Categories
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.

Categories
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.