Upright BASS-ics by Charley Sabatino

Posted on November 12, 2010

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Upright bass, also called the double bass, acoustic bass, contrabass and even “doghouse” is a great instrument.  While it is the same as an electric bass in terms of tuning and range, it does have some significant differences.  

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First and foremost it is a bigger instrument—not just in its body but in its scale length.  Most electric basses range from 30-36 inches from nut to bridge.  The upright can run from 35.4 to 43.3 inches depending on size (most basses fall in the 41.3-43.3 range).  This can cause intonation problems (at least initially) for electric players switching to upright due to the increased distance between notes. 

Second, it is physically more difficult to play and requires a different playing posture.  Improper posture will make playing more difficult, cause fatigue, affect your sound and possibly cause pain and injury.  Thirdly, it has different requirements for maintenance and environment.  Being an acoustic instrument, it is more affected by the heat, cold and humidity.  Placing the upright in non-ideal conditions  for long periods can result in a myriad of issues such as body cracks and neck warping. Furthermore, the upright requires specific regular maintenance (as with the electric) to keep it playing and sounding well.
Upright basses can be grouped in three broad categories:  Carved, laminate and hybrid.  Carved basses are just that, made of solid wood carved into shape.  Laminate instruments use laminated wood or “plywood” (though not the Home Depot variety) formed into shape and hybrid basses use combinations of carved and laminate components.  Some consider carved basses to have superior sound but are generally more fragile and more expensive.  Laminate and hybrids are more durable and less expensive, but some consider them to be of inferior sound.

Understand the “sound” issue aforementioned is just a guide and is ultimately a matter of opinion.  This is something you need to discover for yourself with the help of a reputable dealer and/or teacher.  Many players (me included) have both carved and laminate basses, keeping all “bases” covered. I will try to give a brief overview several areas that will help you to begin your journey with the upright. 

History

Historians do not know the exact origin of the double bass.  It is thought to have originated in Europe in the 15th century.  While a member of the string family, it is not known if it evolved directly from the violin or the viol da Gamba (it is considered to have characteristics of both instruments).  Early basses (pre 20th century) had only 3 strings.  Many of them were later converted to the current 4-string format and are still in use today.

Notable Players

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  It is just a starting point.  You can easily find musical examples—written, audio and video on the internet.  On the classical side, you can research Domenico Dragonetti  (1763 –1846), Giovanni Bottesini  (1821 –1889), Sergei Aleksandrovich Koussevitzky (1874 –1951), Eugene John Cruft  (1887-1976) and Gary Karr (November 20, 1941-  ). 

For jazz players, the list is equally huge.  For example, check out Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Slam Stewart, Jimmy Garrison, Curly Russell, Ray Brown, Christian McBride and Peter Washington.

Purchase / Maintenance

When purchasing your first (or any) upright bass, try to go to a reputable dealer that deals specifically with uprights and other stringed instruments.  General music stores may not be the way to go in this case.  Check with other players.  They may help you to find the places to go in your area.  Reputation and knowledge is the key here. Being an acoustic instrument, a lot can go wrong with an upright bass and many things are not readily seen with an untrained eye.   For example, with new instruments, you can encounter poor workmanship, use of “green” wood (which will cause warping) and poor set-up.  With used instruments, there can be hidden cracks, improper repairs and misleading pedigrees (e.g. selling lesser quality instruments as higher quality ones).  Any of these can spell trouble.  You may end up paying more up front going to a dealer, but you will be better in the long run by getting a good quality, properly set-up instrument that is appropriate for your budget, size and playing level.   If you decide to buy from a private party, ask to have it looked over by a reputable dealer/technician—this is no different if you were buying a used car!!!!   Let’s face it, uprights are not cheap – they can range from $500-$60,000+.  It pays to be cautious.

Now that you have your bass, we need to talk about environment and maintenance.  As far as temperature, a good rule of thumb (actually, for all instruments) is it should not be exposed to any temperature extremes for long periods. If you are uncomfortable, so will your bass. 

The next issue is humidity.  Excessive dryness is deadly for upright basses.  It causes wood to crack and seams to open. Uprights should never experience a relative humidity lower than 40% for any length of time.  In most places, this occurs in the colder months when household heaters are in use.  If you live in desert areas, then you obviously deal with this all year.  Many players use room humidifiers to prevent humidity related problems.  Now, understand, not all bassesare equally as susceptible to these problems.  Older instruments can be more sensitive as those that are carved.  Laminate instruments tend to be less sensitive, but still need to be in the proper environment to remain in good health.
 
Posture

In my opinion, posture is one of the most important aspects of playing ANY instrument and is the most ignored.  Without proper posture, every aspect of playing is made more difficult or impossible.  Furthermore, improper posture can lead to fatigue, pain and injury.  Most of the bassists I teach (electric and upright) that come to me already playing at some level have posture problems. Many experience pain and the beginnings of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

The accompanying video to this article will cover the specifics of posture with the upright.  However, there are a few general rules.  First of all, be relaxed.  Any kind of tension in ANY part of your body is unwanted.  Stand up straight and have your weight distributed equally on both feet.  If you feel yourself getting tense while playing, stop, step away, take a breath, recheck your posture and then continue.  This will keep reminding you to be relaxed and eventually keep you that way.

Intonation

Intonation is the most difficult part of playing the upright (or any fretless instrument).  What students don’t understand is that it consists of three aspects:  tune, tone and time.  It is only when all three of these are mastered that the instrument truly sounds correct.

Tune is the most obvious one.  It is every player’s intent to play the correct pitch.  Here, some work OFF the bass is helpful.  Before youcan play the correct pitch, you have to know what that pitch IS.  This is accomplished through ear training.  Ear training is just that—training your “ear” to recognize pitches or intervals.  This allows you to not only play the correct pitch, it enables you to “correct” pitches if need be while playing.   A good teacher can also help you with ear training.  It is an integral part of any level of music/instrument education.  There are also ear training computer programs that are very good and reasonably priced.  They are set in a video game format and allow you to progress at your own speed. Once ear training has commenced, you can begin to apply it to the bass. 

One good way to begin is to play with a known tone.  Something as simple as having someone play a note on a guitar or keyboard and you try to match it in every possible octave.  I use a cheap little children’s keyboard and tape the key down of the pitch I want to match—a bit cheesy, but effective.  There are also several play along and “music minus one” collections that you can use.  The only problem with them is that theyare usually either geared toward arco playing or are for intermediate/advanced players. Tone is an interesting one.  It is something that constantly evolves as you progress and mature as a player but poor tone can make even themost perfect pitch sound bad. Good tone, like anything we speak about, is achieved through methodic purposeful practice.  Here posture plays a role as a note properly played and allowed to develop will ultimately have good tone. Notes should sound full, not thin and should contain all the woodiness and attack characteristic of the upright. 

A way to begin to develop tone is to play a scale in whole notes with a slow metronome (like 50 beats per minute) and listen to the notes and how they develop.  Then play them as half notes, quarter notes, eight notes, etc.  While each progressive exercise will yield notes of shorter duration, they should all still have the same full tone.

Now that you have begun to address Tune and Tone, you need to address Time.   Let’s face it, what good is the most perfectly pitched note with the sweetest tone if it is not played in time?   Notes that are off-time, rushed or dragged will not sound completely in tune.  To correct this, practice EVERYTHING with a metronome and practice SLOWLY.  Slow practice is the key to accurate time.  Play every note to its fullest value.  You cannot rhythmically color or accent a note unless you know its actual value.   Rhythm study  is a LIFELONG activity.

As we have seen, intonation is comprised of three aspects:  Tone, Tune and Time.  They are the triumvirate of proper playing.  They must be practiced separately as well as together.  Don’t forget posture.  It will make all your practice easier.  Relax when you practice.  Tension is your enemy.  LISTEN to what you play. I know it sounds weird… truly listen and evaluate your tune tone and time.  It will allow you to progress so much faster.
                               
Practice

You have heard the old saying “Practice makes Perfect”.  Well it is not entirely correct.  PERFECT practice makes perfect.  Each practice session, whether 15 minutes or 6 hours, should be planned ahead of time and serve a specific purpose.  Break your practice into smaller sessions, possibly with breaks in between, and cover posture, intonation, time, theory, gig material, etc. Constantly check your posture.  Play in front of a mirror and watch yourself play.  Remember to listen to what you play. Get used to being critical of EVERY note.  If you already play electric bass, apply what you know to the upright. Determine what, if anything, you need to alter to do so.

If you can, find a good teacher.  A teacher will help you to progress much faster than can on your own.  Check online sources and classifieds as well as local universities to find a teacher.  Check their references and backgrounds to make sure you get the best possible instruction. 

When you feel confident, seek out and play with other musicians.  Choose players of the same level or those that are willing to help you progress.  Playing should be fun, not stressful—it is a place to apply what you have practiced.

Above all, enjoy playing the upright.  That is the goal, isn’t it?

About Our Guest Contributor, Charley Sabatino

Charley Sabatino is a veteran professional with more than 30 years experience in teaching and performance. His experience encompasses a wide range of styles. He plays both upright and electric bass and has played extensively throughout the NY/Metro Area. Highlights of his career include: The Today Show backing the Children’s Aid Society Chorus, Lincoln Center with Ben Vereen, Headliners at the Village Gate, 92nd St. Y, Cat Club and New Music Seminar and the Cabaret Circuit with clients of the William Morris Agency. Charley currently freelances on both upright and electric bass.

Charley is also a very successful private instructor of both upright and electric. He teaches students across a broad spectrum of ages, levels and styles. Many of his students progress to performance level. In addition, he is the Music Director of the Jazz Workshop at the Cadenza Music School in Queens, NYC.

Charley has an MA in Composition from LIU CW Post and has studied with Billy Bauer, Harvie S., Jeff Andrews, Tony Oppenheim, Lyn Christie and Mike Pope.

Charley is on Facebook where you can check out his musical background and teaching references. Teaching examples and other videos can be found on his page at YouTube.

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