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.

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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!!!

Careers: Music School

Why do people get a music degree? Most aspiring musicians want to understand music better. How does it work? Why does it work? How did music evolve? We want to know the inner workings of music. Most of you have noticed that all pop music follows the same formula. Same chord progressions and same meters. You don’t need to go to music school to play popular music nor do you need to know how and why it works. Pop music is entertainment rather than art. It’s purpose is to become popular and make money. Ever notice that most pop “music artists” are one trick ponies and they borrow the same “ideas” from each other? More importantly, notice how many pop musicians are on welfare?

Do you need a music degree to become a musician?

You do not need a music degree to become a musician. There are many musicians that do fine without a music degree. The curriculum in music school will create the structure to learn things that a musician may not otherwise learn on their own. It will greatly enhance you as a musician and bassist. You will understand how music works and why. You learn about the Greats and what made them so great. It gives you ideas and opens up the musical universe for you. Without the education, you’re the guy at the telescope slowly finding and discovering things that have already been discovered centuries ago and already covered in astronomy 101.

Don’t Brag About Dropping Out Of School or Intending to Go

I’ve seen the bios of some bass players on the Internet and they would mention things such as “I attended music school” or “I intended to get a music degree”. “Attended music school” or “was a music major” is not the same as graduating with a music degree. I really don’t know why people think this fact is worth mentioning when they talk about themselves as musicians. Frankly, I think that some people use this as some sort of credibility thing, but to music graduates it shows insecurity. It’s okay if you didn’t go and are a fantastic musician, but it is actually better not to mention it at all.

Choosing A School

If you’re looking into choosing a music school right now, I would highly, highly recommend choosing one that is at an accredited university. That bachelors degree is still a bachelors degree at a university no matter where life takes you career-wise. It will open doors for a good paying job or more pay at a job as you begin your pursuit in your music career. A “degree” or “certificate” from an unaccredited “college” or “institute” puts you in the same category as someone who only graduated high school, by most employers. If you later choose to get a Masters or Ph.D in music, it will have to be from an accredited university if you want to attend an accredited university for that graduate degree.

How to Make a Living (Part 1)

In my final semester as an undergrad, there was a mix of emotions. I was thrilled that I achieved my goal; I’ve completed the curriculum and was finally getting my Bachelors in Music as an Upright Bassist. It’s a fantastic goal for me since 90% of entering music students at most universities do not graduate. I also remembered that I was faced with the reality that I would need to start my career and make a living.

Years later, I never once ever regretted pursuing music and getting my bachelors in it. The wealth of skill, knowledge, and history in music that you get from immersing yourself all day, every day for 4-5 years is something that will serve you for a lifetime. I knew that if I didn’t, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. Even as my career deviated from music for certain years, the degree and the experience that came with it was always fond to me.

As great of a program that California State University, Long Beach’s (Bob Cole Conservatory of Music) program was, it’s just like any other liberal arts program; they develop you into an employable musician, but it’s up to you to create your career. Here’s where some of my fellow students and acquaintances that were bassists (upright and/or bass guitar) have landed. Each will be covered in future parts of this series.
  1. Performing Musician
  2. Music Educator
  3. Music Business
  4. Non-Music Related Fields
Many do not limit themselves to one of these career fields exclusively.

Gearheads: Let’s Care More About "Something More Human"

What type of bass do you play? Do you know what the best amp out there is? What’s the best mic for live vs studio? Carbon fiber vs pernambuco bow. What’s better, the Realist, Fishman, Underwood, or …?

It’s good to know how to get a good sound out there, but we shouldn’t spent time on things that are not perceivable to the audience. My wife is not a musician, but she appreciates music and attends concerts with me. I can spend a ton of money on gear and she couldn’t tell the difference. She can however, easily spot a good musician or performance from a mediocre or bad one.

At a certain point, are we taking away from developing as a musician by spending time studying up and talking about gear? As a whole, we’re not as bad as guitarists by a long shot, but we do get caught up in all of that “stuff”. But at the end of the day, we don’t want to be gearheads. How many us know guitarists that talk all day about guitars, but have thought to ourselves, “if you knew as much about music as you do about gear, you’d be the Yo-Yo Ma of guitar.” To add more flavor to that analogy, here’s a past article about Yo-Yo Ma’s perspective on his highly coveted $2.5 Million US Dollar cello.

Even while Yo-Yo Ma is playing on a grand and majestic Italian cello, worth
millions and with a distinguished pedigree, secretly he is hoping you won’t
notice it at all. “My personal goal is to transcend the instrument,” he says, so
that when you listen, it’s about the music.

Of course, if you do want to transcend your instrument, it helps to have
access to a really, really good one. Or two. When Ma tears into the Lalo Cello
Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood this afternoon, he’ll
be playing on a cello made in 1733 by the Venetian master luthier Domenico
Montagnana that is valued at about $2.5 million. He also performs on the
so-called Davidoff Stradivarius. Named for a former owner, it was also played by
the legendary British cellist Jacqueline du Pre (the instrument is now owned by
a group of investors; the Montagnana belongs to Ma). He calls the Strad
“innately gorgeous,” with an extremely refined sound, but says it is not as
forceful or versatile as the Montagnana, which he can use for rough-and-tumble
modern works as well as pieces from the standard cello repertoire. “You can ask
a lot of it and it keeps giving,” Ma says.

The Montagnana’s secret weapon is its powerhouse C string, the
lowest-pitched of the instrument’s four strings. Its sound and color are what
attracted Ma to begin with. He grew up with two violinists and a soprano in his
family, so he was “heavily into hearing treble,” he says. Ma chose the
Montagnana in the 1980s precisely because its strength was its bass.
But Ma
doesn’t get mystical about this cello, or speak, as some musicians do, about the
instrument as an extension of his soul. “It’s an object – a great object, an
artistic object – that you build a relationship with,” he says, “but if you’re
going to care about something, I want to care about something that’s
human.”

That said, a bit more fetishizing of his instrument might have come in
handy that infamous fall day in 1999 when Ma stepped out of a taxi on 55th
Street in Manhattan and left the Montagnana in the car’s trunk. Some three hours
later, after much hand-wringing and an intensive search effort that involved the
New York City Police Department, the cello was safely recovered in Queens – in
the trunk of the taxi. “I was just really absent-minded that day,” Ma says. “The
sad thing is that when my daughter loses something, and I look at her and say,
‘You can’t do that,’ she looks at me and says, ‘I come by it honestly.’ And
there’s very little I can say!”

Boston Globe 8/3/2008

The String Emporium

Trying to navigate my way around in a rental car in Phoenix, Arizona after a long morning at a business meeting and being baked by the sun on a 100+ degree day, I muttered on the phone “I’m looking for a vintage bass, Steve”. Boy, did I deserve the ribbing for that one later in our meeting. I arrive and am greeted by Steve Koscica at The String Emporium (not to be confused with Bass Emporium). I will have to say that this has to be one of the better experiences in shopping for an upright bass.

For those not already familiar with The String Emporium, it is owned and run by Steve Koscica who is a long time Phoenix Symphony bassist by profession who runs a great upright bass merchant business on the side. Don’t let the side business aspect mislead you, Steve has a very impressive inventory of upright basses that rivals any other upright bass shop. The fact that he’s a highly talented and skilled professional is a very important thing, because this means that he assesses the basses that he adds to the collection as a player, not as a sales person. It’s kind of like taking a test drive with cars from a formula 1 driver’s garage, rather than visiting Bob the used car sales guy.

I’ve been looking for a road warrior upright bass for jazz, versus my $20k bass which was ideal for arco/orchestral when I was in undergrad, but just didn’t have the jazz sound that I was looking for. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to spend that much on an upright bass, since gigging with an upright usually means that the bass will be knocked an bumped even with the best of care. I started looking for an upright bass in the $7,500 to $10,000 price range, since that’s about the entry point that I’ve been seeing for quality instruments. Basses like all things in economics have a point of diminishing return. For a jazz upright bass, my perception is that it is at the $10,000 point where you’re pay more but netting less for each dollar.

When I arrive, Steve already has about a dozen upright basses in a room preselected from his inventory based on the basses that I mentioned I was interested in. I’ve been to the big name shops and this level of attention and service was unique. Even when I was shopping for a much more expensive upright bass in the past, I didn’t get this level of attention. Steve introduced me to the basses let me settle in and checked in periodically to make sure that I was doing fine. After narrowing down the basses that I considered buying down to three, here’s where Steve was completely patient and gave me the attention I needed to select the right bass for me. He’d play the basses for me so that I could hear how they sounded at a distance. He also a personable guy; we chatted about bass, life, careers, education, etc. After he got to know me better an where I am as a bassist, we were joking and ribbing each other. He knows his instruments and he doesn’t B.S. about the basses. I asked him which bass on the list was the nice German bass that I tried, and on his list it was listed as “Nice German Bass ….”.

Steve’s inventory is a mix of nicer Chinese upright basses through renowned basses from the 18th century. What I found unique about Steve’s inventory was that he carried a very good selection of basses in the entry level range. Some of these may not catch the eye or be of interest to collectors, but they played and sounded like a more expensive bass to the ear and are healthy basses. I’d encourage anyone who is on a tight budget to take advantage of these basses. I appreciate the fact that he’ll not only show pristine basses, but workhorses too. Steve was honest in his evaluations on the basses, if it had a new back or anything not original, he would say so. If the bass was of unknown origins and ambiguous, he would tell me his opinion, but wouldn’t swear by it as if it was the law. Lets face it, a lot of appraisals of unlabeled basses are just guesses on paper that were written to inflate a price on a bass. His prices are fair, which says a lot since a lot of dealer’s prices are outrageously high. Don’t think of it as fair compared to other shops, because his prices are better than others out there. Think of it as in fair, in value to monetary terms, so every time you pick up a bass your financial brain would say, “I like that bass and the price is good”. There were also a few basses that were impressive deals. There weren’t any prices on any bass that I thought was a ripoff. Straight-forward and priced competitive.

Choosing between the last three was a grind, but Steve endured through with me. It took a few more hours from selecting the three to finally choosing one. Most of his basses had orchestral strings, so I wasn’t 100% sure which one I would like better, so he did the favor of switching strings on the upright basses to Spirocores for me. After listening to them, playing them, listening to them with the Spiros, one stood out very clearly to be my jazz/experimental music bass. There’s a level of service there that can’t be beat. I felt like a fellow bassist with Steve, rather than a customer. Let’s face it, some of those upright bass shops make you feel like you’ve stepped into a used car lot, but not here. Steve has had customers of so many bassists of different levels and backgrounds, which he accommodates. It’s worth the trip there and you’ll feel comfortable at any level as a bassist. No snobbery there, except the ribbing about me calling old basses vintage ;-). For more information, see their website at www.stringemporium.com/basscafe.htm

Bass Solos – Not a Filibuster

“Two people go to a marriage guidance counsellor. He tries to work with them, but they absolutely refuse to talk about anything in front of each other. The counsellor gets fed up, gets

his bass out and starts playing it. The couple get angry at him for wasting their time, then they start shouting at each other, and pretty soon a lot of their problems are out in the open. The counsellor can then get them to address these issues. At the end of the session, the couple thank him for a stunningly good session, and ask “So where does the bass come in?” “Ah”, says the counsellor, “people always talk during a bass solo.”

—————

I remember this hearing this old joke on several occasions over the years, and while it’s a joke, there is some truth to it. If people are not enjoying bass solos, then we either need to stop doing it or do it right.

In our U.S. Congress, if a minority party wants to tie up an impending passage of a bill, they will “filibuster”, which is to have members stand at the podium and ramble about anything that comes to mind for hours and days to stall for time. There really is no relevance or purpose for the speech, since its only purpose is to fill time.

Like congressional filibusters, a lot of bassists play random, nonsensical pitches to fill up the 16 bars that are designated for bass solos. They play a lot of chromatics, a bunch of 16th notes, slide up and down the fingerboard and play variety of scales. Let’s face it; who wants to hear that? Other instruments play melodic line during their solos; they quote, they phrase, and they make their instruments sing, yet when it’s our turn bassists filibuster. There is a place for everything, so I wouldn’t say to completely take those elements out of your solo if they are relevant, but relevance is the key determinant.

Next time you think about bass solos, think about how your audience is reacting to your solos versus their reaction to good solos on other instruments. Are they connecting with you and intently enjoying your solo, or do they look lost or bored. Listen to recording of your own solos and evaluate yourself. Listening to yourself is hard for a many musicians, but if you can’t listen to yourself, why should anyone else listen to you. Listen to solo on other instruments by musicians that you like and think about why you like them.

By improving your solo, you will improve people’s perception of you as a bassist. You will know that you are doing it right when some random stranger walks up to you after a gig and tell you how they enjoyed your solo. Other instrumentalists have enjoyed that compliment, so should you.