EVERY BASSIST HAS A STORY. Doubling bassists tell two stories—how they came to play the slab, and how they learned to play the tree. The slab (the electric bass guitar) is the kissing cousin of the people’s instrument, the electric guitar. The tree (the acoustic double bass) is a huge furniturelike package that underpins classical, jazz, bluegrass, country, and early pop, rock, and folk music traditions.
This month, I speak with four masters of both instruments—players who have created their personal, identifiable sounds on acoustic and electric. Listen to their stories and you’ll hear something that resonates with your inner bass muse, whether you play the tree or slab—or both.
Tim Lefebrve provides bass thunder for the cutting-edge jazz-funk-party band Rudder when he’s not holding down the bottom end for Chris Botti or swinging on the acoustic for the likes of jazz diva Patti Austin. Brian Bromberg lives on the short list of modern bass doubling virtuosi, a contemporary chop-meister who always seems to have—believe it or not—even more chops to spare.
Reggie Washington, an established bass star on the jazz and funk scenes, has spent years honing his doubling skills on gigs with everyone from Will Smith to Branford Marsalis. Another Reggie—Reggie Hamilton— boasts a career as a top L.A. session sideman. He’s played with pop artists like Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston, and jazz heavyweights George Duke and Billy Childs.
Did you start on double bass or electric bass?
Reggie Washington I started on cello and got shipped to the back of the bass section in the orchestra when I was 13 years old. It was horrible back there, so I practiced my butt off to become section leader.
Brian Bromberg I started on the double bass at age 14 or15—in fact, I was an acoustic bass purist in my early days as a bass player. I didn’t start playing electric bass until I was 18.
Tim Lefebrve I picked up the electric first, and started playing the acoustic at age 15 when I was a sophomore in high school. My band director, Steve Massey, and my dad, who was a middle school music teacher, both thought I had the right size and aptitude for the acoustic bass. I had a good high school music program, because Steve Massey was, and still is, heavy.
Reggie Hamilton I started on electric bass guitar when I was 11. I started playing contrabass when I was 13.
What are the most fantastic characteristics of the double bass? What about the electric bass?
Washington Bass is about moving some air. Oh, what a feeling! I love the fat sound both my instruments make. Acoustic is basically a box with strings, whereas electric uses wattage to move air out the back and front of the speaker.
Bromberg The size of the acoustic bass makes it amazing to play since there is so much wood. It is literally like making music on a tree—so organic and real. There is just something special about playing an instrument with so much personality and character, plus with its low register it seems to hit you right in the depth of your soul. I love the fact that it is strings, fingers, and no excuses.
The electric bass is actually quite different, even though it serves the same function in music. With the electric bass you have more freedom in the fact that you can walk around and move while playing. Also, there are 4-string, 5-string, 6-string, piccolo, tenor, fretted, and fretless basses, which provide endless sound possibilities. That makes electric a blast to play.
Lefebrve The huge fat sound of a great double bass is appealing to me. As a connoisseur of road rental acoustic basses, it’s always nice to arrive at a gig with a beautiful bass waiting for me. It makes me want to play! As for electric bass, the appealing parts are its immediacy and huge range of sounds.
Hamilton For me, tonal quality and variety are the most fantastic characteristics. The varied sounds that can be made with a bow, pizzicato or prepared contrabass are very exciting. The same applies to electric bass guitar.
What inspired you to first pick up the other instrument? What was the most unusual problem you encountered when you were first playing both instruments?
Washington Electric bass started for me when Herman Hill, an old friend, used to leave his Fender Precision bass at my house. I further lost my mind when Marcus Miller, age 15 at the time, would come to my house to hang with my brother Kenny. He would let me play his sunburst ‘72 Fender Jazz and show me some things as he was learning about jazz from my father’s record collection.
Bromberg Two things inspired me to pick up the electric. First was hearing Jaco Pastorius and being totally blown away, and the second was the fact that I would work more if I played both basses, as so many bands and gigs required electric bass. I joined the Stan Getz quintet when I was 18, and he asked me if I played electric bass. I barely played it, but of course I told him I played it because I didn’t want to lose the gig! I started practicing to be able to play well enough to play it in his band.
The biggest problem I had between the two was hand positions and fingerings. The electric bass in the beginning felt like playing an ironing board with strings. It took me a very long time to feel comfortable playing the electric bass.
Lefebrve I took up the acoustic bass because I was inspired by straight-ahead jazz in my youth—Miles, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. I had to get that sound, which was not possible on electric bass. The first upright I owned had a broken neck and was never set up right, so it was extremely difficult to play. But I took a few lessons and got by.
Hamilton After playing electric bass for a while in an R&B/soul music band, I started to discover that my favorite bass players had also dabbled with the contrabass. Stanley Clarke was my most defining influence. That led to me exploring the instrument more. The most unusual issue was finding a teacher who understood both and wasn’t biased about music.
Are there any special tricks or considerations you would share with other bass players about playing both instruments?
Washington Bob Cranshaw read me the gospel on the subject. He said, “The pork chop and the dog house are two totally different animals!” After I figured that out and made adjustments to my technique, I started on the gear. Neither instrument should be a burden to play. For me, my basses are easy to play. I attack them. I play into my basses and they respond. You need a certain amount of string height for this to happen. I don’t like to use pickups on the acoustic, except my Gage pickup when I need it. Branford Marsalis asks for only a microphone to amplify the bass on his stage—no pickup, and no stick [electric upright] basses. You make the sound, not the pickup.
Bromberg Tricks? I’m not sure about tricks, but it is very important to look at both instruments with the same respect and consideration. I really enjoy playing both as they have such different personalities. Learning scales and fingerings on both is very important. Also, your fingers hit the strings in a completely different place on the two instruments, so it is vital to make sure that you have enough practice time on both basses to develop your calluses and endurance. Their function in music is the same, but you need to know what you are doing on both to play the music appropriately.
Lefebrve There are no special tricks— you should just sound convincing on both. Since I am self-taught on both instruments, I tend to have my own slant on sound conception and ideas. On acoustic, though, I am going through a fundamental shift, studying with some folks and learning to play with the bow, in an effort to feel as creative on that instrument as I do on electric bass.
Hamilton There really are no tricks. They are two separate instruments, and they demand equal respect and attention.