Why Are You Online? … Go And Play

Just putting another perspective on gear addicted bassists (gearheads)

kennyG

Kenny, should I 'Just Say No' to gear talk so that I don't have to accompany cheesy sax music?

I appreciate the hundreds of you that now visit this site daily. Your support is highly appreciated. I’d like to take this time to do a public service announcement: Don’t spend too much time online reading this stuff and importantly don’t get addicted to gear.

There are those that love the gear aspect of music (gearheads), which is not at all uncommon. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there are people who know and focus on gear far more than playing the instrument itself, are usually mediocre bassists at best.

Most of the best musicians that I know usually don’t obsess about equipment and they don’t care about the engineering behind a product. They don’t sit there on forums everyday writing about the difference between Underwood, Realist, Fishman and K&K. They go and try out stuff and when it sounds good, they buy it and they’re done. Equipment to them is the headache part of trying to get a good sound. There are only so many hours in a day and if someone is spending hours each day on the internet talking about gear, then that’s hours less they spent actually playing.

If your going to converse with other bassists online, your time would be spent better talking about anything else that actually addresses being a better bassist. You’ve gotta question the motives of someone who is always online posting about products (and plug their store). Of course the music retailers would love to perpetuate your addiction to gear by keeping you talking and thinking about gear; they want to keep the money rolling in.

Thinking about ways of playing better is far cheaper.

Advertisements

Upright Bassists Playing Bass Guitar

In a previous post, I mentioned that it’s not easy to double both on the upright bass and bass guitar. It’s not that it cannot be done, but one of the biggest hurdles is that upright bass fingering is basically a three finger method (excluding thumb position) 1, 2, 3+/-4 vs bass guitar 1,2,3,4 which is the guitar method of one finger per semi-tone/half step. My brain and fingers are just wired to think the upright bass way.

There are phenomenal bassists like John Patitucci who use each method on each respective bass, but then again he’s been known to be disciplined enough to practice some insane number of hours on each type of bass per day. I don’t have the time or commitment to practice hours on each bass. I put what time I have into one bass; the upright bass.

Nowadays when I do any bass guitar work, I use the upright bass fingering mentality on the bass guitar. I wasn’t too sure what other upright bassists did, but seeing Christian McBride here and Bromberg in the past, it makes me think that maybe this really is the most logical thing to do for upright bassists that double on both types of basses. There is still the problem that if you play bass guitar regularly enough this way and aren’t 100% confident in your muscle memory for intonation on the upright bass, it could throw off your intonation somewhat.

How to Make a Living (Part 2)

kennyG

Kenny, should I take that second job instead of endpin into foot?

Where is the money at for most upright bassists? It is in weddings, clubs, and concerts; it is in entertainment. One of my friends/drummers gigs at clubs, the fortunate part is that he enjoys playing pop songs. Because of this, he gets the best of both worlds; good pay and frequent gigs. For others, playing pop songs and Kenny G’s top 20 is more painful than taking off your crutch tip off of your upright bass and driving your sharpened endpin tip into your foot.

It’s not easy to be a performing musician. Some people are fortunate to get paid well frequently performing the music that they like. As you get more artistic and creative with your music, the harder it is to get wide acceptance, which means it’s harder make a living. Most avant-garde musicians will starve without supplementing their income through other means. I’ve seen this too often sadly: Highly talented and creative musicians who have a lot to offer, but don’t make enough money to even support themselves. The toughest part is that the financial strain makes it almost impossible to be fully free and creative.

This is not to discourage you future upright bassists from pursuing music. On the contrary, I want you to thrive and be successful. If you can play pop tunes and Kenny G, all the while go an be creative, then you should be set in the future. On the otherhand, if playing those gigs will cause you to burn out as a bassist altogether, consider harnessing some skills in another field, and for students this means picking up a minor with your degree.

Most musicians do have second jobs, but they just don’t mention it because there’s some stigma about it. There’s a quote out there, “Being a starving musician is romantic when you’re young, but it’s depressing as you get older”. If you’re going to get a second job, at least empower yourself to have options and get paid well for doing it. From firsthand experience, my additional business education in addition to my music degree has created the opportunity for me both make a decent living and still be fully creative doing gigs in the evenings and weekends. Even when I was gradually getting burnt out doing pop songs to pay the bills, I was only playing evenings and weekends anyhow, but now I get to choose what I want to do.

New Sections

Two new sections have been added to uprightbass.com. Up above, you will see the Nominate an Upright Bassist tab and the Classifieds tab.

Nominate an Upright Bassist

Since Upright Bass spans so many different genres, this is a way for us to exchange some information about what bassists are out there helping us advance the upright bass further.

Classifieds

Self explanitory. Post upright bass related stuff for sale or a hard sought item that you are looking for.

The Future of the Upright Bass

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.

Harry_Kim_and_the_Kim_Tones

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.

Now What?

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.

An Upright Bassist at Guitar Center

The Guitar Center is as commercial and corporate as you can ever make a music shop. The purpose of Guitar Center is to make money and profit, the same way any other corporate retailer makes their decisions. At one point, Guitar Center was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, If it sells and makes money, it gets space, if it doesn’t it gets discontinued.

spotlightA few days ago I needed a new instrument cable, so I figured I’d pay GC a visit since it’s the closest music store with decent quality 1/4″ cables.  I hadn’t been there for many years and somethings never change “Guitar line 1, pro audio line 2, etc..” over the loud speaker. What is different is the fact that now the Synth/Electronics/Keyboard section is larger and the bass guitar section is much smaller.

Decline in Bass Guitar Sales

I remembered when I used to walk into the local Guitar Center back in the late 80’s, there were guitars and there were bass guitars. Synths/Electronics/Keyboard was a small room.

They (the all knowing product peddlers) educated me on the fact that “everyone” is doing computer/electronic based music now. They even demo’ed the latest sound module with all the bass guitar sound you could ever want in one box. Before you guys start hurling your neon green bass guitars at me like Bobby Dall at his fellow Poison bandmate, I’m just the messenger. I agree with them that Popular music (including rock) has been moving towards synth bass and bass patches. “This new generation of teens are crazy about technology, so they aren’t flocking to the bass guitar like they used to”, “For pros, gigs don’t pay much and people expect to pay $1 a song, and you’re lucky to sell 1000 of them a year, so musicians don’t want to pay a bass player”, says the painted and pierced life size vodoo doll behind the counter. He says that the only thriving genre of music that still demands a real bass guitar is country music.

The Upright Bass in the Corner

Guitar Center does sell electric upright basses. While I was inspecting it, another helpful and knowledgeable peddler comes to assist me.

“You’ve been helped?” he asks me.
“I’m curious about this upright bass” I reply
“Yeah everyone coming in tries to play it”
“You sell a lot of these?”
“Sure, but they keep bringing it back because they can’t figure out how to play it, that’s the great thing about our return policy. You want to try it?”
I play a few bars of On Green Dolphin St. “It needs to be set up and adjusted” I answer
“Honestly, no one knows anything about that thing here. You’re the first person I’ve seen who actually can play it…”

So the conversation continues and the gist of it is that people like it, but no one knows how to play it. Bass guitarists are often self taught; tackling something fretless and with a string length too wide for one finger per semitone, they just give up. A lot of bass guitar players like the novelty of the upright bass, but aren’t willing to commit time and money to learn to play it. The sales guy says that he’s a fretless bass guitar player and that most guys that walk in want instant gratification, “frets make life easier because you don’t have to develop your pitch”.  “You buy it (a bass guitar) and you’re playing in a band by the end of the week.

He rings me up for the instrument cable, “You need any strings or anything else? We have a good deal on amps, today only, plus I can do 0% interest for 90 days.  You know, I think we have a special on it and I can talk down my manager on the price of that upright if you buy it right now”.

Now I’m starting to remember why I haven’t been back in years.

Do NOT Play Like This

There are videos that make me cringe. This one doesn’t make me cringe the way Jackass did, but it’s just as wrenching. On this guy’s bio, he mentions that he’s been teaching for 25 years and specializes in upright. Since there are quite a few hits on this video, I’ve got to step in before people start copying what he’s demonstrating.

Be careful who you are learning from. Just because they’ve been teaching for a while and charge for lessons doesn’t make them a good teacher. If you’re going to pay your hard earned money for lessons ask the important questions: Who taught you to play the upright bass? Did you go to school to learn the upright bass? Do you have a degree in music? What else do you teach (if they start naming more than a couple of instruments, run!). Also, ask them to play the upright bass for you.

This guy must be a guitar player. Some pointers: Wrist is cocked severely  and fingers are flat. His hand looks as tense as a cat about to jump into a tree. The guy must be using all palm muscles to press the string down. You’ll either develop joint problems and/or have a weak tone this way. If I had to play that way, I would have given up the upright bass a long time ago.

Remember it takes longer to correct a bad habit than to start out right. For the love of God, do not follow this guy’s technique.

Again, for those of you skimming through the text:

DO NOT PLAY LIKE THIS!!!

And before teaching, at least reach the intermediate level… Stop looking at the fingerboard (staring at it like that, you’re giving it the creeps), get at least within ballpark range of the right pitch and don’t make arco on the upright bass sound like you’re sawing a cat. If you’re going to instruct people to do something, you should demonstrate yourself doing it successfully. What’s the point of this One Finger (I count two since he is pressing with both fingers next to each other ) Shifting Exercise?

Again, for those of you who need to improve on your reading comprehension:

DO NOT PLAY LIKE THIS!!!