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Five Things to Remember to When Moving from Electric to Upright Bass

Double Bass closeup
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.

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

Bubs Barney

handy to know as i am hoping to get an electric double bass some time soon

andy preston

andy preston

6. Be prepared for a life of expensive misery when it comes time to use a pickup, amp, and play with a drummer.

ed english

ed english

#4 – Moving to an upright has really helped me appreciate the use of open strings on my bass guitar. I am really grateful for Tip #1, though. Set-up is way more important. I saw a bridge go flying one night and it scared me, real bad. Great article!

Dorian Selbo

A good transition I’ve found is a fretless acoustic bass guitar. Not as strenuous as the double bass but it still gives you that more natural tone. And requires only slight changes to your playstyle.

Dwight Mabe

Good advice. Setup is paramount on a double bass. Part of that is finding the best strings for it. I play a lot of jazz on the double bass and finally settled on Helicore Hybrid strings. They work well for pizzicato and bowing. For me, the major injury concerns are in the left hand. I laid off double bass for almost 30 years and took it back up 3 years ago. My left felt like it had been repeatedly run over by a truck after the first 3 hour rehearsal. Make sure that the arm, shoulder and back are assisting in pressing down the strings!

Sergio V. Quintero Cruz

I took the upright about a year ago! and man its wonderful. im still having trouble building calluses!

Dave Turner

Dave Turner

Number 1 bit of advice: Get lessons from an orchestral bassist. DB is a completely different instrument and if you think you can play DB just because you play bass guitar, you are in for a world of disappointment. Lessons will prevent you from forming all the bad habits you’ll invariably fall into without them. Also, if you are serious about intonation, learn to use a bow. It doesn’t lie.

bawbagdan

bawbagdan

Only one thing to remember when “moving”; A double bass isn’t an electric bass. It may be in fourths but it is a completely separate instrument. You’ll enter a world of pain if you think you can just “move” to double bass.

Mark Stefaniw

I teach both instruments, and my advice for those preparing to get into double bass is to seriously raise the action on their electric bass. Also use a 1-2-4 fingering system through to D on the G-string where you may use 1-2-4 or 1-2-3 fingering to cover a whole step. 1-2-3-4 fingering at this position to cover a m3 is also possible, but less common.

that bass guy

that bass guy

As an electric bassist who took up string bass many years ago, I’d like to offer a suggestion concerning fingerings. I use the same fingerings on electric as I use on my string bass, but the system I’m using is from the string bass. I use a combination of string bass fingering systems on the electric from the Simandl, Rabbath, and occasionally Bille string bass methods. In the higher positions I use my left hand thumb on the fingerboard (“thumb position”) just like I do on string bass. This gives me a big range of notes and eliminates shifting around as much. The added benefit is that I don’t have to rethink a playing approach as I switch back and forth between electric and string bass. Even though I have big hands with a lot of stretch, I still find that this approach of using string bass fingerings on the electric works best in terms of playing comfort and simplicity.

that bass guy

that bass guy

Make sure the bass you’re going to play has an adjustable bridge (like the one shown in the picture accompanying this article) and make sure it actually goes both up and down. Also be aware that not all strings are equal. For beginning players or those who just want to keep the bass battle to a minimum I recommend Corellis by Savarez. These are a tungsten based string suitable for all playing situations. Make sure the action on your bass is low enough to make playing cleanly and comfortably possible. An easy way to judge this is to insert the tip of your pinkie finger under the string at the bridge end of the fingerboard. The G and E strings should be low enough that you have to just squeeze your pinkie in the there. The A and D strings will generally be set a smidge higher on properly set up basses to allow for string crossings with the bow. If you have a properly set up bass you’ll find that it’s not significantly harder to press the strings than an electric. What the real challenge for electric bassists making the transition is that the fingerboard is curved, so holding down two strings with one finger to play a perfect fourth probably ain’t gonna happen ;)

Cal Chase

#1 is especially true of new instruments. I recently bought a new 4/4, did my initial set up, took it to the luthier with some issues where I was reminded by him that it hadn’t been an instrument very long………