Learning Upright Bass
April 15, 2005 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Suppose a fellow has an interest in learning to play an upright bass. He doesn't have any illusions about being the next Mingus or William Parker, but enjoys the sound and feel of the instrument and would get personal enjoyment out of being able to play a few things. Further suppose that this fellow has very little money to invest in this endeavor. How would he go about learning?
posted by aladfar to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This book might be a good place to start, I've been playing bass for a while, and just switched to upright a few months ago, and this book seemed to cover the basic jazz lines.
posted by drezdn at 7:40 AM on April 15, 2005

Response by poster: This is a good start drezdn, thanks. However: What about the bass itself? I'm afraid I don't have anything to play!
posted by aladfar at 7:46 AM on April 15, 2005

I'm not sure if you're asking about getting a bass or a bass method.

If you need a bass, and have little to spend, my preferences run toward a now-defunct brand called Kay. I love their slim little necks, they are built like tanks, and they have this plywood construction that resulted in a slightly "dead" body, making them resistant to feedback while amplifying them in loud situations. If you live in the midwest, they are relatively easy to find. Though Kay is out of production, a modern company called Englehart snatched up their templates and now make instruments that feel exactly the same (thin neck!), most for under $1500.

I have discovered that good bang for your buck can be found in a brand called Christopher, though I am not partial to the thicker necks. I suggest you avoid a brand called Cremona. They are everywhere, and their price makes them attractive, but as an instrument repair person, I've found them structurally unsound.

Let me know what style of music you wish to play, and then I can recommend some methods/books for you. Additionally, how much theory do you know?
posted by sourwookie at 8:03 AM on April 15, 2005

YOu can build one of these inexpensively. Here are the plans.
posted by wsg at 8:30 AM on April 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

Head down to Kagan and Gaines music store where, last I checked, they've a couple dozen basses of varying, mostly poor, quality and start asking questions. If Pinter's Violins (or something like that) still exists, they'd be my first choice. They're located near Wrigley Field, or were ten or so years ago. Hopefully, either one of these shops will be able to point you in the direction of a teacher, who will be able to advise you on how to scare up an instrument and how to play it.

When I learned the bass, the two books I referred to constantly were Simandl and Rufus Reid's Evolving Bassist. The Simandl I used about 10x as much as the Reid. The problem with any book is that it's very difficult to convey technique and intonation in print, that's why an actual teacher is invaluable.

For mail order, there are two outfits I'd recommend, Lemur Music and Hammond Ashley. They're both knowledgable and trustworthy dealers.

The double bass is a demanding instrument, make no mistake, but it's all manner of fun as well.
posted by stet at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2005

The Simandl was spawned in hell. My exposure to that book as a child is responsible for my adult anxiety and receding hairline. It was invaluable for technique, though.

I have used this book with some of my students. With just a cursory knowledge of scales it had many of them walking over standards in just days. It is, however, the Cliff Notes of bass theory.
posted by sourwookie at 8:45 AM on April 15, 2005

Best answer: Do not go out and buy a bass first.

The first step is to find a well-recommended private teacher in your area. The bass is a very physical instrument, and I strongly recommend against trying to teach yourself how to play. It'll be easy to get bad habits that later lead to permanent injuries that stop you from playing, or best case make the instrument a whole lot more frustrating than it needs to be. Similarly, it's easy to end up with a bass which fights you. It's better to start out with a beginner instrument that you can get a foundation on. (I did both of these wrong, incidentally, and while a lot of things conspired to make me change my mind, having to relearn my technique from scratch and playing a difficult bass were contributing factors in abandoning the performance B.Mus I was once enrolled in.)

You want to find a local teacher who the other players in town respect and recommend, even though you don't have an axe yet. Meet with a couple of teachers and tell them you want to learn to play bass, and what styles you're interested in, and what you want to do with it (hobby, local semi-pro, aspirations of playing pro) and so on. Talk about teaching approach: a lot of jazz bass teachers are heavy into classical technique -- which I recommend, but which might not be your bag, and if it's a hobby, that's a perfectly fine position to take. If you're looking to play pro, you really want some classical chops. See if the teacher's approach is compatible with what you're looking to do.

Once you've find a teacher you're comfortable with, enlist them to help you find a bass. Depending on the connectedness of the teacher and the area you live, finding a bass through your teacher will be child's play compared to finding one yourself -- partly because the teacher will have a better feel for the condition and playability of the instrument, and partly because they're already in the loop and know people who will have basses for sale. (If your teacher is a professional player, he can probably get his luthier to bring a bunch of basses around for you to try out, too, or even lend you a much better bass than you could afford from his collection.)

From there you're pretty much all set. Trust your teacher, but if things aren't working out, shop around. (This is the other step I missed in my own study.) The merits of one bass method over another, or one bow grip over another, are probably not worth worrying about when you're starting out compared to the value of their familiarity to your teacher.

As for money, it's strongly dependent upon the area and the experience of your teacher. I'd budget a couple grand for a bass and $200 or so for a bow, or if you're really stuck a grand for a bass and a hundred for a bow. Keep in mind that you're going to be out another hundred every time you restring your bass -- which is relatively rare, but still, we're not talking guitar strings. Lessons are all over the place, but $15-30 per half-hour weekly lesson is probably reasonable. If you're studying with a notable player (either because you connected with them well, or because that's all that you can find), it can be double that.
posted by mendel at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2005

A rebuttal of sourwookie's prejudice against Cremona basses, from the creator of the d-i-y bass cited above by wsg.

(Not arguing with you, sourwookie, you obviously have your reasons, and I know nothing about the string bass. Just throwing this in for good measure because this guy has his reasons too.)
posted by bricoleur at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2005

Also, wsg's link to a homemade bass is neat, but that won't be much use to you playing jazz or classical bass; part of the reason the bass is the size that it is is that you support it with your body. You'd have to hold the washtub bass up by its neck, which isn't practical for much beyond folk music.

And while I'm at it, you probably don't want to bother looking at new basses. Orchestral strings last a long time and classical students outgrow entry-level instruments quickly, so the used market is quite a bit bigger than new for mass-produced instruments.
posted by mendel at 9:33 AM on April 15, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you mendel - the course of action you suggest seems like a good one. I'll look into it.

For the record, I'm interested strictly as a hobbiest and have no aspirations to play professionally. I get much enjoyment out of my guitar and banjo, but wouldn't call myself a musician.

What of electric upright basses? Are they cheaper or easier to maintain?
posted by aladfar at 9:41 AM on April 15, 2005

Ignore electric uprights -- they're really just targeted at pros. They might be handy when you're going into the studio and you're just going to be directly injecting your pickup into the board, because you don't have to lug a doghouse around, but I think they're primarily designed to look neat on stage. Rob Wasserman and Sting are the only people I can think of who play electric uprights offhand. Rob's an interesting player, but compared to the set of players who could play electrics but don't...

Very little flexibility in terms of playing style, and you will have to lug an amp around all the time (and your combo might get gigs in places with no power!) and you're pretty much screwed if you find that classical music interests you.

Because they're targeted at pros, they're certainly not cheaper. They're probably easier to maintain inasmuch as you won't accidentally poke a hole in them, but that's about it. There really isn't much maintenance to do on a bass.
posted by mendel at 9:47 AM on April 15, 2005

Response by poster: OK: Thanks very much for the advice Mendel. I've just discovered that the Old Town School here in Chicago offers lessons in upright bass (I should of thought of them from the start) and rents instruments for $75/8 weeks. This strikes me as a reasonable investment for someone who might not take to it as well as he thinks he will.

And if it does work out well, I can apply my rental fees toward a new instrument, or ask around the school to see if someone might be unloading a used one.
posted by aladfar at 11:06 AM on April 15, 2005

Sounds like a good approach. I hope it works out -- the bass is a lot of fun to play (even if it's not so much fun to carry around)!
posted by mendel at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2005

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