IN THE YEAR 1542, THE ITALIAN
instrument maker Silvestro Ganassi was
looking for a bass player, but there weren’t
any to be found—the profession “bassist” did
not yet exist. Ganassi had created a Bass
Viola de Gamba to fill out the bottom end
of the small string orchestras that played
gigs around Venice. Ganassi’s instrument
boasted six sheep-gut strings and movable
frets, also made from gut. By inventing
the first real bass-like instrument, Ganassi
unknowingly set the stage for everyone from
Domenico Dragonetti to James Jameson.
Jump ahead to 1950: Leo Fender was
riding the crest of the electric music movement.
He also had an idea that would change
the music world—an electric bass guitar.
Basing his design on his Telecaster guitar
body, Fender invented an electric instrument
with four strings and metal frets. “Intonation
with precision!” was his motto, which
led to the name “Precision Bass.”
The upright bass and the bass guitar are
different instruments, invented centuries
apart. The instruments are often tuned the
same, but their string lengths vary by about
ten inches, their bridge and fingerboard setups
are worlds apart, and the playing techniques
used for one instrument do not always translate
to the other. Yet the upright bass and
bass guitar share some common functions:
They both anchor an ensemble, defi ne harmonic
movement, and provide a rhythmic
cushion. Many players—the doublers—
play both instruments. This month,
let’s look at fingering concepts and
options for each instrument.
Example 1 shows a major scale
played with the standard four-finger
bass guitar fingering system, which
uses one finger per fret. The beauty of this
fingering is that it can be moved all over
the neck; it’s easy to transpose. Many students
believe that when they can do this,
they have the major scales in all 12 keys
under their fingers. This is only half true—
to master scales in all keys, a bassist must
have several good fingerings for each scale.
Example 2 shows the same scale with
upright bass fingering. The traditional upright
fingering is a three-finger system, using fingers
1, 2, and 4 of the left hand. The length
of the upright’s strings between the nut and
bridge is usually 40–44", compared to 30–34"
on a bass guitar; due to the longer string
length, the notes are further apart. To play
in tune, the upright bassist uses fingers 1,
2, and 4 to cover the distance of a wholestep
(for example, the notes F, F#, and G
on the E string).
The upright bass requires that you shift
often to play certain scales, intervals, and
arpeggios. Notice in Ex. 2 the shift from A
to B on the G string when moving up the
C major scale. This is a standard fingering,
which works very well. I know what you’re
thinking: Just use bass guitar fingerings and
coast over the notes A, B, and C with fingers
1, 3, and 4. Don’t do it! You’ll be out
of tune, and you’ll still have to shift a hair
to get from the A to the B. Every orchestra
member or jazz player will look at you
and think “Noob,” or worse. Don’t freak
out with all the shifting—just use the correct
fingerings, and learn to shift in tune
using your ears and finger muscle memory.
Examples 3 and 4 also highlight fingering
differences. Upright bassists see open strings
as in-tune landmarks on an open expanse of
fretless fingerboard. Bass guitarists tend to
avoid playing open strings, because using all
fretted notes yields a more consistent sound.
When you play the Cm7 arpeggio on
upright, play the open G string while you
are moving your left hand up slightly to
nail the B with your 2nd finger. If you keep
missing the B, stop. Sing the note, look
at the spot on the fingerboard where you
think the B should be, and play the note.
Sing, look, and play. You’ll soon find that
you can nail the shift without even glancing
at the neck.
Examples 5 and 6 outline a C minor pentatonic
scale up and down the neck. For bass
guitar fingering on the ascending segment,
shift from the Bb to C on the G string using
your 1st finger. On the descending segment,
shift from the C back to Bb also using the 1st
finger. There are always several possible fingerings
for scales and arpeggios. You should
first master one fingering, and then see which
alternate fingerings also work for you.
The upright bass fingerings in Ex. 6 use the
open G string. Notice that on the descending
line, the C and Bb are played on the D string,
followed by the open G string. This might
present a coordination problem during your
first few attempts, but it highlights a common
upright bass rule-of-thumb: Play as many notes
as possible in one position before shifting.
Examples 7 and 8 highlight differences in
fingering on electric and acoustic by running
through four tetrachords. The term tetrachord
refers to any series of four notes within the
interval of a 4th. For our purposes, think of
a tetrachord as “half a scale.” Play through
the tetrachords slowly on both bass guitar
and upright bass. If you play only one bass
or the other, don’t “fret”—play the exercises
using the prescribed fingerings on your instrument
of choice, but note the contrasting fingerings
of the other instrument.
Next time, we’ll hear from some successful
doublers—why they like to play both
instruments, where they use each, and some
benefits and pitfalls of being a multi-instrumentalist.
Discuss all aspects of bass playing with John at the musicplayer.com LowDown Forum.
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