Photo by Brian Talbot
The electric bass and the double bass (aka Contrabass, Kontrabass, Contrebasse, Upright bass, Stand-up bass, String bass, Doghouse bass, etc. etc.) are cousins. It seems intuitive that one plays both instruments. After all, we share a range, number of strings (generally) and a tuning (most of the time). However, the constructions of the instruments differ enough to make for substantial challenges when switching. Remembering this can help us be successful doublers.
If you’re thinking about making the leap from electric to upright bass (or have already started), here are five things to keep in mind.
1. Get your setup checked by a professional luthier
While some electric basses may require some setup after you buy them, with rare exception, electric basses are generally playable immediately after purchase. Double basses (i.e. upright basses), on the other hand, often require setup by a specialist to maximize ease of play and sound. Failure to do so may not only affect your sound, but also set the stage for physical injury down the line.
2. When plucking, use arm weight
On the electric bass, simple finger movements can get the string moving in a way that produces an attractive sound. If you use this same method on the upright bass, however, you are likely to have a thin, tinny, weak, nasally sound.
Most players advise plucking with the side of the finger, rather than the fingertip, while using arm weight to add heft to your plucking, Some go further and even suggest that the plucking movement comes from your arm, rather than your hand. Either way, you are going to want to use the weight of your arm to set the string into full motion. This is how you will get the most sound, and the complex sound, out of your instrument.
3. Stay loose
It’s a good idea to stay flexible and keep muscles in motion, rather than be tense, no matter what instrument you play. However, electric bass can be more forgiving than upright. Due to the sheer size of the double bass, the increased height of the string above the fingerboard, the length of the string, the angle the instrument is held, etc. injuries can occur in a hurry when playing our stand-up cousin. Most pros advise staying flexible and using weight, rather than muscle, to combat fatigue, stress and injury.
4. Don’t use the same fingering system on both instruments
A “one finger per fret” approach to electric playing is pretty standard these days. Not so much on upright. While there are certain times in the mid to upper registers of the upright bass where this may work, it is not generally adopted in the lower “money positions.”
For most people, the use of a 1-2-3-4 fingering system on the double bass leads to intonation problems and physical injury. There are, of course, exceptions. These are generally related to a person’s body type and the string length of their instrument. If you are 6’7” and your upright is small a 1-2-3-4 fingering system may work fine, for example. The rest of us mere mortals generally avoid using all four fingerings in the lower positions, where we make most of our money.
5. Focus seriously on intonation
Unless you have been playing a fretless, you probably haven’t been concerned about having superior pitch discrimination while playing. The frets tend to do most of the work in this area. On the double bass, pitch is a major concern. The pursuit of stellar intonation affects everything on the instrument: from what fingering system you use, to correct body posture, to what part of the finger presses the string down. Most pros suggest ear training, using the bow, playing with drones, playing scales and arpeggios, and recording yourself.