Back to the Bassics

I recently acquired a Palatino VE-550 electric upright bass. Well, I’ve been playing it a bit every day since I got it (this past Tuesday) and although I have affirmed Brian Bromberg’s statement that electric and acoustic bass are almost two different instruments both requiring equal and separate attention to master, I find myself experiencing a lot of muscle, sense and touch memory. Bear in mind, I last seriously played acoustic bass about 29 years ago (circa 1983). Never actually owned one back then, just borrowed them from elementary, junior and senior high school orchestra programs – and played pretty consistently from age 11-18. In fact, the only reason I switched to electric bass in the first place was that Dennis Mack at Kenton High School? (who recruited me when I was in 8th grade to play with the high school jazz band) decided I wasn’t loud enough on the upright, and put his electric Epiphone (it was like the Jack Casady model) in my hands.

Still played some orchestral stuff after that (even successfully auditioned for the Lima Area Youth Symphony, and played on Ohio Northern University Band Camp and West Torrance High School?’s recordings (Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball and Wagner’s Elsa’s Processional from Lohengrin), but my primary focus was electric bass from that time forward. It was the electric bass that got me the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award, I reckon, and bass I ended up playing in bands (along with other things, of course). When I graduated from high school, I said goodbye to the loaned bass, and rarely looked back.

Always WANTED an upright, of course, but situations never arose making it possible. Besides, there were significant other things to acquire: multi-track recording equipment, amplifiers, digital pianos, twelve string guitars, etc.

Later, when I applied to Berklee, because I didn’t really have anything that featured virtuoso bass playing, I shot for a scholarship as a voice principal, and was accepted as such. However, after the first day of placement interviews and auditions with the voice department, I realized there were (at that time, anyway) serious limitations to being a Voice principal at a school where almost every waking moment was spent looking for a jam session. So I picked up my electric bass, strolled into the bass department and asked for an audition. They threw sight reading (charts, lead sheets and notation), ear training, improvisation and other stuff at me, which I breezed through. They were anxious to have me in the bass department (and imagine how thrilled they would have been if I’d been able to double on acoustic bass!). Unfortunately, after a wee bit of research, they and I realized that changing my principal instrument from voice to bass would cancel my current scholarship, and since the award period was closed for that year, there’s no way I would have received another scholarship (on bass). So in order to stay at Berklee, I stayed a Voice principal. Not a perfect fit for me, or for Berklee, in retrospect.

Fast forward 23 years. About a year ago I broke down and bought an electric fretless bass, and I’ve been having fun with that and been pretty successfully translating fretted to fretless. But as I said before, electric bass and acoustic bass (and here I am, with a new to me equivalent of an upright bass) are the same, but really quite different, instruments. Yes, I’m experiencing muscle and sense memory of playing; but some of that memory is remembering how I had to unlearn certain things from the acoustic in order to successfully play electric. One of the biggest things, for me, is the switch between using the fourth and third fingers (pinkie and ring fingers). Because of the difference in neck length, you use different fingers, and switch positions in different places. String bending is another thing that’s different. And to be honest, in the playing I was doing back in school, there wasn’t a lot of high register work; that’s something that I learned on electric via Ray Brown’s Bass Method for upright, ironically. Plus, the electric upright width and depth are so different from a standard acoustic bass that you have to modify the traditional stance and instrument angle, etc., to accommodate that difference. So it’s like a native English speaker who became fluent in French and now has to go back to thinking in English (or really, thinking in both languages simultaneously). And I haven’t even started thinking about revisiting bowing. LOL.

It’s slow going. You need callouses in different places on your fingers, the hand and arm angle are different, the tricks and shortcuts you learn on one instrument may or may not be applicable (or even possible) on the other. Every day it gets easier to span the gap, but not being able to transparently shift from one to the other, without the aid of mirrors, so to speak, is tough.

However, it’s good to know that this experience confirms one thing for certain: I am a bass player. It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am. And that reassurance is something in this day and age, I can tell you.

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