A Few Tips from a Traveling Bassist

Bassist getting on a train

Photo from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”

Performing on the road as an upright bassist can be both a rewarding and challenging experience. Here are a few tips I’ve learned on, and picked up from colleagues, to help things go smoothly.

Be Physically Fit

We don’t need have the physique of an Olympic athlete, but having a certain level of fitness will go a long way in keeping the your performances top-notch while traveling.

The rigors of the road are well known: Unfamiliar beds, long periods sitting in the cramped quarters (cars, vans and airplanes), lack of sleep, poor quality food, loading and unloading of equipment etc. For upright players, there is also the added stress, both physical and mental, of traveling with a large instrument. Carting around our instrument from city to city can provide a physical challenge, especially if we are flying. Mental and emotional concerns regarding our equipment, and it arriving in tact, can take a toll as well.

Loaded flight cases can range in weight from 50 pounds (exceptionally light) to 100 pounds. We will be carting this through airports, into vehicles, up and down stairs and more, often with at least one piece of luggage in tow. If we aren’t accustomed to the workload, we can arrive at the first gig sore, tired and out of sorts. After a week or more, it can take a toll on our body, and our performance. Additionally, there will be unforeseen events: Running to an airline gate with your bag, long travels on foot, etc. for which we must be physically prepared.

As a result, it is best to have a fitness regimen when you are home that keeps your body habituated to physical activity. In addition, it’s a good idea to have a routine that you can do on the road, to avoid injury while traveling.

Be Musically Prepared

Once set your first foot forward for the tour, time at your instrument off-stage will likely range from limited to non-existent. Having your music prepared before you leave would seem obvious, and it is, but some people don’t realize how tight their schedules will be. It is likely that on some days the first time you pick up your instrument is to tune, right before walking onstage.

You may get lucky, but in general it is safe to expect that you will have no time to work at your instrument. Players of smaller instruments have it easier. They can take out their instrument at the gate, in vans, or wherever. That’s not as easy with a 6 ft. instrument.

Be Ready to Play on Anything

Unfortunate as it is, your bass may not arrive in playing condition, or it may not arrive at all! Accidents happen. Additionally, depending on how you are traveling, you may not even be able to travel with your own instrument. This will mean playing on a borrowed instrument, and the condition of said instrument may be in serious question.

Even if it is a well-maintained instrument, a borrowed instrument it is likely to have very different in setup and response from your own. Not to mention that the string length could be very different, making intonation a serious challenge. You may even find yourself with a different instrument at each performance. Be prepared for this possibility and, should it happen, you will have a better chance of performing well.

Take Two of Anything Essential

Having an extra set of strings, and extra bow, etc. will help avoid some unfortunate situations. On that note, if you are flying, take your bow, in a case, as a carry-on. This will avoid both potential damage of the bow, and ensure that even if your bass doesn’t make it to your destination, at least your bow will.

Be Courteous to Everyone

Especially if they are dealing with your instrument. This includes ticket agents, skycaps, TSA agents, everyone. Courtesy and patience will go a lot further than curtness, and your equipment is more likely to be treated with respect. Sometimes it’s the difference between the bass getting on your plane or staying in your home city.

Travel Light

Since we are travelling with a large instrument, in a potentially heavy travel case, it is best to keep other items at a minimum. The less there is to carry, the easier it is to lift, carry, walk with and deal with in general.

What are some things you have learned that make traveling with an upright easier for you? Please share in the comments.

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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  1. Thanks Donovan Stokes for representing the upright world!! I would add: contact the airline to see if they allow upright basses as baggage ahead of time. 2 airlines I know from experience that do not allow upright basses are USAir and Continental. Alaska and Southwest do and are terrific with customer service. Avoid USAir like the plague. I’ve had a horrible experience with them!

  2. Charlie

    Bring your Fender bass in case your upright has a problem.

  3. James Giles

    Watch for international rules regarding rare and exotic materials! You could have an old tortoise-shell frog bow take at customs. Carbon fiber is always alliwed.

  4. Michael Rose

    sounds like my life:)