Blues You Can Use: Upright, Outta Sight

August 1, 2012
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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 fi lled 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.

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