GETTING THAT PETER STEELE BASS TONE
...or a close approximation.
(written Jan 2020; latest update Jun 2020)
My younger brother and I attended our first live show in 1995. At nineteen years old, I loved GNíR, Motley Crue, and Metallica, but Pantera was something entirely different. Nothing was more impressive or unique to me than PanteraÖ 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 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 the rarer items. There is a second page here that has additional thoughts on my choices to replicate the tone, budget-minded options, and alternative pedals.
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 main contributor to Pete's distortion during the ten years he posted prior, and simply switching it off was Peteís clean tone.
Live: Pictured above, one of the earliest TON basses was a fretless Warlock that didnít 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. 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 Peterís 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?
Note: 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), then the all-green Fernandes Tremor (Life Is Killing Me tour), and finally the made-to-order Washburn M10 (Dead Again tour & Carnivore shows). These basses were 34Ē 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 was neck-through. He insisted on 24-fret models when entertaining endorsements and sprayed most of them himself with Krylon Flat Black and various Krylon Greens.* 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 didnít look small compared to his stature. Three Tremors were custom-made and exclusively/accidently painted at the factory with the ďwrong shadeĒ 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 Peterís 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 and one is a match to APWA.
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 Iíve 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.
Peter used a sustainer driver at the neck position, although you may not see anything mounted here on some of his 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, Kennyís 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. Peterís 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 companyís standard layout.
* I later found that Peter was specifically referring to the Fernandes Sustainer when he made this claim. Obviously, not having one certainly didn't mean achieving his tone was 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 bassís 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?
* Itís 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. Noting the above photo of the Peavey Tour 700 power amps with the green tape (ď4x10Ē or ďwedgeĒ), 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 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 seem overpowering when the signals are kept separate.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Peter relied on several Peavey 2x10Ē cabs and an 1x18Ē 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 10Ē 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 10Ē cabs have piezo tweeters already built-in. I believe those are TVX cabs in the above black and white photo with the Rickenbacker clone. Heís also been seen with multiple Peavey TVX refrigerators, Peavey Tour 410s, and occasional Ampegs. Aside from them most often containing only 10Ē 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 Peterís 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. A 35Ē scale is arguably ideal for BEAD tuning 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. 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 is using a 5-string. My tests found I reduced a lot of the feedback with certain pedal configurations 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. As for amplifiers, I think a clean power amp (or the effects return of your amplifier) will be the simplest way to get started.
INPUT OR EFFECTS LOOP ...OR BOTH?
I begin by plugging a BEAD-tuned bass into a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner to use as a signal splitter.
Clean Chain: Peterís sound was likely achieved with two signals, which he reportedly combined using a Marshall ABY box in the earlier years. According to a 1998 interview with him in Bass Player Magazine, ďwhen he wants a clean sound, a Marshall Y-box re-routes the signal through Boss tremolo and reverb pedals.Ē Iíve noted that some live footage from the Bloody Kisses tour seems to have a heavier effect on the clean signal than later tours. Peter eventually preferred Boss due to the brand's ruggedness, so the highly-regarded TR-2 and any RV model are likely candidates. However, the TR-2 did not become available until 1997, so did he start out using another brand or did he eventually include this effect after the release of October Rust? I have noticed that whenever tremolo is referenced in Peteís setup, tremolo is mentioned before delay/reverb. My clean signal begins at the bypass jack of my TU-3, into the front of the 800RB, out from the effects send, into a TR-2, then a DigiTech Polara (set for Spring Reverb), and into a Saturnworks Passive Summer. Using the preamp provides additional headroom for the clean channelís output to easily achieve volume unity with the distortion signal.
Core of the Distortion Chain: The DS-1 will fall short trying to mimic Peteís mammoth sound because it was only half of the distortion equation. A Peavey preamp provided additional drive for smoother, feedback-laden distortion and longer sustain. I found using my 800RBís preamp colored my tone negatively, plus it doesnít produce any distortion on its own, so I opted to use pedals in lieu of buying one of Peaveyís rack-mounted rarities. Back and forth, I finally settled on a Boss SD-1 or Ibanez TubeScreamer driving a Boss MT-2.* These pedals give the Metal Zone some preamp-like oomph, prolonging sustain and allowing the signal to teeter closer to the edge of feedback. The MT-2 has a very tweakable EQ to fine tune the tone due to the pedalís powerful mid controls, which is the reason I feel it works so well here. I also added a Boss NS-2 that predominantly quiets this chain while running the clean signal on itís own.
* To me, Peter's studio tone and his live tone sound quite different. The MT-2 thickens the distortion while also adding some compression, which more closely mimcs his studio work. Driving a Boss DS-1 with an SD-1 (or TS7, TS808, TS9, TS9DX) provides additional feedback and sounds more like his live setup. Both combos work well, just differently.
Again, both signals running simultaneously allows the clean signal to help define the lower end of the distortion. In the photo of Peteís pedal chain, note that the distortion signal passes out through the output jack of his TU-2, 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 entire distortion chain, also making it his channel switcher.
Remainder of the Distortion Chain: With Peteís settings on his Boss CH-1, I found the signal can sometimes be overly trebly and harsh if mid-scooping the distortion pedal. This may become more prominent with certain speakers or where your ears are relative to the cabinet. To compensate, you can either reduce the high frequencies and bump the middle frequencies on the MT-2 or back off the EQ knob on the CH-1 - adjusting the MT-2 produces a far better tone, in my opinion. There is confusion surrounding the DD-3, especially since the pedal board photo implies two different settings. I do recall a quote from Peter saying that reverb is great for hiding mistakes, so I wasnít sure if this was done in addition to the clean signal with an always-on DD-3. Then I stumbled on a forum post claiming that "for certain, the chorus was always on with distortion...the delay was occasional." Furthermore, noting his pedalboard pic, you will see the DD-3 label is directing the knob to be set in Hold mode for infinite sustain. I eventually decided the delay pedal could be omitted as it provided no apparent benefit to my tone. Furthermore, I'm convinced he switched to (or added) a DD-6 to very occasionally utilize reverse delay.
COMBINING SIGNALS & EQUALIZATION
I read a post written by Peterís 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 successfully employing one for this same purpose. 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, bypassing the 800RBís preamp section. Peterís rig certainly had additional equalizing since the Peavey Preamps and Tours each had their own built-in graphic equalizers. I tried a second MXR M108S in the distortion chain, right after the TU-3, but abandoned that as it didnít seem to do much for me.
If you have any interesting details, discoveries, or corrections, please email me. Thanks.
None More Negative
CrankyGypsy (established 2001)