O N BASS
Electric Bass, Upright Sound
A few years ago I was walking downtown to
an outdoor concert by a local blues band.
As I got closer, the sound of an upright
bass wafted through the sultry evening air.
I picked up my pace, eager to see who was
playing such a great sounding doghouse.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived and
didn’t see the big girl, but instead an electric bass played very convincingly. How
can you do that? I suggest three ways that
combine for a total effect.
Way #1: Think Fake!
The first key to faux upright is to think
upright. If you’re already an upright bass
player, you have a leg up on the whole
deal. But if not, listen to some recordings of
upright bass and you’ll notice:
1. Fewer notes are used to get the job done.
2. Each note carries more meaning when
it’s played on upright.
3. Notes bloom from a slower, rounder attack.
quickly than on an electric bass.
With these four elements of the upright
sound in mind, you’re ready for Way #2.
Way #2: Play Fake!
Both left- and right-hand playing technique
can help you fake that upright sound. For the
right hand, you have two choices: palm muting or playing close to the neck. Palm muting
produces a round attack with a darker tone,
with quick decay… great for slower tunes or
ones based mostly on quarter notes. Your
mental image of the upright sound will be
helpful in fine-tuning your sound.
Palm muting technique helps fake an upright sound.
bridge for a bright sound with a nice bite to
attack and a deeper sound. Be sure not to
pluck the strings too hard when you try this.
Combine this trick with a bit of help from
your left hand to control a note’s duration. To
do this, damp the note after the initial attack
by raising your finger off the fingerboard.
You can enhance your EQ trickery at the amp
by bumping the low mids (around 100 Hz)
while reducing the upper mids (1kHz) and
highs. You don’t need a huge fundamental,
but the tone should be smooth and thick
heavy dose of a limiter or compressor to
knock down the front edge of the note and
then let it swell up as it releases.
higher on a fatter string. For example, play a
B-flat on the sixth fret of the E string, instead
of the first fret of the A string—you’ll have a
fatter sound with more emphasis on the fundamental and less of the upper harmonics.
The technique for palm muting involves
resting the heel of your palm gently on the
strings close to the bridge while plucking the
strings with the fat part of your thumb. Both
the amount of pressure on top of the strings
and where you rest your hand make a difference, too. Experiment a bit until you find
what you’re after.
Playing closer to the neck—or even over the
fingerboard—can produce a different sound
from your usual two-finger technique. If you
play fingerstyle funk, you pluck closer to the
Way #3: Process the Fake!
sound out of a fretted electric bass comes
from a combination of mindset and playing
technique—that gets you eighty percent
of the way to your goal. To push the faux-upright effect a bit further, do a little electronic tweaking of the sonic qualities. The
most simple of these is to roll off the tone
control of your electric bass at least half way
to eliminate finger noise and high frequencies
that give away your upright ruse.
Off to the Woodshed!
So there you have it: three ways to fake a
big, thumpy upright bass if the need arises.
if you’re trying to get a bowed sound or
develop that growly, modern upright jazz
style, these tips won’t get you there. And of
the three ways, I’d have to say that the mental image of an upright bass is most crucial.
If you have that part worked out, the playing
technique will follow.
Dan is a professor by day and a bass player when the sun
goes down. He plays both electric and upright bass in
blues, jazz and pit settings.