This edition of The Berklee Bass Babylon (Babble-On) focuses on something near and dear to my heart—doubling! Some approach the bass guitar and upright bass as completely different beasts, in fingerings, ergonomics, and musical context/settings/styles. Others look for the similarities and focus on those, often using upright-bass fingerings on most of the bass guitar fingerboard. Then there is the hybrid approach, mixing “what works best for me,” which can depend on hand size, fingerboard knowledge, plucking-hand approach, and other factors. Even one’s upper and lower back health can weigh into this conversation. Forty-two-year Berklee bass veteran Whit Browne has his take on it, and it works well for him and many others coming from the old-school approach of James Jamerson, Ron Carter, and Rufus Reid. Mike Pope, our newest faculty member, brings the efficient fingering systems, chord-voicing concepts, and vertical and linear approach you might hear from Patitucci, Carlitos Del Puerto, or yours truly. Both Whit and Mike can funk it up and swing with the best of them—proof that many paths lead to excellence!
What is “doubling”? The term first referred to wind players who played saxophone and flute (for example); the fingerings are the same, but it’s a different instrument. The term was adapted by bassists in the ’60s, as the electric bass became established. Whit Browne, a highly regarded fixture on the Boston music scene (when Ray Brown is calling you to sub for him in Oscar Peterson’s band, you’ve arrived), says, “It was a matter of economics at that time. The scene was changing, and if you wanted to keep the gig, you played both basses.” Mike Pope recalls that in the early ’90s, “Doubling implied that you were either an electric player who also played upright, or an upright player who also played electric.” For two guys coming up at different times, how different are the instruments? Perhaps more important, how are they alike? Whit says, “Quite simply, I think of them as the same. They’re both basses! We know today that the technique is quite different. Back in the late ’60s, an upright player could dig out the Simandl Bass Method to practice left-hand neck positions on the electric bass. The right-hand plucking technique could be carried over from the upright bass and still satisfy the requirements of the music, be it jazz, rock, R&B, Latin, or blues.”
Mike offers, “Plenty of bass players of that era seemed to agree. James Jamerson played all of his iconic [Fender bass] lines with essentially the same technique most would use on upright. That contributed heavily to the unique sound and feel of his parts. Personally, I think there is an idiomatic component to many techniques. In retrospect, playing electric bass with a traditional jazz or upright technique was an early form of fusion—aspects of one language infused into another. The technique brought with it a concept. When I moved to New York City in 1993, the demands being made on bassists were different than they were for Whit, 25 years before me. There was a long-established language, and hence expectation, associated specifically with the electric bass—Stanley Clarke, Jaco, John Patitucci, and Marcus Miller had already left their indelible marks in the history books.” As Whit puts it, “Today, much of the music we hear is geared toward the electric bass. This dictates a different left-hand and right-hand technique. Earlier technique concepts won’t apply to such styles as slap, metal, hip-hop, funk, and fusion, because the sound and feel won’t be true to the music.”
Mike contends, “Bass players today study Jamerson’s bass lines, sometimes with awe and wonder. Ironically, the key is inefficiency. Many today are so focused on technique that they automatically try to apply ‘good’ technique to everything they play. Whit and I probably agree that the driving force in anyone’s approach, regardless of the instrument, should always be the demands of the music. As bassists we really have one job: to deliver a great feel with a great sound that serves the music. My technique on upright is traditional. My technique on electric bass is directly suited to playing that instrument. In my mind, both instruments function similarly, but in order to get all I can get out of an electric bass, proprietary techniques are required. Conversely, I’ve been less successful applying electric bass technique to the upright. In thumb position, my hand quickly (mysteriously) adapted 1-2-3-4 to T-1-2-3, but in lower registers I’ve found traditional technique means more reliable pitch. Because of the greater physical demand, an electric bass plucking touch doesn’t get me the sound I’m looking for on the upright. I believe Whit’s and my approaches differ because of the differing musical requirements throughout our respective careers. Still, if I need to make my electric sound like an upright, I’m raiding Whit’s playbook.”
Whit sums it up, saying, “To accommodate the bass line requirements of any particular genre, you’ve got to play the groove/beat, have a big, fat sound, have a strong bass line direction, be true to the style, and perhaps most important, have big ears and be sensitive to the musical needs of the group and the song.” Mike adds, “I’m with you, bass brother!”
Steve Bailey is the Chairman of the Bass Department at Berklee College of Music and the grandmaster of the fretless 6-string as a veteran sideman, author, educator, and solo artist. In addition to touring with Victor Wooten in Bass Extremes, he is at work on his next solo record.