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Dr. D. Mailbag: Electric to Upright, Upright Reinforcement & EUB’s

This week, I am going to answer some recent questions I received via Facebook and email.

Can you give advice about learning the fretless bass or upright bass while you can only play a fretted one, as there’s a load of challenging intonation problems in the absence of frets?

Speaking strictly about the upright bass, I believe your question arises from a fallacious premise. The premise being that you can improve your upright bass intonation by playing on an electric bass, fretted or otherwise. It has been my experience that this approach is not effective, not even a little bit. Even if you were able to improve your intonation on upright bass by playing solely on a electric bass, it would necessarily be extremely slow, difficult, and full of setbacks. The entire process would be incredibly inefficient.

There are significant differences between the upright bass and the electric. Many of these differences have a great effect upon our quest for accurate intonation. String length is the most obvious of issues. The most common string length on an upright bass is around 41.5 inches. Compare that with the standard 34 or 36 in string length of electric basses and you can begin to comprehend the issue. I suggest my three part series, “Getting started: Making the Switch from Electric to Upright” (part 1, part 2 and part 3) as further reading on the subject.

My advice is to obtain an upright bass and work on your intonation on that instrument. You have to play an upright to become a better upright player. You don’t get better at something by not doing it.

If you can’t buy, rent or borrow an instrument right now, then I would suggest waiting until you can obtain an upright bass. The time you might spend trying to improve your upright intonation on an electric bass would be better spent earning the money to buy an upright. It may feel like you are postponing your learning of the upright, but in the long run it will save you a great deal of time and frustration.

What’s your best material for rib reinforcement to support your standing on your bass while you play?

There are many thoughts on this. Some basses are made with extra thick wood, or extra plys of plywood, to help in this regard. Others have internal or external support of metal or other material. There are dozens of designs and pretty much any material you can think of has probably been used at some point.

My own design involves internal reinforcement with carbon fiber. Since adding material affects the sound of an instrument, I only use this system on medium to low quality instruments. If I am standing on the bass, I probably don’t need the complexity of sound generated by a 200 year old instrument. Of course, some people don’t add any reinforcement or support to the structure of their instrument at all. Generally they don’t weigh much and they damage their instrument a lot.

Can you talk about the pros and cons of playing “stick” basses?

Electric upright basses (EUB’s) can be very convenient, especially if you are primarily playing amplified and traveling a lot. The string action on an EUB is generally much lower than that of a traditional upright. They are smaller, lighter, easier to put on the plane or in the car.

When played pizzicato (plucked), a good EUB with the proper amp can sound very similar to an upright bass. They are also cheaper than acoustic upright basses. If you had $6,000 to spend (in 2010 US dollars) you can get a very high end EUB, with some amount of customization. In fact, you can probably pay someone to custom build your own model for that price. You would have the “best of the best” in EUB’s. The same amount ($6,000) doesn’t go nearly as far in the upright bass market.

Upright basses have “the sound” that many people are looking for. The more discriminating the ear, the more important this is. The best EUB’s don’t have the same complexity of sound of even a medium-level carved bass. This is particularly true when using a bow. Of course, if you are playing acoustically then the decision is already made.

Whether one should play an EUB or an upright is generally a question of personal preference. Many people do both, depending on the gig situation. You have to think about your personal circumstances. What type of music are you playing? How often are you using the upright in your set? What are your traveling and equipment loading circumstances? What are the specifics of the venue/stage?