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Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 1

One of my biggest pet peeves regarding the bluegrass music scene is the disdain for the electric bass guitar in a typical ensemble. A good-sized chunk of the bluegrass pack, be they fans or musicians, feel that the electric bass has no place in bluegrass music, and the upright doghouse bass is the only choice. Some stalwarts even go as far as to claim that they would rather have a washtub bass in the group than an electric bass (check out some bluegrass chat groups online if you don’t believe me).

The reasons these critics put forth are numerous, but can be easily rebutted:

  1. There should be no electric instruments in a bluegrass band. Well, then the band shouldn’t be using microphones and speakers of an electric PA system. Additionally, many bluegrass musicians are using
    transducer pickups on their guitars, mandolins, banjos and fiddles.
  2. No good bluegrass band would use an electric bass. Did you know that one of the first recorded uses of an electric bass was with a bluegrass band? Reno & Smiley recorded in the 1950s with an electric Fender bass. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Osborne Brothers as well as Jimmy Martin used the electric bass. In the 1980s, two of the most influential bluegrass bands, Hot Rize and New Grass Revival, used an electric bass in their arsenal, as well as the Seldom Scene when Michael T Coleman was in the band (he also used an electric during his tenure with Doc Watson). Lately, bands such as Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Lonesome River Band, and Lou Reid & Carolina regularly have an electric bass.
  3. It doesn’t have the upright bass sound. Yes, and??? The main job of a good bluegrass bass player is to keep the rhythm and tempo (as long as the banjo player doesn’t get too crazy with the Scruggs rolls). He/she can do that with the simple 1-5 note progression and some walk-ups/downs to set a groove. Bass solos in a typical bluegrass band are a rarity, and mostly seem to be done as a courtesy to
    the musician (I am not referring to great acoustic bands such as The Punch Brothers and Hawktail that are occasionally lumped into the bluegrass fold). True, the upright has that woody, non-sustaining sound when the string is plucked. But Jaco Pastorius is not the intent here. With the correct playing technique and instrument set-up (I will cover that in an upcoming post), the electric bass will come close to the upright sound and to the job.

If you check the chat groups discussing the bluegrass bass and using an electric, most comments are coming from adults discussing the sound of the upright versus the compact carrying of an electric with a small amplifier. What is agreed upon by all is the cost of an upright bass. That is my biggest concern, particularly if we as a bluegrass community want to see this music continue with future generations.

Ten years ago, it was hard to find a playable acoustic instrument under $250 unless you lucked out with a garage sale find. Today there are plenty of quality beginner guitars, mandolins, and fiddles for under $100. A good starter banjo can be had for under $200, and the same goes for dobros. However, an upright bass cannot be had for under $500, and it will surely need a set-up that will cost about that much more. What is there in that situation that will convince a young bluegrass enthusiast (as well as his/her parents that are fronting the money) to consider pursuing the bass? Surfing eBay, one can find a decent electric bass with gig bag for about $80, and adding in a small amplifier and cord will cost another $50. These can all be found cheaper if you shop around. Replacing strings on an electric bass can be done for under $25 easily, and that is less than the price of one string for an upright.

Then there is the acoustic bass route. You know, those bass guitars that have a bass neck on an acoustic guitar body. These start at about $150, and vary in quality from horrid to great, but will still require a small amp if played with a group. However, jamming with one or two others should cut
through without amplification. Some brands like Martin charge almost as much as a good upright for their models. Tacoma used to make some great acoustic basses, as well as quality ones under the Olympia name, until it ceased operations around 2008. If you can find one of these used under $300 and it is not beaten up, get it. I still have mine and record my demos with it unplugged with a microphone at the soundhole for a great upright sound. Dean also makes a decent acoustic bass guitar (model EAB) that can be had for well under $300, even less if on sale at Guitar Center or if you can find a used one.

My point here is that the argument to not allow an electric bass into the bluegrass setting is foolish. Professional bluegrass bands can make the choice because of their status. Jam sessions and amateur bands copping such an attitude only discourages beginning musicians, especially of the young generation, and will make the bluegrass community look offish with the rest of the music scene. I plan to talk more about the bass in bluegrass in future posts, so stay tuned.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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