peter saying that reverb is great for hiding mistakes, so I wasn’t sure if this was done in addition to the clean signal with an always-on DD-3. I set the DD-3 with the marker-on-tape settings, messed around, and decided that Peter was likely using the DD-3's Hold mode for infinite sustain rather than ambience. The Hold mode also allows you to play over the held note(s). After deciding that the DD-3 was used in this fashion, I found a forum post claiming that "for certain, the chorus was always on with distortion...the delay was occasional."
* there is a live video (Wacken 2007) where Peter appears to step on a pedal near the end of “Love You To Death” - he may have been engaging a reverse reverb for the song outro. Also note that the pedal board layout above appears to have been altered (empty velcro and wire anchors), so different pedals were likely incorporated for different tours. I haven't been able to place a date on the above layout, but keep in mind that this photo is in no way definitive.
Pedal Order of the Distortion Chain: Out of curiosity, I tried moving the dirt pedal around to hear the differences and make sure I wasn't overlooking anything. With the MT-2 last in the chain, it produces a "harrier" tone, but doesn't allow the chorus effect to play as much of a role. Placing the MT-2 first with the always-on CH-1 behind it, delivers a tighter sound with more of the chorus ringing through. The DD-3 in Hold mode also responds differently depending on location, with it allowing the clean signal to be more prominent when the DD-3 is placed before the MT-2. The distortion pedal options for this tone can produce a lot of hiss with higher gain and volume levels, which will bleed over into the lone clean signal since they're being combined. However, I found the MT-2 allowed for a very good Steele-esque tone using more conservative settings. A noise reduction pedal can be added at the end of the chain to clean it up if the Boss MT-2 levels are set beyond the midway points or if using the much-gainier DigiTech Metal Master.* With the distortion signal's order sorted out, I patched the end of this chain (example: MT-2 -> CH-1 -> DD-3 -> NS-2) into the B-jack of my Saturnworks ABY.
* The MT-2 has a very smooth drive, but the Metal Master sounds monstrous with no tweaking. Dime the low and high knobs, set the Morph midway and it's like the Digi was designed specifically with Peter in mind. I really like the Metal Master, but the MT-2 allows me to dial the gain back to get a little more definition and not rely so heavily on the NS-2. Black No 1 is a good referrence: live, Peter will palm mute the ending of the main riff under distortion, and it sounds more like the MT-2 with the gain set at the halfway point. The Boss MT-2 also has the ability to really scoop the mids and move the curve, though some settings sound kind of one-dimensional when compared to the DigiTech Metal Master. Which one sounds more like Peter? Hell, they both kind of do, maybe depending on the era? AB-ing them, I can get the MT-2 to sound a lot like the Metal Master, but I can't get the Metal Master to sound like all of the tones the MT-2 can produce ...especially since the gain can't be backed off on the Metal Master. I eventaully grew to prefer the MT-2 here, but refuse to sell my Metal Master because it is a neat discontinued pedal.
Equalization & Compression
I read a post written by Peter’s 1990-era tech where he recommended following everything in the distortion chain (including the equalizer) with a BBE Sonic Maximizer to help clean up the bottom end, before it hits the power amp. Though some consider these exciter or enhancer effects snake oil, I saw another YouTuber employing one for this same purpose with some success. I bought a used Sonic Stomp and it does seem to help define the bass and punch everything up better than my MXR M108S does alone, on both signals. So I added the Sonic Stomp after the MXR M108S, and then ran the culmination of everything into the effects return on my 800RB head. Peter’s rig certainly had additional equalizing (the Peavey Preamps and Tours each had their own built-in graphic equalizers) with rumors of extensive compressing (pre and post), but I’ve not been able to find anything specific on that yet.
My Pedal Chain (TL;DR)
Octave Effects: I read somewhere that one person found that an octave pedal helped achieve Steele’s thick distortion sound. I have a DigiTech Drop from when I tried to cheat my way to BEAD, but it doesn’t track well on the heavier strings. It does add a cool synth-type sound to my guitar in the octave+dry mode, so I initially imagined it being an interesting fit since Josh Silver would sometimes double what Peter was playing on keyboards. However, I was reminded how dreadful the tracking was on lower frequencies when I tried it at the beginning and end of the distortion chain. I own a Dean Rhapsody 12-string (purely for novelty) and it produces a similar effect to an octave+dry pedal, but it did not make for a pleasing tone with the set up I had already settled on.
If you have any interesting details, discoveries, or corrections, please email me. Thanks.
None More Negative
CrankyGypsy (established 2001)