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The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Making the Switch from Electric to Upright (part 1 of 3)

This is my inaugural installment here at No Treble and I look forward to our impending dialogue.

Here at the Lowdown, I will be focusing on the Upright Bass, in all its glory. Whether you are an Electric bassist looking to add the Upright to your gig bag, or a classically trained musician wanting to expand your sonic palette, this will be the place for you. Future columns will focus on amplification issues, using the bow outside of classical music, slap bass (on Upright, of course), “Alternative styles,” etc., even some classical bass issues might creep in….in short, we will be talking about all things upright. You can help direct this column by emailing your comments and ideas to DrD@notreble.com.

Today we are going to focus on transitioning from Electric bass to the Upright.

More and more, it is expected that bassists are competent on both Electric and Upright bass. Although some players begin their bass study on the Upright and then “find” the Electric later, many more of us begin playing Upright only after having some degree of facility on the Electric. This presents a unique series of circumstances, benefits and problems for the player making the transition. Having myself made the transition, and having taught numerous students in this same situation, I offer here some general tips and suggestions to get you started in the right direction.

Buying an Upright bass

Before you can start learning how to play the thing, you need to have one. Although it should be self-evident, I find that I can’t stress this fact enough. You cannot expect to gain any real facility or competency on an instrument you don’t own or at least have 24-7 access to. You can rent or buy. Renting is OK, buying is better. Commit.

Stay off of ebay for this sort of thing. My general rule of thumb is “Never buy anything you can’t play first.” I also ask my students to bring in any instrument that they are considering for purchase, so I can give it a “once over” for them. Search for specialist shops in your area, and stay away from the big stores that specialize in guitar or band instruments. A reputable luthier shop will let you use the instrument on trial for a short period of time. Person-to-person sales and luthiers are your best bet in this situation. Ask around.

If you don’t have a clue what you are looking for, (I certainly didn’t when I started) see if you can find an Upright teacher in your area to give you some pointers and/or check out the bass you are considering. You should probably be setting up some lessons at this point anyway. The local players and teachers will often have the inside scoop on available basses in your area anyway, so it is always a good idea to enlist their help.

Although an Electric Upright Bass is always an option, and it travels better (this is a future discussion) you will get greater sonic possibilities from a traditional Upright, thereby allowing you to play a wider range of musical styles. Therefore, if you don’t already have some ideas of your own, and if money is a consideration, I suggest a cheap plywood bass to start out with. Besides…you don’t look half as cool standing on your Electric Upright as you do standing on your Upright.

Setup

Now that you have your Upright, it is time to make sure it in optimum playing condition. Although the term “setup” can refer to a large variety of issues, the most important in getting started are probably bridge/string height i.e. action, and fingerboard planing. Get advice from your new teacher on these matters. A well set-up instrument is much more of a joy to play, and a poorly set-up instrument will hold you back. Even if you don’t plan on using the bow onstage make sure the bridge is curved enough so that when a bow is used, you can easily hit only one string. More on why, next month.

Mental Preparation Before You Dive In

The easiest way for you to avoid trouble down the road is to accept, before playing your first notes, that the Upright Bass is actually not that similar to the Electric bass. Although your experience on the Electric will allow you to learn some things very quickly, it will only take you so far, and it can give you a false sense of security. Playing the Upright is quite different from playing the Electric. It is tuned the same… generally… but for all practical purposes, there ends the comparison. No matter how similar it seems to the Electric Bass, an Upright, even an Electric Upright (EUB), is not an Electric Bass Guitar. Because an Electric player can often pump out a line after only a few minutes on an upright, it is a deceptively easy switch to go from Electric to upright. It is however, a deception.

Next: Right hand, left hand, and intonation… oh my!

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

Evan

Evan

Excellent post! I am also going through the switching process, I seriously started upright work about 6 months ago. The bow is an entirely different animal, I didn't realize how much your entire body has to be involved in playing the upright. I look forward to your future articles and advice :-)

Mattsor

Mattsor

The spot about the differences is dead on. I was playing electric for four years before I decided to grab an upright. It made it so I could jump up pretty quick in high school but now that I am in college with it, I am way behind.

Todd Gallagher

This is great, Dr. D.

My phone rings 10 X more for upright gigs than electric gigs – the move to add upright is a no brainer for the gigging bassist.

The move is a big one – support like this is fantastic.

Evan

Evan

Excellent post! I am also going through the switching process, I seriously started upright work about 6 months ago. The bow is an entirely different animal, I didn't realize how much your entire body has to be involved in playing the upright. I look forward to your future articles and advice :-)

Mattsor

Mattsor

The spot about the differences is dead on. I was playing electric for four years before I decided to grab an upright. It made it so I could jump up pretty quick in high school but now that I am in college with it, I am way behind.

Todd Gallagher

This is great, Dr. D.

My phone rings 10 X more for upright gigs than electric gigs – the move to add upright is a no brainer for the gigging bassist.

The move is a big one – support like this is fantastic.

a bass by any other name…

a bass by any other name…

not only is there a “deceptive” ease to first picking up the upright and playing a line like you were on your electric, falling into the trap of playing it like an electric will likely cause major injury to both hands. however, i’ve found playing the upright to be a much more satisfying experience. i don’t have the agility on upright that i have on the electric (yet), but the upright has weight that the electric will never have.