Double Bass vs. Bass Guitar

Chris Wood

Q: I have been playing bass guitar for about 8 years, got my grade 8, toured, recorded and got myself to a semi-professional session level. As I am going to go full time as a bass player in the next 18-24 months (I am realistic as well as ambitious) I started lessons with an outstanding teacher and someone who has played bass (and double bass) as a career for over 30 years. I am getting a lot out of it and learning so much. The more I learn and the more confident and better I get. Recently my teacher and I have been discussing the double bass. It is something I have talked about and thought about for a while. In your opinion is it worth learning both the double bass and the bass guitar? Or should I focus on just the bass guitar? Personally I think I should learn the double bass because it will open up doors for me being able to play both but my fear is the bass guitar will suffer as I will be getting lessons and practice time on the upright. What do you recommend?

A: Worth noting: I answered a similar question near the end of last year. I thought that this worth worth re-addressing because you’re coming from a slightly different place from within the question. The previous column had more to do with a student who didn’t feel the need, personally, but was encouraged by his instructor to learn the double bass and work through a collegiate classical program.

It sounds to me like you have an active interest in pursuing both instruments but are more concerned with efficient use of your time and being the best player you can be, with the time you have available.

In a way, the foundation of my answer is the same: Follow your heart.

If you’re feeling a pull in any given instrumental direction, you should definitely explore that world a bit. Pursuing a deeper understanding of – and ability level for – any other instrument gives you insight into music from multiple other perspectives. You gain insight because you develop an understanding of what goes on in the mind of a player of that instrument:

  • What it takes physically to achieve a certain sound or feel.
  • How you think about your role in the band from the perspective of this other instrument.

In short, you gain instrumental empathy and connection. You will likely find yourself being a more intuitive player as you gain experience with other instruments.

So far, I’ve only written about the idea of playing other instruments to expand your perspective. But, what about the seemingly simple switch from a small bass to a big one?

It’s still very much a different instrument and will definitely take some focus and attention to build the muscle memory and get a real “feel” for it. In the short run, it may cut into your bass guitar time a little bit, but if you’re making the switch to “full-time player”, like you said, the short game should be focused on shedding and planning. You should be focusing on tightening up any aspects of your musicality that need attention and you should (very much) be thinking about your hire-ability and how to maximize your value in the market.

For example, doubling gives you a huge leg up as an independent musician.

I would make a special point to make time for the bass guitar as well, however. If you’re going full-time, treat it like full-time. Carve out an hour-plus for each instrument (or more, ideally). You can separate the shed times, if you like but keep pushing on the electric while pushing on the upright as well.

If your focus is on musicality and hire-ability (those two things go hand in hand, by the way) and not explosive chops and Youtube fame, then exploring the double bass makes total sense.

  1. It’ll make you a better bass player. On either instrument. You’ll just be better because you will have a broader perspective of the role of the bass.
  2. You’ll be able to take more gigs.
  3. You’ll be able to gig in more styles of music.

All of the above mean that you’ll be working more and playing more diverse styles of music. Those two things mean that you will develop much more quickly and develop a strong voice on the instrument

Personally, I don’t double on these two instruments. Why? Well, I’ve dabbled, but I never felt the tug from way down deep so it’s more for my own pleasure and on occasion. I’m more of a home/jam with friends double bassists and not a gigging one. I always wished that I had felt that tug because it made sense logically, but I didn’t, so I never gained proficiency.

You, however, sound like you want it but just don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. If you like it, you’ll do it and, if you love it, you’ll flourish.

Readers, how many of you double on both instruments? I’d love to hear about your journey and your approach. If you’ve made the leap, please share your experience and learning in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Best thing I ever did was to learn to be a doubler. I’d been playing electric for 10 years and decided to learn the upright. I went the academic route (degree in Jazz and Classical) in learning it. You might have to practice a bit longer in w day to keep your chops up on both but that’s fine by me. It’s another tool that you can use that might get you a gig over another player who doesn’t play upright bass.

  2. Andre

    I double up on bass. They are, as said in the article, two very different instruments that happen to be tuned the same. The fingerings are quite different and I tend to play electrics with modified upright fingering until I need to do scalar stuff although that seems less these days. I started out on both way back when and now I play about equal parts electric to upright. As I practice upright, I do find that my electric chops get better. I also play classical music and jazz so I do use the bow a lot which some players might hesitant to use. I do practice both though regularly.

    If you are going to take up the double bass, then I would definitely bow because your intonation will get better more quickly. Also, you will learn to hear what you are playing better because, as you will quickly learn, if you do not hear it in your head, then you will not be able to play it. You need to remember, the upright is a beast! Get a good teacher or you will learn bad technique and may end up hurting yourself and hindering progress in the long run. Play scales, etudes, get into a community orchestra, etc. the more playing you do the better you will get.

    The most important thing I think I can say is to remember that you have time. Set goals 5, 10, 20 years down the road. It takes years to develop into a very good musician. Enjoy the years of study, practice, rehearsals, and performing. It’s music! Have fun and don’t worry about it. Enjoy the journey!

  3. Wesley

    I’ve actually done both. I had been playing on the bass guitar for about the same amount of time as the person who had the question before I chose to learn the upright/double/whatever you want to call it bass. I was in college at the time and my professor and I talked about it. It was a great experience. I would recommend learning Arco for even more opportunities. ALWAYS pay attention to your technique when practicing new things. I learned the hard way that if you don’t, you could sustain an injury just by making a shift wrong and it could end your music career.

  4. Chloe

    I play both the double and the electric bass. I would say that if you have the desire and the time to pick up the double bass then do it, I am so glad I did. Playing both instruments gives you a depth and range that is very highly valued. There have been a couple of times where another bass player and myself were auditioning for the same spot in a band and I was chosen even though the other player was a better electric player than myself because I could play instruments and the other could only play the electric. Playing the two different instruments and also gives you another perspective and having multiple perspectives, I feel, is an essential part of being an effective bass player. Being a bass player means that you are the bridge between the rhythm and the melody and being able to see a piece of music through different angles makes you a better bridge.

    Now that being said there are some things to consider. First, be aware of what you want to achieve musically. Some people are fine to just play rock all time and some people are set to always play jazz. I wasn’t, I needed variety so picking up the double was so prefect for me. It sounds like you want that too, especially since you want to play professionally. Picking up the double is great for that. Second, the double bass is so very much more physically demanding than the electric. I remember in high school we would have competitions and I would have to move the upright to multiple locations from the warm-up room to the on deck room to the stage to the sight reading room back to the warm-up room to pack up and that in itself was tiring but then having to play on top of that was absolutely exhausting. It will take you a while to build up the necessary chops. Being aware of the proper technique will help this along and prevent major injury. I didn’t have a teacher for the first two years I played I just tried to transfer my knowledge from the electric onto the double and I did not improve in those two years at all. As soon as I got a teacher and learned the correct technique I improved exponentially. This leads me into my third and final point, have a teacher. It sounds as if you already have one but I cannot begin to emphasize how important and crucial having a teacher helped my playing.

    Yeah, if this is something you have been thinking of doing definitely do it. I know that you were worried about practice time but I have found that it won’t interfere with your electric practice time unless you let it. I would suggest alternating days that you play each instrument. This allows you to be in the mind set for that particular instrument that day and it allows your muscles a days rest to recover which is important, especially in the beginning, when you are gaining new muscle memory playing upright.

    Wish you the best in your endeavors and have fun with whatever route you decide to take!

  5. Marty Forrer

    I’m a doubler, but these days the bass guitar hardly ever gets called for. Everyone wants the upright. Learning both definitely makes a better musician, as does learning to play jazz (even if playing jazz is not a goal). I play upright in jazz, country, blues, Irish, latino, western swing, bluegrass, alt. country, in fact everything except rock (which I don’t play these days anyway). If you feel the urge, do it. It’s a long haul, but most certainly worth it.

  6. Damian answers this question well and leaves some key points for the bassist to consider. I went a similar path years ago and took up double bass as part of a ‘things to do before hitting 30’ list. Could I perhaps make a couple of suggestions to add to Damians sound advice.

    1. Get the double bass a proper setup. Seriously. If it is hard to play, not responsive, and causes pain, you will not enjoy playing it and invariably give up when you feel progress is not being made. This is what happened with me at my first attempt. A setup will help address all of this and make for a much more enjoyable experience. You are not supposed to battle and vanquish this instrument, you are supposed to become a partnership.

    2. Get some lighter tension strings to start with. You will build up hand strength over time, but take it steady in the first year as you develop strength and callous. Trust me, you can obsess and spend a whole lot of money trying out all the different string options. But do this once you have developed a fundamental technique that will allow you to really notice the differences in feel and sound of the strings. No point in getting to that just yet. Another lesson I learnt through experience. Having the same strings as Charlie Haden will not make you sound like Charlie Haden. A good string option to start with is Spirocore Weichs (solid sounding pizzicato string) or Evah Pirazzi Weichs (these bow better than the spiros).

    3. Listen to a bunch of double bassists. Believe me, there are so many different ways to sound on this instrument. Choose a player who resonates with you, but crucially, one that plays in a way that is achievable to you. There is no point launching straight into unfathomabley difficult LaFaro solos in the beginning. Take simple phrases and treat them as opportunies to develop your intonation and sound. Charlie Haden was perfect for me (and still is), as it is not the most demanding technically to play some of his lines. But, what I learn from Haden about melody, time feel, note placement, tone, musicality etc makes him a super choice. Danny Thompson is another good one for all this.

    4. Try to, as best as one can, treat it as a beginning rather than a variation of prior knowledge. Yes, the function of the instrument is same, but the means in which we go about it are somewhat different. It’s tough as an adult, and as a bassist, to go back to the beginning but it an important step in developing the technique required to play the DB. I lost easily 6months by trying to adjust my electric bass technique to fit.

    5. Get a teacher. They really help.

    8 years on, I’m starting to get my sound and find peace with my limitations. Taking up this instrument has been an incredible part of my development as it’s taught me humility, patience, enjoying the simple things such as playing a note beautifully in tune and with integrity and quality of tone. It’s been difficult at times, and will continue to be so. But, it’s been the best musical decision I’ve made, and (seriously) has improved my musicality and electric bass playing too. Go for it. If not now, then later on down the road.

  7. I double. I’d say, do it if you can. You will enrich your electric bass playing and musicianship by at least learning some upright. My tone production improved, as did my understanding of walking bass line articulation. My electric fretless playing improved a lot. It is not easy keeping up with more than one instrument, but there are valuable elements you can take from other instruments. I also studied classical guitar as a kid, and I feel my electric bass guitar technique now is a combination of both classical guitar and upright bass techniques. I also learned a great deal by taking a few drum lessons, particularly I learned how to subdivide everything. Also, it is nice to have a basic understanding of how a drumset works when you are playing with a drummer. Now, the big issue is cost. Getting a decent entry level upright means you will have to spend at least $1000 bucks, -more like 2 or 3 grand. You will need a proper instrument setup or spend hours fighting your bass instead of playing it. And, usually, entry-level upright bass strings are crap. I found out the quality of your strings can make or break a double bass. I spent money on some awesome hybrid strings (for both pizzicato and arco playing) and the bass was like a whole different instrument. Speaking of the bow, there is no better way to develop your intonation on the upright than practicing with a bow. Get a classical method, such as the Simandl or Nanny, they are truly awesome books. There is a learning curve, but once you get the basics, it does become addictive. I feel I spend more time playing my upright bass now, simply because I love it. Give it a try!

  8. Fernando Yokota

    My experience: I’ve learned piano as a kid, and start playing bass guitar as teenager. As I decided to be a professional musician I started having classical double bass classes. That was the right way for me I believe, now I have one foot on each world. For years I practice several hours every single day the double bass and just left the bass guitar. I got two degrees as orchestra musician, one in Brazil and one in Germany. Just when I was already living in Germany I started playing bass guitar again, and in a few weeks I had the same level I had when I stopped, and got better very fast, I would say because of all the experience I got as a classical orchestra bass player. I believe a double bass player has more possibilities to get paid for playing than a bass guitar player, and if you play both even better. Some bass guitar gigs I got because I can play double bass, and/or because I read music as an orchester musician, what is a higher reading level than most pop/rock/jazz players. I don’t considere myself a good improvisator, maybe that’s a minus on my choices, but as a bass player it is not that bad.

  9. Kelly

    I did both. I started on bass guitar for 10 years durng the 70s when electric was all the rage. Then I started contrabass lessons when uprights became popular again in the 90s, a friend suggested I could get more jazz work with an upright than electric. I kept up lessons with both. Probably best to concentrate on electric for awhile since you’re alreadyt playing it. Also depends on what kind of music you generally play. Upright isnt generally used in popular or alternative music if thats the kind of music you generally play. I get more calks for upright when im playing jazz or something more esoteric like bluegrass. Get comfortable with electric first then start to learn upright techniques if you already own one. It’s all really just the same principles with different techniques anyway.

  10. Mark S Beretta

    This amazes me so many people play double bass.
    Im lucky to have a electric bass , I have a tough time with it having spine problems.
    I can’t imagine wrapping myself around a double bass , but it sounds like if I ever did I wouldn’t stop , intractable pain and all , bass is my life and my best friend.
    I got bass on the brain I can’t get rid of till I play it on thru.

  11. that bass guy

    This is always an interesting question and I agree with the positive comments about being able to double on string and electric bass: more jobs, more exposure to various styles, etc. I started playing electric (self-taught) when I was 18 and started playing string bass when I was 22. Here is what I learned:
    1) Unless you’re a very good listener and especially if you are, you need to find a good string bass teacher from the get-go. Bad habits are hard to break, and on string bass they can be death.
    2) String bass is not impossible to play, but you can make it so by poor instruction, bad practice habits, and a bad instrument. I found these videos after playing for 30+ years and they were so beneficial that I changed my playing around to the point that people commented how much better I sounded. Check them out. They are not the most exciting to watch but the advice is golden:

    3) Get a decent instrument and have it set up by someone who knows what they’re doing. Notice I didn’t say get a great instrument – string basses can be very expensive but there are lots of good import models available. Like any instrument what you ultimately get should be based on your level of commitment and what you can afford.

    3) if you’re not willing to lug it around, don’t play string bass. Going up/down stairs, through tight spaces and low doorways gets old quick. When I was in college my orchestra rehearsals were on the opposite side of campus from my bass locker and the only way to get there was to walk – a long walk if you’re carrying a bass, a stool, sheet music, etc. You’ll find out really quickly how committed you are.

    At any rate, if you do start playing string bass – best of luck to you.

  12. Jimmy McGirr

    Though I have far more experience with the 34″ scale Fender type bass guitar, I have developed my double bass playing to the point that I am confident having it on my business card as an instrument that I play. The majority of my work is in theater pit bands, and it is a definite advantage to be able to play both. Lots of theater scores call for both, but the reality is that most of the time it is an either/or situation as the physical space available for the pit does not allow for two instruments to be set up so I will make a decision based on which is more appropriate for the show. Putting time into the double bass has definitely improved my bass guitar playing and concepts. Working with the bow on double bass does wonders for skills in listening, balance, sound production.

  13. Sergio Quintero

    I double, but think myself more of an electric player. I can be up all day practicing with my electric. But its a little harder for me tu practice with the upright. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.

  14. Charlie Schofield

    I live in an area where the call to play Upright bass is very little. Even so, in the early 2000s I had a regular Friday night jazz gig on upright for a couple of years. Then it ended, and nothing. I had hardly touched an electric bass during that time, and was getting to the point where I wouldn’t mind playing only upright. My first gig after that, on electric bass, was with such a loud blues/rock band. They were really good, but WOW, what a change for me. Over the course of time I was back to getting calls for electric bass. So here’s my point; for me the demands of the “market” has pretty much shaped me as a player. I’m 64 now and have been at it since I was 13. I started on electric, but got that nice run on upright bass. My playing changed so much because of it. I became a more grooving and solid player, by far. Had I lived in a large city instead of the Sierras, I would have had a lot more call to play both. I wasn’t willing to leave behind the life I love here in Tahoe, so I had to go for the playing opportunities that were available. My advice to electric players, is learn upright if you feel the calling. If it’s not for you, you’ll know. But it will no doubt expand how a player thinks about bass. And just one more quick point. Playing bass isn’t about playing bass, unless you’re alone, and practicing. It’s about the music and how we fit in.

  15. Timothy

    I started playing bassguitar 5 years ago (and a bit acoustic guitar too). Had and still have a lot of fun doing it, though I always wanted to learn upright bass too, so 2 years ago I started learning the ‘big’ bass.

    Because I started playing upright bass I now play better by ear and I gained more interest in for me new music styles, like jazz . I learn a lot from playing bass lines on both instruments because of the different fingerings and I feel that I can fit better in more musicstyles.

    It took some time before I was able to play lines with good intonation on upright and I noticed that in the beginning I took a little more time learning the upright than spending time on the electric.

    Now I would say I practise 50% of the time electric and 50% of the time upright.
    I never regret learning the upright next to bass guitar and acoustic guitar, it’s a lot of fun :)

  16. Thad Wilson

    I’m actually a clarinetist doubling on bass guitar and trombone, both of which have allowed me to expand not only the kinds of music I play, but as you said, it also helped me better understand the roles of each instrument

  17. Jeremy Jones

    When I first started playing bass I had the opportunity to learn upright from a really good player. I was young and stupid and did not take him seriously. Man do I regret it. I just recently picked up the upright and I am as busy as ever playing… Not only upright but electric as well. I wish I had all those years I missed with the upright under my belt now