Leading a Double Life – First Steps in Upright Playing for an Electric Bassist

Firstly, a belated Happy New Year to one and all. My one and only resolution for 2011 is to keep this blog updated with fresh material – my annual stats email from WordPress tells me I got something in the region of 14,000 views last year, which shows that I should really pull my finger out and reward visitors with something more than a bi-yearly update!

Double Trouble

Part of the reason for the lack of pre-Christmas posts was that in mid-November I got a call offering me a series of gigs with a pop/classical artist that required me to play both electric and upright bass… Now, although I’ve been dabbling with double bass ever since I left university I’d never really ‘taken the plunge’ and this seemed like the perfect excuse to begin studying the instrument seriously.

Initially, I thought the gig would be a roughly a 50/50 split between upright and electric, but once I got the charts it became clear that I’d be playing a lot of double bass, including some bowing which was completely new territory for me. I had roughly 3 weeks to get my playing in shape, so I locked myself away in a rehearsal studio. Here’s how my November looked:

As might be expected, it was a tough few weeks. Getting to grips with the bow (awful pun intended) was probably the biggest challenge, as my first attempts resulted in a sound I can only liken to a whale being abused… After a few days, I gradually began to get the hang of things and found that my sound improved a little every day.

Spending that amount of time and effort on such a fundamental aspect of the instrument was a hugely humbling experience; I’ve been playing electric bass for over a decade, so I tend to take the process of playing for granted, but on upright I found myself having to learn a completely new set of skills in order to make the most basic pieces sound passable.

Once I’d started to get over the initial issue of handling the instrument, I found myself totally absorbed by the double bass. Although it’s a much more physically intensive instrument than the electric bass the effort is worth it – the sound and feel of the instrument make it rewarding to play, especially for certain styles of music (playing walking lines on an electric bass now feels wrong).

On a practical note, the following things made moving into the world of doubling easier:

Resources for the novice doubler

-There are some excellent instructional videos around. I found Andrew Anderson’s series on bow technique massively helpful:

– In terms of method books, I sought advice from Franz Simandl (UK link | US link) and Rufus Reid (UK | US)
– When it came to the actual gigs, my trusty Radial Bassbone saved my life on a nightly basis by letting me maintain control over the switching, output levels and EQ of both instruments.

Here’s how the setup looked (due to snow-based travel complications the double bass and the speaker cabinet were both hired for some of the gigs):

I’d like to leave you with a final thought- every time I think my arco playing is improving, I listen to Edgar Meyer and remind myself of the mountain I still have to climb. Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself that you suck.

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