Question of the Week: I play bass guitar and would like to learn to play the upright. Can I learn on an electric upright first?

1237915901444139591papapishu_Man_playing_contrabass.svg.hiI play bass guitar and would like to learn to play the upright. Can I learn on an electric upright first?

There is no simple answer that would encompass all individuals, but there are some general consideration about learning first on an electric upright bass. There may be something that restricts you from starting on a regular (acoustic) upright bass, so if that is the case, yes you can learn on the electric upright first until the opportunity to play a regular upright bass is possible for you.

If you learn on an electric upright, keep in mind that there will be adjustments that you will need to make, if and when you decide to play the acoustic. Since the electric upright bass has virtually no body, you can conceivably stand as close to the instrument’s strings as you would ever want. You can buy a bass that has some “props” that mimic where the upper bout would be, but it’s still not the same as getting used to playing with a bass’ body keeping you a certain distance from the strings.

The acoustic nature of the upright bass is what makes the tone so rewarding and also unforgiving. Good electric upright basses are responsive to changes in articulation, but no where near the level of an acoustic upright bass. An upright bass has a very expansive palette, which is what makes it harder than an electric upright bass or bass guitar to play consistently, but it also allows you a lot of flexibility through variations in technique which for expressiveness when you get to a higher ability. The same techniques used on an electric upright bass often times does not produce a desirable tone. This is the same reason that a lot of upright bassists complain that electric upright basses are not expressive, electric upright basses don’t sound good when you deviate to far from the sweet spot.

Most electric upright basses sound lousy when playing arco (with a bow), so you won’t be able to develop your bowing technique. A lot of bass guitar players mention that they have no interest in learning to play with a bow, so this may not be an important factor to you. I would highly encourage you to learn to be competent at playing with a bow, because it’ll make you a far better bassist in the long run.

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Acoustic Image Coda+

Amplification History

Thinking back to the amount of hard earned money lost to buying promising amps and selling them later, I have become weary of amplifications. Upright Bassists didn’t have dedicated amplification. Let’s recall our options; Polytone general purpose amps that were shared with guitarists in Jazz Band, GK MB combos that never sounded like the bass, and a myriad of bass guitar amps that were designed with a lot of scooped range and coloration so that bass guitars could sound better. Walter Woods amps were legendary among upright bassists, but the price put it out of my reach and the amp was still at the mercy of scooped speaker cabinets. I liked my SWR Baby Blue (combo) since it was the cleanest and flattest amp out there, but it still had some scooped frequency response. That didn’t matter as much because pickups were still not flattering to hear and didn’t do a good job of reproducing the actual sound of the bass. Older bassists thought that us youngsters had it good because we had choices: the Underwood or the Fishman.

The planets aligned in the last ten years and things got a lot better for us upright bassists. There was growth in the upright bass world more bassists discovering or rediscovering the upright bass., technology got cheaper, and a demand for better products. There were career engineers at companies such as BassBalsereit and Acoustic Image who wanted to come up with products that improved bass amplification. Computer aided design and manufacturing led to better pickups, strings, speakers, amps, and the upright bass took a leap forward in sound and playability. We could actually have pickups and amps that could accurately reproduced the natural sound of the bass.

Go back a little to the 1990’s and Acoustic Image was on my radar from the very first Ad that I saw in the bass magazines. While I liked the idea of an upright specific amplifier it didn’t sound any better than the SWR Baby Blue. Maybe it was actually better, but none of the pickups were accurate enough to take advantage of the improvements. As the years went by, I saw AI improve their amps with each generation. I started using the then revolutionary David Gage Realist pickup and which was far more responsive and full than the Underwood. The difference between the SWR Baby Blue and AI Amp was less subtle. Finally came the BassBalsereit Studio Aktiv pickup and it was time to change amps. However, word on the inside was that a new version of the Coda was in the works so I waited patiently for them to ship it.

This Brings Us to Now

I had the biggest grin when I hooked it up with the BassBasereit Active Studio Pickup.  I set everything up and started to play. My bass was louder, but I wasn’t sure if it was the room making the bass louder. I hit the mute switch which brought the level down and unmuting the amp only brought the volume up, but the sound remained the same. “This is what amplification is about” I said to myself, aside from electric guitars and bass guitars, it’s the whole goal of amplification and sound reinforcement to be as accurate as possible? I loved the sound of my bass and amplification didn’t change any of that, nor did I want it to.

I’m very happy with the Acoustic Image Coda+. It’s dead quiet, no hiss, no buzz, no hum. Loud or soft, high or low, arco or pizz my bass sounds like my bass from the amp. I’m glad that I’m all set with amplification so that I can focus on more important things such as playing.

The amp is also compact and very light at 23 lbs. I purchased the Mooradian Bag with it and I can get the bass and amp in one trip. The padded bag is a must if you want to keep the amp in good condition, because its girth tends to make it bump door jams and catch pneumatic closing doors when you are maneuvering your bass through doorways.

Acoustic Image has a high level of customer support and their warranty backs their amplifier. AI amps are regarded as highly reliable since they are well engineered and well built. My conversations with Rick Jones of AI for various reasons, have been very pleasant. A good company with a good product, that’s a great formula.

After playing some gigs, I’m happy now that I don’t have to worry about amplification. No one comments how great the amp sounds, they comment on how great the bass sounds, which is the best compliment that an amp can get. They wouldn’t be able to appreciate the sound of the bass without the amp. It’s a thankless job being a transparent amp, but it’s the way things should be.

I’m all set with my amplification. DONE!

Choosing a New Bass as a Beginner

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Thompson Bass from String Emporium

I’ve had quite a few visitors to this site that have an interest in taking up the upright bass, but need some advice on how to shop for a bass. The best way of course is to have a proficient upright bass player help you in your quest or going to a reputable shop that deals with upright basses. 95% of you in the world probably aren’t anywhere near a reputable shop, so here are some guidelines. Rather than discourage you and tell you that you’re screwed since you aren’t near a bass shop, I’m going to go against the grain and give some advice that may not be ideal, but are practical in your situation. There’s only so much that I can convey to you over a computer, but just to help you get a start. By this point, you’ve probably have already read so much advice that your brain is close to an information overload.

Most beginners aren’t committed to spending thousands on a bass, so let’s start here. You should set aside at least $1500 for the bass. Don’t buy that $500 bass you saw on Ebay, there’s a reason that it’s $500; it’s guaranteed unplayable and problematic. I’ve heard stories of how people have purchased super cheap basses that imploded unexpectedly or the tuning machines stripped themselves. Once that happens, then what are you going to do? If you take it to a reputable shop, your repair bill can end up more than the bass is worth. You’re ultimately going to have to start saving for another bass. At this $1500 price range, you’re looking at plywood (laminate) basses. Should you get a carved bass? You should if you want to spend the money for it, but otherwise as a beginner a plywood bass will last you for years and since you are nowhere near a shop that can work on an upright bass, the durability of a plywood bass is a big plus.

You’ll have to order a bass from someone who sells AND can properly set up a bass. There are “bass specialists” on the Internet who are clueless about how to setup a bass. They know that basses need to be setup, but they just don’t know how nor do they have anyone set them up. The labor involved with setting up a bass isn’t cheap, so some places use that as a corner to cut to get their prices lower.  Just because they bought inventory and created a website doesn’t make them a reputable dealer. A proper setup is the difference between being able to play a bass easily and being completely discouraged from playing bass at all. I’ve tried playing many basses from the factory and most were utterly unplayable, so they do need to be setup prior to being delivered to you. If you don’t, there’s a very strong chance that you’re going to quit because you feel that the upright bass is too hard to play; string are hard to finger on your left hand and you get buzzes on certain notes. In reality it was only hard to play because the bass wasn’t setup properly. You will hear chatter on-line that a bass needs to be adjusted whenever it travels to different climates. Ideally yes, if you can. This is true, but with plywood basses, they are less reactive to climate changes so you should have a easy to play bass.

Samuel Shen Bass

The best On-line Bass shop that can send you a bass that is properly setup in this price range is The String Emporium. I don’t have any affiliation with The String Emporium except the bass that I had purchased from them. I’m just another customer and I’m recommending them because they provide good product, good service, and a good price. Steve at The String Emporium ships so many basses that he also gets a really good rates on freight also. Another recommend store is Upton Music who sells the Samuel Shen bass in this price range. Samuel Shen basses aren’t exclusive to Upton so you might get a better deal elsewhere, but they do good setup work. They both play well if setup right, but I would recommend the Thompson bass over the Samuel Shen bass, considering that it costs less, sounds better, and looks way better.

Hopefully my recommendation and advice helps you beginners find your new upright bass.

Page Change

The format of the upright bassists list has been changed. It is now labeled Notable Upright Bassists

This is a growing list which will be updated frequently and I anticipate that dozens will be added to the list weekly. Since there are so many genres, I could use some suggestions for genres outside of jazz.

Re: My Support of Bass Central

Some of you have emailed me mentioning a couple of other places that sell the Acoustic Image amps at the same price and are wondering why I chose Bass Central, which is more of a bass guitar store. They are the same price on the Acoustic Image as the lowest priced places out there, because Acoustic Image has a dealership agreement that forbids any dealer from selling below a certain price. For other products, such as the NS Design Basses they were the best in price (period). I highly recommend purchasing from Bass Central for your Acoustic Image amp and NS Design Bass. For anything else that’s upright bass related, check out the Where to Go For… section using the tab above for places that I have had good experiences with.

I like good people. When good people have the best prices, I fully support and recommend them. There’s Steve Koscica of The String Emporium who is a phenomenal full-time performing bassist, has excellent prices, wide selection of basses and invaluable insight. He knows a good bass because he knows how to play them to their limits, all the while still being a great guy.

Then on the other end of the spectrum there’s Beaver Felton, who’s also a great person, and a renowned bass guitar performer and instructor. He came from the 80’s rock era and had a life changing car accident; he was paralyzed from the chest down. I’m not supporting him because of pity, but I support him because through his adversity, he’s still such a great guy. I have to respect someone who can overcome obstacles life his dealt him, lose way on his lifelong dream, and still come out on top. It’s just wonderful to be associated with inspirational people like this.

There’s also the simple fact that I like to direct people to ethical, highly skilled bassists, since it boils down to a single question I have for retailers: How can you tell people that something is good, if you can’t play that well? Aren’t you more impressed when you hear a store owner who can play at a high level and not just talk the talk? Factor in that these two have the most competitive prices, and it’s a no-brainer to me.

Steve Koscica runs The String Emporium and can be seen/heard at the Phoenix Symphony

Beaver Felton runs Bass Center and can be seen/heard in the Superchops instructional videos for bass guitar (and on YouTube).

Turn My Amp Down? I Can Barely Hear Myself

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Bigger is not necessarily better

A little technical talk here. Why are 10″ speakers preferable these days over 15″?  I’ve frequently been asked turn my bass amp down and/or roll off the lows by the people mixing, yet if I turned myself down anymore I wouldn’t be able to hear myself and rolling off the lows sound awful. I’m just trying to get a good sound at a reasonable level. The reason? I was using a 15″. Here’s a reprint of an Electronic Musician article by Glenn Letsche titled Speaker of the House for you gearheads who need to know why you’re better off sticking with 10″ speaker(s). Use multiples if you need to increase your stage volume. I wouldn’t buy an SVT for the upright bass, but the principle is the same overall for bass speaker selection.

Are you irritated with your stage rig because the low end sounds muddy, boomy, or thin? Did the sound person bounce you from the main mix at the last gig because your bass was too loud out front-and the real kicker was that you couldn’t even hear yourself on stage? Well, it may be time to investigate a new speaker cabinet. However, don’t go blindly into the forest of speaker sizes and configurations.

This may be hard to accept, but big, sexy, 18-inch speakers and biamped systems do not necessarily deliver the hippest bass sound. If you lust for a truly fabulous bass cabinet-one that will help you tear the roof off most clubs and compel those sweaty bodies out in the audience to move and groove-you must forget the technobabble about SPL, dB output, and frequency response. In fact, you can also rip up all those spec sheets, gang, because now it’s time for some good, old-fashioned common sense about 10, 15, and 18-inch speakers. Let’s check out which speaker configurations are really the best for producing slammin’ bass using the only measuring device we can trust: our ears.

The 18-inch colossus. Eighteen-inch speakers are great-if they’re part of a triamped concert sound system. For that application, they pump out tons of low end to help produce a full-range sound spectrum by anchoring the mid and high frequencies. But, for the bass player, an 18-inch speaker will sound too “woofy.” In addition, these giants project your sound too far beyond the stage. Typically, the sound waves do not develop until they reach the middle of the room. This means that on stage and in front of your amp you can barely hear yourself, while out front, the sound person is pulling down your fader to avoid getting clobbered by bass! In these cases, front-loaded cabinets (in which the speaker faces out) are bad enough, but folded-horn cabinets with the speaker facing the rear are a nightmare. So do yourself (and your audience) a favor and resist the machismo-fueled temptation to go with big, bad speaker cabinets.

The 15-inch giant. Fifteen-inch speakers suffer from the same sound dispersion problem as 18-inchers: the farther you move from the speakers, the louder they get, and the better they sound. This can be a drag, because most bassists stand close to their rigs. And who is out front, getting pummeled once again by bass frequencies? Right-the soundman. You can bet that your bass is no longer being suitably mixed into the main house speakers. Fifteen-inch speakers are typically front loaded in pairs. Although this configuration was the “standard” for years, I have never known a bass player who was content with this setup. Small wonder. In an effort to improve the sound of these cabinets, some bassists would upgrade the system with expensive speakers. That move would improve the timbre somewhat-especially at low volumes-but once the level was cranked up, that awful “woof tone” would reappear. Obviously, this is not the optimum system for a bassist who is serious about his or her sound.

The biamp boondoggle. Frustrated with their tone, confused bassists often run to the nearest music store, where a salesperson may suggest biamping a rig for true “audiophile” bass. (The term sounds good-whatever it means!) Various speaker combinations are auditioned-an 18 and a 15, an 18 and a 10, and so on. Everything looks great on paper. The rig even sounds wonderful when tested at home. But at the gig, once again, the bass frequencies simply disappear. There are lots of highs and lows being produced, but the low-end punch is gone. What happened? Well, when you biamp a bass guitar rig, you delegate the low frequencies to one cabinet (loaded with an 18- or 15-inch speaker) and the upper frequencies to another cabinet (typically loaded with a 15- or 10-inch speaker). As I stated earlier, on paper this looks like a great idea. But in practice, the midrange thrust of the overall bass sound is a whisper, and your ears are screaming, “Something is wrong here!” No, you’re not going crazy: a couple of bad things are definitely happening. First, the sound at the crossover point of the two speaker cabinets tends to disappear, creating an obvious vacancy in the tonal spectrum. Second-and more important-for a true, punchy bass sound, any note plucked on the bass guitar must saturate one size of speaker. The biamp system is robbing you of monster tone! It’s one thing to biamp or triamp a P.A. system to accurately reproduce each and every instrument in the band, but a bass guitar doesn’t require that level of signal manipulation. In this instance, more tonal options only serve to dissipate the aggressive wallop of the bass. The subwoofer system. A biamp configuration that can work-if used with extreme caution-is the subwoofer system. The massive low frequencies these systems generate are often unwieldy, although under rare circumstances, a subwoofer can produce incredible results. For example, when I played bass with Robin Trower, he wanted to feel a “blanket” of bass under his (very loud) solos. In that situation, my subwoofer system supplied a huge low-end floor to the sound of the power trio, and Trower was happy. Of course, in another performance situation, the added bass might have been too much, making the music mix sound muddy and flabby. Again, incorporate subs with caution. To set up a subwoofer system, your bass preamp must have separate subwoofer and full-range outputs. You must also have a separate stereo power amp. Send the subwoofer output of the preamp to one channel of the power amp, and connect a 15- or 18-inch speaker cabinet. Then send the full-range output of the preamp to the other channel of the power amp and connect that channel to a full-range speaker cabinet (preferably a 4 x 10 configuration). Bring up the volume of the full-range channel first, and set it to the desired volume. Now, set the crossover point for the subwoofer output between 100 Hz and 200 Hz (or wherever it sounds good), and crank up the volume until you achieve maximum thrust. If you’re using this setup for an appropriate application, it should work like a champ! The power of ten.

Okay, here’s the secret of a bass player’s success-the speaker system that works consistently in 95 percent of all live performance situations. It’s simple: tens, tens, and more tens. Ten-inch speaker cabinets (2 x 10, 4 x 10, or 8 x 10-you can’t lose!) supply tons of lows, mids, and highs. These cabinets will keep your bass sound tight and muscular. Trust me, your notes will sound big, round, and articulate. And if you still believe that an 18-inch speaker cabinet should kick butt on a “puny” 10-inch system, line up the two configurations side by side and compare the sound. Your ears will not lie to you. The tens will convert the most skeptical player. I guarantee it. After all, twenty-something years ago, Ampeg unleashed its SVT amp with 300 watts and two 8 x 10 cabinets (sixteen speakers!). This rig produced the first bass body massage and became the unofficial standard of stadium and club stages. Each of those 10-inch speakers acted like ten strong Swedish fingers, working and kneading every muscle in your back. Your body tingled with every pluck of the strings. Passing time has brought numerous refinements to speaker technology, but the functional concept of 10-inch speaker systems for the bassist rocks on. In fact, that old SVT sound continues to be a much lusted-after tone.

Why reinvent the wheel? Savvy players stick with what works best, and 10-inch speakers are the prime choice for raging bass sound. Now get down and go deep!

How to Make a Living (Part 3): Music Merchants

This is a continuation of the series on career choices for bassists. The Music Business that I’m referring to today is the merchant side of the business.

Aside from gearheads, sometimes aspiring musicians end up working in the music merchant business for reasons unknown to them. They usually assumed working because of their perception that the music merchant industry is closely related to the music making field. The fact is that these are two separate industries.

namm_floor1When I was in college, I worked a couple of summers at a bass amp manufacturer. Later on, I ran a modest online music products mail order retail, while simultaneously running a separate bass specific online music store to help pay for tuition. I’ve spent enough time in the music merchandising business to share some insights with you. Many musicians work in the music business to make ends meet, since it’s hard to make a living solely being a performing musician. If you enjoy selling musical instruments and working in a music store, then more power to you, but here’s some alternate practical ideas about how to juggle paying the mortgage while working on your career as a performing musician.

The music performance business is a completely different industry than the music merchandising business. Many people in the music merchandising business do have a music background, but the only real connection between the two is the word “music”. I’ve been in meetings with key people in music merchant companies and they never talked about music, they talked about what all other business people in any industry do; profits, efficiency, market-share, and manufacturing. They’re more likely to discuss their golf swing than music. Most workers are about the same, most of them don’t even know much about music, there is no musical background advantage or requirement when the companies are doing job interviews. Whether you work for them or Intel, there’s about the same amount of involvement with music: zero.

One of the common misconceptions is that working at a music store makes you more of a musician than working at a regular business. Whether you work at a music store or at Radio Shack, your tasks aren’t really much different. You are there to sell and provide customer service. There’s no benefit to you as a musician for working at a music store vs a general retailer, except maybe the discounts that you might get. When I worked at the amp manufacturer, it was a business. We might talk about something related to music every blue moon, but for the most part, we were focused on doing our job: manufacturing and getting the product out in time. Music merchant businesses are just as much of a dead end career-wise for performing musicians. Again, if you enjoy the music merchant business, then more power to you. There is nothing wrong with this business, it’s just that some aspiring performing musicians have a misconception that opportunities exist for them there.

Let’s get down to the bottom line. On average, a music store pays much less than a good retail business. From the management end, I made 2x more money as a general manager of a industrial equipment rental dealer versus an offer for an identical position at a corporate run music store. As a far as commissioned sales people, my salespeople were pulling in also 3x more than their counterparts at a well known corporate music store. If you are indifferent to working in a business that deals with guitars, violins, and drums versus a business that pays you better, it’s something to really consider. The bassist at the amp manufacturer didn’t do anything more musical than me during the day, just because he was in the music (merchandising) biz.

This perspective is not to discourage you from working in the music merchant industry if that’s what you enjoy. Some people run these businesses because they enjoy it. When I ran my music retail business, the margins were good, but the volume wasn’t there compared to other types of retail businesses. In other words, you’d better like doing it, because you could do better financially elsewhere. At the end of the day of working at a non-music business, I still aspired to do the same thing as any employee in the music merchant industry; I wanted to perform and make music. The difference is that I could pay the mortgage, have savings, support our family and we still had a decent living while I was pursuing my music career goals.