WHILE THE ELECTRIC BASS IS FIRMLY
established in the blues, it was the upright
bass that appeared on many of the classic
recordings that forged the idiom. Remember,
Leo Fender’s creation didn’t hit the market
until 1951, and a whole lotta blues happened
before then. The upright bass was well represented
on jazz, blues, pop, country, and
rock recordings into the mid 1960s, and the
way it sits in the mix is something electric
bass players would do well to understand.
While the rustic nature of Muddy Waters’
recordings of 1947–50 seem perfectly matched
to the percussive upright bass playing of
Ernest “Big” Crawford, even his more produced
work with the legendary bassist/composer
Willie Dixon had the organic thump
of the doghouse. Drums were not common
in rural blues, and upright players filled out
the rhythm using the slap-and-pluck technique
that dates back to the earliest days of
traditional jazz. But even after drums and
electric guitars became widely used, many
upright players continued to slap as a way
to make their relatively quiet instrument
cut through the mix.
Electric bassists can get close to the thumpy
tone of the upright bass by plucking with the thumb while using a palm-muting technique.
Put the fat side of your palm against
the strings, just in front of the bridge where
the strings begin to vibrate, and play the
string with the meaty pad of your thumb.
Through a balance of downward pressure,
distance of the palm from the bridge, and
the amount of thumb-meat put on the string,
you can “inflate” each note with air. Each
bass responds differently to this technique,
but to get the fullest tone, subtly boost the
low frequencies, and play mostly on the E,
A, and D strings—the G can be coaxed into
thumping, but it is not inclined to do that.
(For a full lesson on this technique, check
out my Hal Leonard book The Working
Bassist’s Toolkit, and see my Palm Mute
video on YouTube.)
Getting the right sound is the first step,
but grasping some of the musical elements
of upright bass is equally important. Consider
that upright bass is more physically
demanding—most instruments have action
that would give electric bassists a seizure.
The 41" scale length places the notes farther
apart, and the instrument “speaks” much
slower than electric bass. All of these factors
explain why upright bassists tend to play simpler lines than their Fender-ized compatriots.
But in some ways, the extra effort
it takes to produce a sound on the upright
gives each note more significance, and certainly
when properly recorded, it can fill
out the low end as loud and proud as any
“slab” bass. Example 1 is a stripped-down
line that is upright-like in its simplicity and
economy of movement. It’s not much on its
own, but work it behind a great band playing
a post-War Chicago shuffle, and it will
rock the house.
With upright bass, there is always a
direct link to jazz. Blues artists such as
Louis Jordan and Bobby Bland straddled
that line with a swing-oriented approach,
allowing the bass line to abandon repetitive
patterns in favor of walking freely through
the chord changes. Example 2 is a walking
line similar to Bobby Bland’s “Farther
Up the Road.” It melodically walks up and
down the scale, but it still hits all the major points of interest in the form. To really get
the thump, I’ve tabbed this line up the fingerboard
to take advantage of the natural
“boom factor.” You can find a play-along
version of this tune in my book Blues Bass [Hal Leonard].
From now on, pay attention when you
listen to old (and many new) recordings—
it might be an upright bass providing the
bottom. Notice how the upright’s character
affects the mix, the groove, and the music.
While there is no substitute for the real thing,
with a little knowledge and the thumb/palm
mute technique, you can inhabit that space—
without getting blisters.