Choosing an Electric Upright Bass (EUB)

NA003481Some 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.

Different Philosophies

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).

String Options

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

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.

Brand Difference

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.

Hardware

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.

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6 Responses

  1. Some interesting points, though I don’t totally agree with all of them. Particuarly, your thoughts on “hollow-body” EUB’s.

    In my opinion, the most you can expect from any EUB is that it sounds like a full-sized bass using a pickup. Which is all you SHOULD expect, since it is always played through an amp. And some of the so-called “hollow body” basses aren’t simply hollow bodies; the Eminence, for instance (which is the one I have personal experience with) has a functional soundpost and bass bar. It’s legitimately a “real” upright bass, only with a very small body. Since the pickup on it is where the pickup would be on a “real” upright, through an amp, it’s virtually indistinguishable from a “regular” upright being played through the same amp using a pickup. There are basses from other manufacturers that have similar results.

    The solid-body instruments (Palatino, NS Design, etc.) are more of a “crossover” like you say, but string choice, judicious EQ, etc. can certainly pull them a lot closer to an “authentic” sound – if not quite fool a purist. 😉

    But I really like your site, hope you pick it back up and post some updates. I’ll be watching!

    — Mark

    • I think that what we need to differentiate here is the difference between a good upright bass sound and a passable sound. I think that you can make a EUB sound like and upright from pre 1990’s, when no one had a choice but to use pickups that had little engineering in them and it was through a Polytone (the same one as the EP and guitar players had). With dedicated sound reinforcement products specifically engineer for the upright bass, the bar has been raised on what is a good sound.

      Even with a soundbar and sound post, there’s a lot more to getting resonance than those components. The sound of an upright bass is from the sum of all parts, not from the presence of certain components. Remember that the body of a bass is a resonance chamber. The lower frequency that you want it to resonate, the larger the body needs to be both in chamber volume and surface area. A good quality pickup today not only picks up the string vibrations, but a large amount of vibration from the top which is the bulk of where the sound from upright bass emanates from.

      Let’s talk about salsa bands where the hollowbody EUB’s is the common bass, and where the Eminence is popular and most everyone knows how a bass commonly sounds in that genre. I would say that it has its own unique sound, and a good quality sound on its own virtues, but it is doesn’t have the depth and resonance of a real upright no matter how much EQing you do. EQing boosts certain frequencies, but it doesn’t add resonance. It has a hollow sound yes, but it’s a shallower sound. Works great for salsa, but I wouldn’t consider it as having the same sound as an upright bass. You’re not going to fool anyone in terms of sound where people expect to hear a real upright bass. Even with my Czech-ease which has far more of a resonance chamber than any EUB, doesn’t have the depth and resonance of a 3/4 upright bass and I don’t expect it to; I don’t expect it defy physics.

      If EUB’s were really good enough, you’d have a mass exodus of players moving from the upright bass. I’d be the first in line if that were so. Who wants to haul around a huge 6 foot tall instrument unless the sound were that much better? I could drive a nice two seat convertible and I wouldn’t have to worry if the airline is going to allow me to check in the bass or not, and I wouldn’t have to spend hundreds on oversize baggage fees each trip. My back would certainly be in much better shape. We’re not sticking with the upright bass because we’re purists, we do it out of necessity.

      • I think you make many good points, but I still think — with all due respect to your opinions — that perhaps there might be a disconnect between the THEORY and REALITY of how much all of those tone-producing factors really “matter” in an actual gigging situation. The body of the bass makes a difference acoustically, but I will again assert that it has very little impact on the sound when all the audience hears is the amplified output from a bridge-mounted pickup.

        I will confidently assert that neither you nor I could discern the difference between the tone of a “real” URB and an Eminence (or similar) EUB, if both were set up well, using a quality pickup and the same amp and player, if you could not SEE the player while playing. Don’t underestimate that you often “Hear” with your eyes (Check this out for a cool illustration of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypd5txtGdGw&feature=player_embedded)

        Imperfections in amplifiers/speakers/etc. — as well as EQ settings, amp placement, etc. will also “blur” any of those minute tonal differences by the time the sound is produced. I don’t discount the difference TO THE PLAYER, who may play differently due to the difference in the way the bass feels and responds – which also may impact the overall tone of the instrument due to his/her approach to the instrument – but that can be overcome with comfort with the bass, which comes with time.

        My rebuttal consists simply of the following (and other clips like them):

        Finally, your comment: “If EUB’s were really good enough, you’d have a mass exodus of players moving from the upright bass,” is a fallacy. There are other factors which keep many players continuing to use “the real thing” – for instance, you’d get kicked out of a legit orchestra (and many bluegrass groups) for bringing an EUB with an amp to a concert, there’s just too much tradition there. But as someone who sells a variety of EUB’s, I can tell you that MANY people have made the jump – if not to “replace” the big girl, at least have a smaller, more portable alternative.

        Again – just to clarify – respectful disagreement here; I hope that my comments do not come off as snarky or disrespectful, that’s not my intent (but correctly transmitting tone is difficult on the internet!)

      • That McGurk effect is fascinating. I can’t believe that someone on YouTube would call it boring. Maybe it’s some kid that grew up overstimulated on caffeinated sodas and cartoon violence. Anyhow, I digress…

        I think that your argument has merit, but once again I’m again stating that it depends on what your expectations are tonally. I’ve always found Esperanza Spalding’s live tone thin (not to at all to criticize her her talent as a bassist or vocalist). I’ve yet hear any upright bassist rave about the sound of her bass. If you favor the old jazz upright bass tone of a Underwood pickup through a Polytone single 12″ speaker, then yes the EUB could suffice. Since the recordings of her live performances is always pickup to DI, then EUB could be a substitute, especially through YouTube and my computer speakers. Maybe I am arguing your point for you, which is that no one notices or cares about the sound when she’s on stage because of her amazing voice and stage presence. But then again, she could just play bass guitar or even synth bass on a keytar and the average non-musician wouldn’t pickup on it.

        When in a studio, where they almost always use a mic to record the bass, would you expect an indistinguishable difference using an Eminence?

        Speaking of Mics, I took for granted the mics that we use as part of our pickup system and neglected to mention it. My unscientific survey based on the concerts that I have attended says that most professional upright bassists today use various setups that includes a microphone, which greatly aids in amplifying the acoustic depth of the bass. Is the mic a McGurk device and the added richness and depth is only in our head?

        The reason why an EUB can’t be used in an orchestra is because there is no way that you can make a EUB with a pickup and amp sound like a double bass, especially arco. Basses in an orchestra are not amplified. Are you willing to wager 50 new sets of Animas and Garbos that I won’t be able to blindfold identify between an Eminence with an amp and a good double bass using common orchestral audition repertoire?

  2. I have a Palatino EUB that I ordered online. From all i’ve read about it, you’re right and some may be better/worse than others. I got a good one, I did put a thin sheet of foam between the bridge and pickup and it sounds really good. Also, they do have a chambered body, and tho quiet played acoustically, this one had a good sound. I really like it, and I’ve played upright bass for a long time, but this is my only one right now. I know some have had the fingerboard unattached when it arrived, the tailpeice rattle, etc, I was very fortunate and have no such problems with mine. I would reccomend that a beggining upright bassist find them in a store and try it first. They also have an adjustable bridge which is a plus. I know it isn’t a $20,000 bass, but for the price and convienience of size, etc, I really am enjoying it. Appreciate this site and you sharing your knowledge.
    Chuck

  3. After reading these thoughtful comments, especially Mark’s, I have to add my two cents. First, the host makes an excellent point that bassists pick EUBs to either replace their upright in some situations, or to create a different sound. I’d say this is similar to the way many of us play bass guitar. I use a fretless bass guitar on some bossas because it sounds more authentic to the genre, even though I prefer my upright’s richer, deeper, more complex sound.
    I shopped for two years before I bought an Eminence, probably from Mark or his dad. I’m happy with the instrument overall, but still lug my acoustic when I can because it’s more satisfying to my ear, even though the audience mostly hears my Acoustic Image amp. Even through the amp, the Eminence lacks a depth that my Fischer pick-up conveys from my acoustic that is lacking in the Eminence. As other posters commented, the Eminence can’t defy physics and its acoustic chamber is just too small, shallow, and plywood to have the depth of my carved acoustic. So, I prefer playing my acoustic through my amp when I can, but if I’m going to a gig that’s outside or sketchy or in which the other musicians won’t care or I just need the better portability, I bring my Eminence. I play jazz, and not the smooth stuff, and my Eminence sounds close enough to my acoustic so that no one has ever complained about its sound, and, it fits in my 2-seater, even with the top up – in the passenger seat.
    Go with the Messenger if you want that sound – it’s a great sound – but it has too much sustain to sound like an acoustic bass to me. The Eminence comes very close to the sound of the acoustic, but in the end, it sounds like an amplified plywood bass, which, I believe, is what it is.

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