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The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Making the Switch from Electric to Upright (part 2 of 3)

Last time we talked about some of the general concepts involved in making the switch from Electric to Upright Bass. It’s a fairly big subject, so we are going to continue down this road for the next several installments.

As I mentioned last time, an accomplished Electric player can often pump out a line on an Upright after only a few minutes, giving them a false sense of security and accomplishment. Although Electric skills are a definite advantage, they can’t be applied “lock, stock and barrel” to the Upright. Some of the basic components of playing the instruments are just too dissimilar.

For example, whereas holding an Electric bass is a fairly straightforward procedure, holding the Upright bass is a major issue that Electric players are not prepared for. The seemingly simple issue of “bass stance” is, in fact, the subject of a great many pontifications, and (believe it or not) one of the great pedagogical questions of our instrument. We won’t get into it today, but entire “schools” of playing are built around this subject. There are also issues of string spacing, action, string gauges, the shape of the fingerboard and neck, the lack of frets… need I go on?

Let’s get specific:

The Right Hand

There are a number of different approaches to right hand technique on the Upright. Your Electric skills will get you started, but remember it will require more physical force to get the best sound out of an Upright. Much more than on the Electric, you are now trying to get the entire instrument to resonate, as much as possible. You want the entire bass to vibrate.

This is not only true if you are playing acoustically, but also if you are amplified. If you are using a standard pickup or a microphone, you will get your best sound through the speakers when you are getting your best sound acoustically.

Many different players have many different approaches to right hand technique, and my suggestion is for you to be as varied as possible in your approach. Master one approach, then move on to another. The more varied your right hand approach, the wider your sonic palette will be, and the more able you will be to fully express yourself musically.

If you are playing jazz, or just want a good “fat” sound, you will need to expand your right hand technique. You will need both an Electric-based fingertip approach, as well as a “meatier” technique, which utilizes the side of the finger.

For the basics of this side-of-the-finger approach, you can always watch videos of recognized masters of the instrument, like Ray Brown, but a little specific instruction will go a long way. As always, one-to-one instruction from a dedicated, experienced and thoughtful teacher is always best. However, there are vast resources out there for self-study. My own offerings will be available in January, 2010.

In the meantime, a great starter, is the DVD companion to Rufus Reid’s Evolving Bassist, which addresses the fundamental components of getting a good sound on the Upright. In general, use the weight of your arm instead of your muscular strength. Use gravity and momentum to get the string, and wood, moving. I highly recommend that you get the extra force needed to pull the best tone out of your bass by using the “dead weight” of your right arm. A mantra that will serve you greatly when taming your technique on this 6-foot beast is this: Avoid unneeded muscular effort.

Don’t be afraid to keep it simple, especially at first, even if you are already an accomplished musician. As an Upright player, you are still a baby and your body will respond more slowly than your brain. Once you intellectually understand a concept, you will still need a great deal of physical repetition to get it “in your bones,” and in your muscles. Only then can you rely on your technique, which is the entire point isn’t it?

When there are technical problems, even at advanced levels of playing, they always revolve around the fundamentals. Get those solid now, and you won’t have to go back later. Keep it simple, especially when you are learning a new physical movement. For tone production (right hand) I advocate open strings, everyday, not just now, but forever. I still play them myself, everyday.

Unless you plan on exploring the world of the bow (and I hope that you do!) your right hand is the least of your problems, and, coming from Electric bass, the easiest to assimilate and expand. In many ways you will have an edge over new starters and classical players in this arena. As for the bow: that’s another issue entirely, and we will get into that later.

Next: Left Hand