What stringed bowed bass instrument should I learn?
February 21, 2014 11:54 AM   Subscribe

For home recordings, I'm looking to learn a new instrument that is cello-like, low-end and haunting sounding, but not large and unwieldy. Help me brainstorm.

I'm moving into a tiny apartment with thin walls. I don't want to haul around something as big as a cello. I have tried, and failed, to bow an electric guitar, but the bowing is so inconsistent, although the scratchy and erratic sound could sometimes be cool.

The sound I'm looking for is a low, menacing, scratchy bowed sound. Nothing classical. Think old Lou Reed records or Nick Cave, something ominous sounding.

I was thinking a mini Dilruba would be an awesome thing to learn, and portable, until realizing the mini versions are only higher pitched notes.

Are there any other more obscure or exotic instruments around the world that might fit the bill?
posted by critzer to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You might know about these already, but electric cellos exist. They're smaller and lighter than a wooden cello, plus let you plug in headphones, so you wouldn't be disturbing your neighbors.
posted by MsMolly at 12:00 PM on February 21, 2014

True I have seen those, but I guess I'm looking for a cello alternative in terms of sound. Something you might hear and go "what is that??" as opposed to an actual cello which is pretty identifiable. But I might be wanting too much.
posted by critzer at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2014

Yeah I mean, low and menacing simply isn't compatible with not large and unwieldy, unless you are using some sort of electronic interface. Low sounds require larger vibrating bodies, so it's going to be difficult to find an acoustic solution.

What about getting a midi controller and some software?
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:08 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Baritone bowed psaltery?
posted by neroli at 12:14 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

(another video, with more bowing)
posted by neroli at 12:21 PM on February 21, 2014

I've played orchestral upright bass since I was 10. It's really hard to move around, and to play in an apartment with thin walls. I've also experimented with every sort of electric upright and oddball baroque instrument. I don't think what you want exists. If you're serious about it, and have the money, I recommend one of these: http://www.nedsteinberger.com.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 12:21 PM on February 21, 2014

Figure out a way to bow one of those rubber stringed ukulele basses. That would sound crazy, I imagine, and would have the added sight-gag benefit of this mean low sound coming from this itty bitty cute little thing.
posted by dirtdirt at 12:32 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks guys, for some reason I didn't even know there were baritone versions that low of a ukelele and psaltery.
posted by critzer at 12:35 PM on February 21, 2014

Some Chinese instruments you might be interested in looking at:
Morin huur - aka horse-head fiddle or 马头琴
Dihu - mid (中低胡) or bass (大低胡)
Laruan - designed as a cross between the traditional plucked ruan and a bowed Western cello.

Unfortunately, the horse-head fiddle is probably the only one you could easily find in the US.
posted by bradf at 12:39 PM on February 21, 2014

Here are my brainstorms:

Get a nice big viola (upwards of 17 inches) and tune it down a full fifth.
Check out The Violin Octet
Build your own Marientrompette (or Tromba Marina)
Get in touch with my friend Ken Bloom and have him build you a bowed dulcimer.
Apparently, Ken also makes a Hardanger Dulcimer. You could go with that or see what your options are for a low-voiced hardingfele. Or do as suggested above for the viola and string up your own low-voiced hardingfele. It might give you the weirdness of tone that you're looking for.

Credentials: violinist, fiddler, early music and weird instrument nerd, not very fun at parties.
posted by Polyhymnia at 12:43 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here are the folks to go to for lower hardingfele-type instruments: Hardingkvartetten
posted by Polyhymnia at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2014

Small, expressive, definitely has the "low, menacing, scratchy" thing: the daxophone. (another example)
posted by bricoleur at 12:49 PM on February 21, 2014

Coming at it from another direction--have you tried an ebow?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:10 PM on February 21, 2014

A tuned-down viola might sound cool, but wouldn't the strings sound muddy and vibrate?

I did try an ebow for awhile, but didn't have the slashing/bowed sound I was looking for.
posted by critzer at 1:13 PM on February 21, 2014

Really like the double bass dulcimer too, just a bit out of my price range.
posted by critzer at 1:14 PM on February 21, 2014

I think a tuned down viola would require some tinkering in terms of setup and it might always be a bit muddy, but it could be your best bet. A good luthier could help you work some of that out.

Casey Driessen is a phenomenal fiddle player who sometimes plays an 8vb fiddle. He uses wider diameter strings to get a tone that's an octave below standard pitch. That might be an option to try with a viola. You could contact him for more info, or I can ask him when he comes to town in a few weeks. Also, check out his totally amazing "chop" technique. It might be fun for you.
posted by Polyhymnia at 1:28 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, check out his totally amazing "chop" technique yt . It might be fun for you.

Whoa, never really heard anything quite like that. Nice percussive sound.
posted by critzer at 1:40 PM on February 21, 2014

I was thinking the Chinese violin-like instruments too: I saw a man playing one on the street in SF, and I think it may have something like the timbre you want
posted by thelonius at 1:43 PM on February 21, 2014

Tuning an electric guitar way down can produce some cool tones, but you have to be really careful with your fretting hand as the low tension makes it very easy to bend them out of pitch.
I have a cheap old keyboard with a cello setting that I run through a guitar amp with lots of distortion, reverb, etc. Not scratchy but definitely unique.
posted by aquanaut at 3:33 PM on February 21, 2014

It'd be really easy to run an electric cello through a couple guitar effects and get something really menacing. With enough effect you could even just use an electric guitar really. This EHX series mentioned on the blue recently might have something you're looking for.

If you do go the electric cello route, I bet a simple, relatively cheap reverb pedal that allows you to mute the dry signal in favor of the wet reverb signal would really be all you needed for something like the VU and Nico sound. You could add a very cheap overdrive effect too either before or after the reverb pedal.

Also maybe a horrifying waterphone?
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 4:28 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

A tuned-down viola might sound cool, but wouldn't the strings sound muddy and vibrate?

Yes, totally; And sound really excellent with some effects pedals.

You don't even have to tune all the way down to a full fifth before you start getting some resonances transpire at the bottom range. Lou Reed's old associate John Cale got some pretty dark notes out of a viola which I think was probably standard tuning.

One advantage to getting a viola is that they're not that hard to find. But if you could find a decent viola d'amore at a reasonable price, then that would be pretty cool.
posted by ovvl at 5:13 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the tuning a viola lower idea, perhaps an alto violin aka vertical viola because they run 19" vibrating string length. Or how about a viola pomposa?

(Nice big resonating chamber;very longish vibrating length of strings. More of a monster fiddler's look with that special harness.)
posted by bertran at 9:22 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, if everybody else is going to go all ethnomusicological on you, why not a Bulgarian Gadulka? Or perhaps a Cretan Lyra? Or a Turkish classical kemenche? If the raised string playing with the side opf your fingernail technique seems like it isn't for you, how about a Black Sea lyra AKA Turkish kemenche - which is pretty much the wildest of the fiddle family.
posted by zaelic at 6:28 AM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Or how about a Sarangi?
posted by spitbull at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

OP, given that you mention Nick Cave and The Velvet Underground, I'm going to go against the grain of telling you to learn (and have to mic!) a folk instrument. What you need to do, probably, is learn to get the sound you want out of extant and easily available instruments by learning what effects pedals do. The instrument you want, in and of itself in one piece, is probably not around. (Though, damn, now I want a waterphone.) Putting together effects pedals is as much an art as playing a guitar, bass, synth or uke (if you're going to put together a pedalboard for one!). This is demonstrated by the graveyard of pedals in every music store -- every musician who relies on effects pedals is looking for the proper tone and thinks they have it until they've played for two weeks and it sounds ... off. An expensive hobby! But it means lots of used gear, no need to retain a luthier. And with pedals you can use headphones, rearrange, join the rest of us schmucks. Your keyboard will have all sorts of sounds if you play that. You can make whatever else you're plugging in sound just like you would like it to. You could even buy a keyboard with string sounds aplenty. And then make them lower! And growlier!

Thing is: Anything can be low and growly if you use a pitch shifter to bring it down -- I have an autoharp that can be made to sound like the footfalls of an elephant. Anything can warble, which I suspect is what you like about bowing, with a Wah Pedal. Then there are the more experimental pedals, which can do awesome things in conjunction. I'm saving up for an Eventide Space MultiEffects Pedal. I play guitar with just one hand, tuned to an open chord (it was set up for this to be possible - bowing is also possible with strings and set up if you'd like to pursue that more, I'd suggest getting a professional set up). My other hand is on effects and keys. I have a Celesta organ patch like in several of the Velvet Underground songs on my keyboard, by the way. I also have a musical saw patch. I just downloaded a waterphone patch, too!

Best of luck! Memail me any time! Noise musicians are a rare breed.
posted by sweltering at 12:21 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also! What about an electric guitar (or bass if you're feeling adventurous) and a slide? Slide guitar has been traditionally associated with blues and blue grass, but as you'll see there are plenty of possibilities -- and it's very easy to learn enough to be impressive sounding just messing around, like the waterphone video above. A slide functions a bit like a bow in some ways, just a very narrow, grippy one. It can be very percussive as well. You should pick a guitar you're ok with smacking. Also, slides can be improvised and you can change them with your playing, with time, with what you've got laying around, with how you want your instrument to sound tonight. It's an instrument that can have a DIY bow. (I use plain glass ones that are all of $8.)

If you tune an electric guitar to D and use a slide to shimmy up and down the fretboard, it's very cello like, but you can let your imagination take you further. I've just had a guitar shop put more springs put in the back of a cheap guitar (my advice repeated: only do this to a cheap guitar!) in order to be able to put on thicker, lower, flat strings that will really resonate with the big slides I prefer. It sounds totally growly and haunting. Again, I'd caution against ending your search if an instrument is too high pitched for you. My not-very-fancy amplifier has a pitch shifter. They're seriously not expensive.

The more obvious and turnkey variant of this is a lapsteel guitar. They are primarily played by slides as well. Maybe it's just me, but I've seen a lot of them around lately, compared to usual music store selection. They hit a lot of your points. Low, menacing, scratchy with minimal effects, space efficient? Check, check, check, check. The discount online retailer Rondo (which is often recommended on the green for beginner instruments) just listed this one on a recent mailer. I'm fairly sure I saw a lapsteel on stage at a Nick Cave show. You can both shimmy the slide and smack the guitar with it, so you get the percussive bow thing. Haunting as you want it to be. You can play some lapsteels while standing up and I could probably play my frankenstein while sitting down with it in my lap. It's a really good solution, I think.

Lastly, I can't believe I didn't mention this - everything sounds disorienting and menacing through a Ring Modulator pedal. Here's the one I kinda want. Really, just watch videos and play with stuff. There's so much out there now, with the maker movement enabling more boutique pedals and instruments to come on the market.
posted by sweltering at 10:15 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

A theremin!
posted by spitbull at 6:42 AM on February 24, 2014

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