Switching From Electric to Upright Bass
When I am walking around town carrying my upright bass, I frequently hear comments from electric bass players that they would like to switch to upright bass or add this instrument to their arsenal of bass sounds. This is understandable because it produces a different sound from electric bass that is desirable for many styles of music. In addition, it has a classy, iconic appearance.
When I first took the plunge from electric to upright bass, I didn't know most of what is presented here. I learned many of these things the hard way. This article will help you to understand some important factors when choosing an upright bass, as well as give you some idea of what is involved in taking care of and playing your bass.
Finding The Right Instrument for You
There are many things to consider when looking for a bass. Among them are appearance, size, playability and price.
When it comes to appearance, this is very subjective. Some people prefer a beat-up instrument with a lot of character while others prefer an instrument that appears newer. Whatever appeals to you is fine.
Upright basses are sized 1/4, 1/2 3/4, 7/8 and 4/4. 3/4 (Pronounced three-four) instruments are typical or average size. 1/4 and 1/2 are smaller than average. 7/8 is an instrument that is slightly larger than average and a 4/4 instrument is very large. Beginning upright bass players should stick to 3/4 instruments. Children or small adults may need a smaller sized instrument. The vast majority of instruments you will encounter are 3/4 or 7/8.
Upright basses are generally more expensive that electric basses. When considering cost, take into account the purchase price, cost of any needed set-up work and cost of repair work if you buy a lower quality instrument. It may be less expensive to buy a properly set-up, descent quality instrument than to buy a cheaper instrument and then find out down the road that you need to spend more on set-up and repairs.
Buying a used, low priced upright bass might be compared to buying a used, low priced car. It probably needs some work. This can also be true of a new, low priced bass. Knowing what to look for and checking it out thoroughly would be wise. The more information you have, the better equipped you will be to assess basses.
There are two main classes of basses: those with carved tops and those with laminated tops. Carved tops are made from a solid piece of wood, usually spruce, carved into shape. Laminated tops are made from thin plys of wood that has been glued together in a sandwich to make one piece of wood. Basses with laminated tops do not have the same richness of sound as carved top basses, but they are generally less expensive and more durable. For many styles of music, a laminated top bass is "the sound". Laminated top basses are a great choice for beginning upright bass players who are concerned with cost.
What is set-up and why is it important? Set-up refers to the adjustment of wood parts on the upright bass to position the strings properly over the fingerboard as well as adjustments to maximize sound quality and volume. On an electric bass, with some knowledge, it is possible for the player to perform most basic adjustment and maintenance on the instrument themselves by turning screws. This is generally not true on the upright bass. Most set-up adjustments on an upright bass involve cutting wood. These adjustments are best made by a skilled craftsman.
A properly set-up bass will make or break your bass playing experience. An improperly set-up bass can be almost impossible to play.
New, low priced instruments are usually shipped from the factory without detailed set-up work being done. This is not because the people at the factory are lazy or trying to cut corners, it is because they don't know your preference. Since setting up the bass normally involves removing wood from the nut, bridge and fingerboard, the instrument leaves the factory with more "extra wood" than anyone is going to want. This results in a high nut, a high bridge and a fingerboard that is not straight.
If you are buying a used bass, thoroughly inspect the bass. Better yet, get the bass inspected by an experience bass repair-person before buying it. It would be safer to assume a used instrument needs set-up work.
Here are the major components that might need set-up work:
The bridge needs to fit the bass such that when it is positioned correctly, the strings are positioned correctly over the fingerboard and at the proper height. The feet of the bridge should be shaped so that they fit the contour of the top of the bass. The center of the bridge should be positioned with the directly between the notches on the f-holes. F-holes are the holes, shaped like the letter F, on the top of the bass.
Some upright bass bridges have height adjusters. This allows the player to adjust the height of the bridge. I would recommend that a beginning upright bass player have a bridge with adjusters. If the bridge is too low, it will limit the sound of the instrument, but it will make it easier to play. As the beginning upright bass player progresses and understands this limitation, the bridge can be gradually raised.
For best playability and sound, the fingerboard should be properly shaped. It should be generally flat, but allow for the strings to vibrate. Instruments straight from the factory will most likely need to have the fingerboard shaped by a skilled luthier. Older instruments may need to have the fingerboard re-shaped. If there is an adequate amount of wood remaining, this can be done in a manner similar to new instruments. The fingerboard on an upright bass is a solid slab of wood that holds its shape. Unlike the electric bass, there is no truss rod. Once the fingerboard is properly shaped, it should not need any set-up for many years.
The nut is the small grooved piece of wood that holds the strings in place over the fingerboard at the end of the strings closest to the tuners. When the bass is held in playing position it is near the top of the instrument. The nut should be adjusted such that the strings are held in the proper position and height over the finger board. If it is too low, the stings may rattle against the fingerboard when they are played. If it is too high, the bass will have a tight feeling and the strings will be hard to push down anywhere on the finger board. The shape of the groove should match the shape of the string. If it is too narrow, the strings may not move freely through the nut. This one's not really rocket science, but it needs to be correctly done.
The sound post is a wooden post inside the bass that transmits sound from the piece of wood that makes up the top of the bass to the back. It also provides the important function of keeping the pressure from the stings from pushing the top down. The top of the bass is not really strong enough to support the strings. Without the sound post, the top will sink. You can look through either of the f-holes for the sound post. If you don't see one, there is something wrong with the bass you are looking at. On rare occasions, the sound post can be knocked out and be rattling around in the bottom of the bass. The position that the sound post is placed at changes the overall sound of the bass. They can move over time.
The bass bar is a solid piece of wood attached to the underside of the top. It extends most of the length of the top. It provides rigidity to the top. It is on the opposite side of the top as the sound post. If the bass bar has detached from the top, the top may have a sunken spot where the bar has detached. This is rare, but it does happen.
Differences and Similarities
The electric bass is a member of the guitar family. The upright bass is a member of the violin family. From this basic fact come some differences and similarities.
The strings of a standard upright and standard electric bass are tuned the same. Starting from the lowest string, they are E, A, D and G. Hey, you already know something about this new instrument. All the notes are in the same place on these two basses. There are 5-string upright basses and basses with an extender on the lowest string that goes down to a C note, but we will stick with the standard four string bass in standard tuning for now.
String length refers to the part of the string that vibrates when a note is played. It extends from the bridge to the nut. On an electric bass the string length of standard instruments such as the Fender Precision Bass is from 30 to 34 inches. On a typical upright bass, the string length is from 42 to 44 inches. As a result, the distance between two notes on the upright bass is greater than the electric bass.
On the upright bass, the ring finger is not used in the lower register. Due to biology, this finger lacks strength and it is more difficult to control independently. That fact combined with the longer string length of the upright bass, make it difficult to use this finger in the lower register.
On the electric bass, players typically use one finger per fret. Starting on the A on the G string, you would play A with your index finger, A# with your middle finger, B with your ring finger and C with your pinky. To play the same four notes, you would need to shift your hand by one position.
Electric bass players will need to adjust their playing.
Care of you upright bass
Upright basses are less durable than electric basses. They should not be stored in a place that has rapid temperature changes or is too hot. Never store your bass in your car during the summer. The glue that holds a bass together will soften at a relatively low temperature. Parts of your bass could come apart if you leave it in a hot car.
You will need to have a place to store your upright bass when you are not using it.
Transporting your bass
You probably won't be able to transport your bass in a sub-compact. If you plan on taking your bass out for lessons or gigs, you will need a vehicle that can transport it.
There should not be pressure on the neck of the bass while it is being transported. A shock to the neck of the bass can cause it to break. I know this by experience. Imagine my surprise when I took my bass out of my car and found the bridge had fallen out. When I tried to replace the bridge, I realized that the neck of my bass had completely broken off! In particular, on a bass that has a weak neck joint, a blow from the side of the neck can break it off.
Playing upright bass
It would be a good idea to get some lessons from a qualified teacher who teaches the style of music you are interested in. This is especially important when you first start out.
Playing In Tune
One of the main differences between electric and upright bass is that the upright bass does not have frets. Frets are the metal bars across the fingerboard that allow you to play a note in tune. As long as your finger is behind the appropriate fret, and assuming the string is in tune, the note you fret will be in tune.
The upright bass does not have frets. This means that you have to put your finger in the correct location on the fingerboard in order to produce the correct pitch on the upright bass. If you move your finger a little bit either up or down the finger board, the note will be a little bit out of tune. One of the most challenging aspects of playing upright bass, is playing in tune. Every professional upright bass player I have ever discussed this with agrees that playing in tune is an ongoing effort. It is something that upright bass players practice continuously.
This is a big part of the sound of the upright bass. Although it may be challenging initially, there is much more expression in your ability to control the pitch of the note. When playing upright bass you are more involved in producing the sound of the note from the string. Once you get good at this, your electric bass playing will be much more expressive with this new ability. You may not be aware of it, but where you put your finger on the electric bass has a profound effect on the sound of the note. Playing upright bass will make you aware of this effect.
Compared to fretless electric bass, upright bass is easier to play in tune. The sound of upright bass is a little more forgiving of intonation problems. Also, there are more physical reference points on the upright bass that then fretless electric bass.
Without amplification, the upright bass is not very loud. There are performances where upright bass can be played without amplification, but they are few and far between. My guess is that if you are transitioning from electric bass to upright bass, you will want to amplify your bass. Players usually use a small combo amp and one of several pick-ups that are available. It is not possible to play upright bass at the same volume level as an electric bass because feedback will become a problem at lower volumes. Just like electric bass, there are many options for pick-ups, strings and amplifiers that affect your sound.
You won't regret the switch from electric bass to upright bass. Upright bass will open you up to the possibilities on new sounds and expression. It will make you a better electric bass player.
Don't let anything you read in this article keep you from starting on upright bass. I whole-heartedly encourage you to. Just know what you are getting into and plan accordingly.