Web/etc resources for autodidactic upright bass rookies?
May 4, 2007 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good resources for upright bass DIY education—especially regarding bowing basics and other physical/form questions.

Wife and I are the proud parents of a new upright 3/4, but neither of us has any real experience with bowing string instruments, or with dealing physically with the upright bass. And though it may well be my poor domain-specific vocabulary, I'm not finding good stuff online.

- absolute beginner bowing technique (French style bow);
- good guidance on dealing physically with the bass for playing;
- miscellaneous stupid-obvious things we don't know even though we should.

Web-based resources, a really killer book or two, or straight up advice: bring it on.
posted by cortex to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (We aren't so worried about basic music theory or fretboard navigation in the musical sense; I'm a long-time guitarist, and she's played some guitar and electric bass as well. Good upright-specific fretboard [do they call it a fretboard when there's no, you know, frets?] mechanics, however, are more than welcome.)
posted by cortex at 4:20 PM on May 4, 2007

do they call it a fretboard when there's no, you know, frets?

No, they call it a fingerboard. And that's the extent of my double bass knowledge.
posted by chrismear at 4:34 PM on May 4, 2007

Okay, let's see if I can dig this out of the brain - my upright is still at my parents house, serving as decoration...

Good call with the french bow - I always found german bowing to be awkward and difficult.

I'd start by learning how to pizz well, and then perfect your positions. I always pizzed with my thumb supporting the hand (while resting on either the fingerboard or the next lower string) and used my pointer and middle fingers to pizz. It's going to hurt. As mainly an orchestral player, I never developed the callouses on my fingers to pizz a lot - those are some painful-ass callouses, but they'll come (I'm told).

As long as you have decent pitch, figuring out your positions will come naturally. Just close your eyes, and move your hands until you're "fretting" the right place. If you're set on actually knowing the positions, pick up an old bass book, or find them online. Your pinky will probably complain the most, I know mine did.

When I was feeling lazy, I'd hold the bass with the right side against my body, with the bridge facing right. It's not technically correct at all, but it's generally comfortable, even more so if you want to sit. It does look totally lame, though.

If it's a cheap bass, you might want to (don't yell at me, expensive bass owners) mount a few rubber stoppers on one side, so you can lay it down without scratching the finish. Ditto for the endpin - that thing'll screw up your floors something awful.
posted by god hates math at 4:55 PM on May 4, 2007

I've done some basic legwork researching uprights, and the advice I run into again and again is get a teacher. This isn't what you asked, but the reasoning is sound - there's a ton of ways to learn bad habits and having someone in the room to critique what you're doing while you're doing it is pretty crucial. Also, a teacher will either be able to set up your instrument for you or recommend a shop that can. Setting up your instrument is very important. This is more than just stringing the beast up, it's setting the intonation, possibly setting you up with a new bridge (there differences in bridge-style depending on how you intend to plat the bass) and adjusting the sound post.

My advice is to book one or two sessions and see how it goes. If you like it, continue. If you think you've got the basic hang of the instrument, continue on your own from there. The most I'd imagine you'd be out is $100 for two lessons.

I'm so jealous.
posted by lekvar at 4:59 PM on May 4, 2007

Ooh, some fretboard mechanics -

Proper form consists of this - place the pad of your thumb in the middle of the neck, on the back (you'll come to either love or hate your neck, depending on how smooth it is). Curl your fingers around, and make sure that your thumb doesn't droop - if your hand is basically a C, you're doing alright. You don't, however, want your thumb to splay outwards, hitchhiker-style.

I'm not completely sure why this is, these are just high-school memories coming back.
posted by god hates math at 4:59 PM on May 4, 2007

DIY? you are crazy. hire a teacher. a real person will teach you more in ten hours of lessons than you could learn in 100 hours on your own. after a while that calculus might reverse somewhat if you are talented musically, but in the beginning....
posted by caddis at 5:58 PM on May 4, 2007

Response by poster: DIY? you are crazy. hire a teacher. a real person will teach you more in ten hours of lessons than you could learn in 100 hours on your own.

The argument isn't lost on me, but the question isn't "should I", it's "how can I". I know teachers are out there—the guy who sold us the bass could hook us up in a minute—and if the DIY thing leaves us completely hopeless with a bow, we can go there.

In the mean time, resources! Attempts to distill some of those teachable things into fixed form suitable for consumption by the stubborn autodidact!
posted by cortex at 6:47 PM on May 4, 2007

OK, you are obviously a better judge of this than I am, but all my experience is that the personal touch in music outweighs DIY 10 to 1, even for people who take to a new instrument quickly, although for them the personal advantage might fade much faster than for others. I know a great stand up bass guy if you are ever in NY, I mean really great. Great player, great teacher.
posted by caddis at 7:21 PM on May 4, 2007

The bass is a very physical instrument and you stand a good chance of injury to your hands if you teach yourself, especially if you teach yourself bowing.

If you absolutely insist on teaching yourself, buy Simandl. If you also want to learn jazz -- I say "also" because learning the bass is first learning classical bass, and because those classical chops will greatly further your jazz technique -- then buy Ray Brown. (I see Amazon even has a special on the two together.)

Online, read about the players that interest you, the history of the instrument, jazz theory, reading Baroque figured bass, whatever -- but the standard bass method is a century old and the standard jazz method decades, and there's no point in not playing off paper (which you'll be marking up with positions and bowings anyhow).

No-one worth reading is publishing bass methods online because everyone knows that Simandl and its few alternatives are what the teachers teach. Your four-hundred-year-old instrument has not experienced any significant developments in the decade there's been a Web to read.

Some things are not online things.

(For what it's worth: I've played for about fifteen years, including a stint doing a B.Mus in performance at McGill which, alas, I didn't complete. But I did spend a couple of years in the bass section of the McGill Symphony -- I even got to play under Dutoit for the CBC! -- plus a few minor studio jobs. I burned out a bit and don't play as much these
days, though.)
posted by mendel at 7:31 PM on May 4, 2007

Just play the thing! Use your ears to make corrections. Try different positions (body, arms, and hands) until you find one that is (most) comfortable. Playing along with recordings is great. Learn the octave shape with Gimme Some Lovin'. Learn 4ths and 5ths with classic country tunes or blues. Turn on an Oldies station and see if you can get the bass line down before each song ends.

The great thing about the double bass is that it's played in so many different ways. You can take a killer self-taught rockabilly slapper, a symphony player with a lifetime of classical training, and a bebop chop-meister and none can do what the others do. And they all can be awesome.

(If you want an informal lesson, you're welcome to come over to my house. I'm around this weekend. I have two basses. And live on the MAX line. I can also loan you some VHS videos I got for joining the International Society of Bassist. If nothing else they're inspiring.)
posted by nonmyopicdave at 10:22 PM on May 4, 2007

Cortex, I played upright in a band for two years, self taught. For bowing, the tutorials on the Internet didn't do much for me. Much of the photos are unilluminating and some of the advice is contradictory. Considering your sheer musicianship, an hour with someone who really knows what they're doing should be enough to set you on the right path.

It's also true that doing it wrong can equal pain, I was mainly a bluegrass style "puller" and I developed pain in my thumb from doing it.
posted by drezdn at 11:14 AM on May 5, 2007

Sounds like you're musical enough to play in tune without much help - but as my boyfriend (upright and electric bassist) says 'it hurts; that's normal'. *But* there are ways to minimise the hurt.

Bowing is a really hard skill to get by yourself - and though you sound determined to make it on your own if you can, it might be worth talking to and having a lesson or two from a pro player just for bowing, as bad habits can be *really* hard to undo (believe me, I've been there, not on bass though).
posted by altolinguistic at 12:12 PM on May 5, 2007

You have no choice but to get the F. Simandl book.

May God have mercy on your soul.
posted by sourwookie at 2:46 PM on May 5, 2007

I played for a number of years, although I haven't recently.

I cannot imagine learning the basics of technique without an instructor. Pay the money for three or four lessons to get you on your feet, at least.
posted by Netzapper at 3:17 PM on May 5, 2007

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