The Lowdown with Dr. D.: Making the Switch from Electric to Upright (part 3 of 3)
The Left Hand
Contrary to what many of us expect when we hop on over from Electric, effective and reliable left hand technique can be one of our more formidable challenges as a switcher. We will be learning a new way to use our left hand on an instrument that seems so similar to one we already know, but is not quite the same. Despite the similarities of the two instruments and their techniques, the foundational techniques are different, and at the outset of our journey, it can present a challenge.
There are many reasons the foundational left hand techniques of these two cousins are different, but the most obvious reason is the string length. [note: ***The standard Upright bass is a ¾ size instrument, not a “full size.” Most basses you will come across are ¾, not “full size”]. Unless you are playing a short scale electric upright, the string length on your Upright will be much longer than you are used to. The average string length for an upright is 41.25-42” (approx. 105-106.5 cm) but it can go all the way up to around 44“. Compare this to the friendly 34” Electric, and you begin to see the issue.
Never fear! Ultimately, your Electric technique will be a valuable asset, and not a liability. Your previous experience will certainly help to propel you forward. You just need to set your new foundation on your new instrument first.
A longer string length means the notes are further apart, which will affect our reach. Additional precision (no frets!) and increased pressure,to press the strings down, is also required. If we are not careful, this combination can give us bad intonation and damaged hands. To combat this, I suggest a 1-2-4 fingering system (the outer fingers encompassing two half steps, or three “frets”) as you begin your Upright journey. As it turns out, this is the longest standing, most established traditional approach to fingering on the Upright. Those who have watched my left hand, sometimes ask why I suggest such a traditional approach for them, when I use a larger bag of tricks.
I have numerous reasons for my position, and there is an entire chapter on this in my upcoming book (due out Fall 2010) which goes into great detail as to why. Simply put, I have seen, used and studied many left hand techniques, and experienced their practical results as a student and teacher. This experience and study has convinced me that the traditional 1-2-4 fingering system provides the most reliable and solid foundation. We want to establish a solid foundation now so we won’t have to go back and fix it later. Don’t worry, if you do it right, you will be pivoting, using 1-2-3-4, “open hand,” “crab,” and 5 finger systems soon enough.
If you are used to playing on a fretted instrument, you will likely struggle with intonational swill in the early stages of your Upright playing. In addition to improving your physical accuracy, you likely need to refine your fine pitch discrimination to detect the smallest discrepancies. With attention, both skills will improve over time. Here are some quick suggestions to get you on your way:
1. Get private instruction now. I can’t stress enough how important it is that your early forays into Upright technique give you a proper foundation. There are tons of books and videos out there, and you should certainly seek them out, but nothing compares to one-to-one instruction from a master of the instrument. Find a reputable teacher and study regularly with them. I will talk more about what to look for, and what to avoid, in a bass teacher in a future installment.
Again, go with a teacher who will provide you with instruction in the 1-2-4 (Simandl/Nanny) fingering system as a foundation. If you can’t find the kind of teacher you want locally, Video Chat lessons offer the ability to study with people from around the world. It is one of my favorite ways to teach.
2. As soon as you are able, begin practicing with the bow, even if you never plan to use it on stage. It is an essential tool for securing your intonation. Ray Brown did it, so should you.
3. Practice your scales and riffs slowly with a drone playing in the background. The root of the scale/key works well.
4. Put “fret markers” on your fingerboard. I can hear the traditionalists squirming and murmuring now. Do it anyway. Most of the objections to markers are rooted in Machismo and misplaced Ego. You have a lot of fingerboard to navigate and any edge you can get in the quest for accurate intonation is worth using. There are temporary and permanent options. I advise making it permanent.
A small gauge sterling silver wire drilled into the fingerboard provides your best option. This creates a “dot” which can be seen in all lighting situations, and is not readily apparent from a distance. This means you can use it to improve your intonation without being forced to endure ignorant comments or looks of disdain from other string players….other people (like trumpet players, drummers and audience members) won’t care.
Bottom line: Markings help. Use them. You get paid to play in tune.
5. Stay loose, it will help your accuracy. Remember: Unneeded tension is our enemy.
6. Listen! Developing a refined ear is a process, so take every opportunity to improve your ear. Refined pitch discrimination is a subject all to itself, and a journey. Work at it everyday. Read about temperament and intonation. Pick an ear training program and wear it out. Then do another. Listen, listen, listen…and then listen more deeply.