Some of the frequently commonly asked questions of visitors are for advice on which Electric Upright Bass (EUB) they should choose. Everyone who plays one has their preference, so if you ask ten different people you’re going to get fifteen different answers. There is no clearly superior electric upright bass among the different good quality basses (costing $2000+), which is why all of them have their share of endorsements.
I don’t have much ownership experience with the entry level electric upright basses such as the Palatino and NS Design WAV basses. What I can say about them (which bass guitar players can relate to) is that picking up one feels the same way as when you pickup a Fender Squire or some other factory produced music instrument from Asia. There is a lack of consistency and they generally don’t feel or sound as good. After reading various comments from owners of these, these basses can be difficult to play and the sound is far from ideal. It seems that from day two after taking one home, those owners are already looking forward to the day when they can trade up. Circumstances may dictate that you may have to make due with a bass that is within your budget, but these guidelines will still be relevant.
People have different ideas of the ideal electric upright bass. Some want it as a direct substitute for an acoustic upright bass, while others want it to supplement their upright bass; as another tool. Players who want it as a direct replacement want it to sound and get as close to the “real thing” as possible, so that they no longer have to deal with some of the difficulties of a regular upright bass. Others have and love their upright basses, but want an EUB to compliment it; for a different sound or different purpose.
I fall into the latter category. In the past I was in search of an electric upright bass to substitute for the upright bass, but after many years, I knew that physically there is no possible way for an EUB to sound like a good upright bass; it’s physics. A semi-acoustic is our version of a guitar with a ukulele sized body. Maybe there will be some hi-tech method of making an electric upright bass sound like an acoustic, similar to the acoustic simulators which make electric guitars sound like acoustics, but it’s impossible physically. During those years however, I did grow fond of the electric upright bass for its distinct sound which expands my tonal pallet. I do use the electric upright bass as a tool also of convenience such as rehearsals or places that just aren’t safe to bring a regular upright bass (uncovered outdoor festivals and microscopic jazz cafes).
Upright Bass strings is where the tone and timbre of an upright bass starts from. If you want your electric upright bass to sound more like an upright bass and less like a bass guitar, you need to use upright bass strings. An electric upright bass should accommodate standard upright bass strings. Some electric upright basses use bass guitar strings or limit you to strings made only by them. Bass guitar strings will make an electric upright bass sound like a fretless bass guitar and basses that limit you to proprietary strings don’t allow you to change types of strings to adjust your sound. For some odd reason (maybe it’s cost cutting) even higher end electric uprights like the NS Design CR basses come with really crappy strings. I don’t know why NS Design would want to ship out basses sounding far from ideal due to bad strings. Fortunately you can change them out with real upright bass strings, and you have to right away! It makes a world of a difference.
String length is the term that is used for upright basses, but it’s the same thing as “scale length” for bass guitars. String Length should be around 41 1/2″, which is a common string length of most upright basses. Don’t worry if a bass is off by up to one inch shorter or longer. You should be able to find out this specification on most electric upright basses online. If in doubt, measure it out: measure the length from the nut to the bridge. There are a few companies that make electric upright basses in the bass guitar scale length of 35″ so check this specification prior to purchase. 35″ string length electric upright basses are more of a marketing gimmick which is targeted towards bass guitar players , but these sound just like fretless bass guitars.
There aren’t huge tonal difference between different makers of good quality upright basses. There are far greater differences between string brands, types and lines. Upright bass strings come in different types of string cores, wrap materials, and gauges, which create hugh difference in timbre. Unlike bass guitar strings which are only steel cores, string cores can also be composed of gut, synthetic, nylon, velvet rope, and various alloys. Among the better electric upright bass brands, strings make a larger difference in sound than the actual bass themselves.
Some makers include electric upright basses with small hollow bodies to allow for resonance. I’ve never been a proponent for hollow-bodied electric upright basses, since they cost more without providing resonance that is anything similar to a real upright bass (once again, it’s like a ukulele body on a guitar). Arguably it is closer to the sound of a regular upright bass, but it’s still far from the real thing. If you want an EUB is a substitute for a regular upright bass, and your goal is to get as close as possible this would be a step closer, but it’s still nowhere near.
One of the more significant differences between basses is in the design of their endpin and/or stand. Some basses only have endpins that extend out of the bottom, some are designed held by a tripod, while others have variations of either or both.
My preference is for a stand that allows for adjustments in tilt, whether it be tripod or endpin. My reason is because I use a Laborie endpin for my regular upright bass, which changes the angle of the fingerboard relative to the floor. This is a key, but commonly overlooked factor in choosing an electric upright. The hardware design should allow the EUB to feel transparent; not feel distractingly different than your upright bass.
Some companies like to incorporate features that mimic the bouts of an acoustic upright bass. Bouts shapes vary among basses and I’ve never used it for reference in playing any upright bass. Some people do, so this feature may be important to you if you need some physical cue to help you know where you are at on the fingerboard. As for others of you who use the Rabbath/Laborie Endpin on your bass, the location of the fake bouts on the EUB won’t be in the right location, since you are used to being in contact with the back corner of the bout rather than the front corner, so they are more of a nuisance in transporting and setting up the EUB than helpful when you play.
Get It and Forget It
The purpose of a bass is to be your tool in your musical journey. Remember that music comes from you not the instrument which is your tool to convey your music thoughts. After you’ve spent a few weeks getting yourself familiarized with your EUB and getting it dialed in, focus on the playing to further improve your sound, instead of continuing to obsess about the different EUB’s out there. Remember: It’s the ideas and the ability to convey those ideas that your audience hears, not the slight variations between the different EUB’s out there.