Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 4 (Final?)

Happy Easter, everyone! It’s not as exciting of a holiday as it should be, what with the Coronavirus “stay home” situation, and there’s not much to gripe about in the bluegrass world, since we are all in the same boat. So I figured that I will talk a bit more about using the electric bass guitar in a bluegrass setting and try to finish up this topic.

I have covered the bass, amplifier, accessories, and some pointers on learning to play bluegrass-style. These few remarks will deal with getting your electric bass to sound more like an upright bass. The first two tips cost nothing or next to nothing, but the others will mean investing a little cash.

Tip #1 – Put a small piece of sponge (the cheap nylon type that you can get at the dollar store) and slip it under the strings right where the strings meet the saddles at the bridge. This will cut the sustain on the strings when plucked as well as get rid of some of the high-frequency overtones. The magnetic pickups in a guitar work off of electrical vibrations from the string movement, and in turn, allow the sound of the string to sustain longer. Muffling the strings a little will cut back a bit on that, which means the vibrations will be less, like the plucking of an upright bass string. In the 1950s and early 1960s, bass guitars from Fender and Gibson actually came equipped with a muting device at the bridge so that the sound was close to an upright, which was still in demand on recordings. A good example of a P-bass using a mute is James Jamerson’s bass playing on early Motown records. It really wasn’t until the late 1960s that the bass sound came into its own and those devices were discontinued. Be sure that the sponge is not too big as to muffle the strings completely, and as close to the bridge as possible.

Tip #2 – Where you position your plucking hand makes a difference in the sound. DON’T USE A PICK! You are going to want to pluck the strings the way a standup bass player does. They usually have the plucking hand right where the fingerboard ends at the body. The strings have much more play and less high end at this position. You can use your thumb (early electric basses had a finger rest on the pickguard for use of the thumb to pluck to get a standup bass feel, while today the rest is used by the thumb for finger plucking), or bring your hand up toward the fingerboard, bend it down at the wrist, and pluck with the index finger or index/middle fingers pressed together. Don’t play modern finger plucking, where the index and middle fingers work in tandem (John Entwhistle made it famous, Jaco Pastorius made it an art form). No, stick with the thumb or single-touch finger, the way a standup player does. You will get used to the callouses.

Tip #3 – Consider using either flatwound or tapewound bass guitar strings. Roundwound strings, especially when new, give off a lot of high-frequency harmonics, sounding like the lower notes of a piano. Flatwound and tapewound strings will cut some of that high end, yet will still give a clean sound, even when using thumb and fingers instead of a pick. The downside to this is that flatwound and tapewound strings are expensive, usually running about $30 per set, which is about twice as much as a set of roundwound strings. You can check out a number of videos on YouTube where players are comparing flatwound and tapewound strings to roundwound strings, although most of them are playing rock or funk grooves to showcase. If you are using a short-scale bass (usually those with a 30-inch scale), finding flatwounds is extremely difficult, and finding tapewounds is near impossible (which is a little strange, since the Hofner 500-1 “Beatle Bass” is a 30-inch scale and was designed for flat- and tapewounds).

Tip #4 – Try an acoustic simulator guitar effect pedal. These pedals are primarily designed for electric guitar players who want to get a near-acoustic sound for a song or two at a gig without having to pull out an actual acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitarists who plugged into the PA system found that these pedals gave them a much more natural sound with a little tweaking of knobs. The first one was produced by Tom Scholz’s Rocktron company. I had one of these, and it did have some great tone control, but was a bit noisy, so forget using it in a recording situation. I also had one of Behringer’s early acoustic simulator pedals, which was also quite noisy. Pedals available today range in price from about $30 to over $150. It’s more of a gimmick than a necessity, to be honest, but if you have money to blow, go ahead.

There are a number of videos discussing similar techniques on YouTube. One technique that is covered on some of the vids that I don’t recommend is “palming” the strings, This involves muting the strings at the bridge with the side of your hand on the pinky side. While it deadens the strings, you are plucking near the bridge, which has more bite than bass.

Play with the tone controls, both on the bass and amplifier, and listen to what sounds the best. Also listen to bluegrass recordings for the upright bass, and see how you can get as close to it. It won’t sound exact, but it will be close, and a lot less money spent overall than even a cheap standup bass. The only problem will be (and continue to be) convincing the stubborn traditionalists that there is no place in bluegrass for an electric bass.

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 and Real Detroit Weekly, 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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