Ted’s essays

upright bass / bass guitar / electric bass

I responded to a friend’s e-mail inquiry about my thoughts comparing the features of my upright bass, my acoustic bass guitar and electric basses. I am sharing an enhanced version of my reply here.

I have played trombone since I was 10 years old, mostly because of my appreciation for swing, blues, jazz, big band, and concert band music. That is, creating the music more than simply listening to it, though I do plenty of both. Since it is so rare to find trombone opportunities in these woods, I decided to take up the bass.

My first attempt was an electric bass with practice amp. Nope. The sound, the feel, the gaggle of gear, cables, electrical requirements all conspired to make that an obvious NO for me. It was unplayable unless the juice was flowing to it. Not at all what I had in mind. I knew I wanted an upright, but several thousand dollars ON THE CHANCE I might like it was not going to happen. Then my wife found one advertised for $850 in Meridian, Idaho. Two nights with our friends in Boise and I had my upright.

The 3/4-size upright bass (71″) is far more common than a full sized upright (75″). My supplier of strings and things knows it all (https://gollihurmusic.com/) and recommends against the 4/4 size for most people.

My cheap Chinese bass is SO CHEAP it does not even have markings indicating who built it. I rebuilt it for playing in the neighborhood bluegrass jam on Thursdays replacing wound steel strings with “Slap Billy” strings that cannot be bowed, but pluck GREAT. I took my bandsaw, belt sander and wood files to the bridge getting the strings much more comfortably close to the fingerboard and eliminated the crossing of the strings some klutz put into the head. I transformed it from dramatically worse than a rode-hard 60-year-old carved bass that was resident at the jam site to actually better than it in many ways.

By the way, advice from those who know: Find a bass-qualified luthier. There are too many ways to botch even a string change that you should not take any chances. Since there weren’t any within a reasonable distance I took my chances … that fortunately came out great.

Upright bass players have a lot of body contact with their instrument. You FEEL the good vibes as well as hear them. The sound volume of one upright bass projects those low frequencies powerfully enough to transform a gaggle of mandolins, guitars and fiddles into a rich, broad-spectrum sound.

From Gollihur I bought a very nice bass case and dolly setup to tote it to and from my weekly gig evening during the year I spent recovering from a herniated disc. It is big and heavy compared to every other instrument in a bluegrass band. Only drummers have more freight to haul. We fetched it from Meridian, Idaho in a Subaru station wagon… got extremely lucky that it fit with the head against the windshield and the butt against the back hatch.

I later bought an acoustic bass guitar thinking that would do in a much more conveniently sized package. I hated the frets, so I shed that one and bought the far less common fretless acoustic bass guitar that I almost never touch. It is nice to goof around with when I want to sit on a couch and play quietly, but is easily overpowered by almost any higher frequency string instrument. This particular Dean guitar has nice looking fret lines in the neck for navigational purposes, but without the ribs that got in my way with the normal versions. It also has electrical pickups in case I want to make bigger noise with it.

I was pleasantly surprised, delighted even, by how easily I picked up playing the foundation role in a Bluegrass jam. The rhythm, key changes and appropriate notes came naturally to me – I believe from my lifetime love for playing blues, swing and jazz trombone and listening to same. Blues begat all of them which makes them fundamentally quite similar. With the jam sessions gone, I rarely play either bass. I like them a lot more than that, just don’t get around to it … like so much else in my life.

Upright bass and bass guitar play quite differently from each other. The muscle memory does not translate back and forth. I have close to zero skill on the guitar, but am comfortable at a small-town bluegrass jam level on the upright.

My final thought is that I prefer the acoustic guitar tone over the electric, but it is too quiet to play in a band. The acoustic’s hollow body sounds richer than the flat body of a straight electric. That, however, is a style choice. Most electric bass guitar players twist the knobs on their guitars and amps, using electronics to get their desired textures. I can enjoy listening to those results, but it just isn’t the sound I want to make.