Here’s a trivia question that you sci-fi geeks that also play upright bass: What’s is the late Gene Roddenberry’s (creator of Star Trek) vision of Upright Bass in the very distant future?
That’s right, it’s an Electric Upright Bass, specifically a Dean Pace Electric Upright Bass. Everyone stock up on these for your great, great, great, great, great grand children because they will be around longer than the automobile. Being a small time Sci-Fi geek myself, I remember a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that had a jazz band, which included a bassist with an electric upright bass.
I’m sure Mr Roddenberry didn’t ponder hours on end about what the future of bass will be, nor did he favor the 35″ string length of the Dean Pace over the sonically superior 42″ scale length of most upright basses. The future is just speculation, and I’m confident about one thing: everyone will disagree with at least some of my opinions. I’m not the Nostradamus of bass, nor am I completely impartial and objective. Feel free to disagree. I’d be interested in your ideas of where things are headed.
Ladies and Gentlemen; The Upright Bass Has Left The Building
The bass guitar revolutionized the bass world when it grew in popularity in the 60’s on. When Leo Fender started selling these in masses, people realized that these were so much easier to play. Add the playability with a new sound that worked perfectly for a genre that was taking over the mainstream world (rock n roll), and you have a formula for an instrument that would more than dominate the bass world for decades to come. As more and more new bassists to play the bass guitar instead of the upright bass, it seemed a matter of time before that last nail on the coffin for the upright bass in anything except classical and adamant jazz bassists.
The Evolving Upright Bass
On the upright bass side of the fence, the upright bass was not stagnant. The Upright Bass (along with string instruments) were also improving and evolving. Steel strings kept improving as did the selection from the growing number of string manufacturers. Manufacturers kept evolving the string with modern materials and manufacturing techniques. The upright bass also improved greatly in sound and playability. Opposed to previous decades where the bass was just something a shop dealt with along with violins, violas and cellos, there were people out there passionate about making a bass play and sound optimum. Set up right, the upright bass today plays and sounds is light years better than decades ago and you can play it at warp speeds just as you can with the bass guitar. If it played this well back then, maybe Jaco would have had a harder time choosing between the upright bass and the bass guitar.
The Reemergence of the Upright Bass Sound
While everyone else in a band had options to go acoustic or electric, many bass guitarists longed for a more organic, acoustic sound. There were acoustic bass guitars which found a very limited following and eventually many bass guitarists already knew of the long existing upright bass. Many tried it and loved it, which snowballed into overall popularity of the instrument. Add the reemergence of the Rockabilly and subculture variations such as Psychobilly, Punkabilly, etc. and you have bassists moving back to the upright bass.
In the Jazz realm, you had bassist who gravitated back from bass guitar back to the upright bass also. Getting back to the vast improvements in playability and sound in the last couple of decades, jazz bassists no longer had to decide between the plability of the bass guitar versus the sound of the upright bass. With this time, you started seeing a lot of great bass guitarists start focusing on the upright bass.
As a lot of musicians have been mentioning, technology has been changing the demand for bassists in general. There are popular genres of music out there that use electronic bass (sampled bass or synth bass) which do not need a bassist who functions only to drive the sound at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Your average listener listening to lossy compressed music through Ipod earbuds can’t distinguish between a bass guitar or sampled bass. Live bands in rock and country still want the a bassist because it’s an expected part of a band. Pop music has greatly diminished the demand for bassists. This is not to say that bassist are going extinct, but it just means that the number of people playing bass in the world is shrinking. The synth will never be able to replace innovative bassists in roles where they need to play the instrument with voice and feel.
As for the upright bass, we are growing more in popularity each year even as the popularity of bassist in general is declining. No one takes a census of bassists, but I would guess that bass guitar outnumbers upright basses in the ball park of 50 to 1. Bass guitars are cranked out like Russians cranked out AK-47’s, while upright basses are like the expensive to make, maintain and shoot M-16. Aspiring teenager bassists think the instrument is cool, but most would still rather play the bass guitar. Maybe as the number of rock bands like HorrorPop make a big splash, more and more young bassists in rock and other mainstream music will want to play the upright bass in the future. With the existence of affordable electric upright basses, the upright bass doesn’t have to be big in size if that was an issue.
The greatest advantage of the upright bass is the organic, expressiveness that we can play through the instrument. The very complex nature of the sound of an upright bass makes it hard to sample convincingly. Similar to a bell, natural variations in overtones and waveform that occur with the tiniest variable differences with each strike, make it hard for a computer to mimic. Sampling it makes it a dead giveaway that you’re hearing the same recording repeated. Add in a bow and with our ability to alter our tone in so many ways, and we’re just as hard to synthesize as a singing human voice. Those are our assets that we bring as bassists and which ensures that we will be around for a very, very long time. We’re not likely to dominate the bass world anytime soon, but hopefully long before we start travelling on starships.