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.