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.

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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.

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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.