In this month’s column, I would like to consider the role of the bass in acoustic guitar music. I’ve played bass in living room jams for quite a few years and done a lot of acoustic gigs on upright, electric, and even a tiny Guild Ashbory rubber-stringed bass. But when a demo recording session came up recently with a singer-songwriter playing acoustic guitar, I was puzzled about what kind of bass would be a good fit.
Right off, I ruled out upright bass, since the
feel was somewhat rock-oriented. Over the
course of our rehearsals and recordings, I tried
fretless electric, 5-string electric with roundwound strings, and an early ‘70s Jazz bass
with Fender flatwounds. Here are some of
my thoughts about blending various kinds of
basses with acoustic guitar music.
Electric Bass with Roundwound Strings
This is what most bass players use, so I’ll
start here. A conventional 4- or 5-string
electric bass will sound distinct enough
from an acoustic guitar that it will usually fit
in, but the most important consideration is
whether the tonal spectrum of the bass sits
well with the guitar.
One album illustrating this is Charlie
Musselwhite’s Sanctuary, an album with an
acoustic, rootsy feel to it, along with thick
vocals by the Blind Boys of Alabama. I was
quite surprised to hear a very modern electric
bass sound with zingy, growling roundwound
strings placed forward in the mix.
To my ear, it would have made more sense to
avoid featuring the bass in this setting, especially considering some mid-focused string
slides that brought out the roundwound sound
even more. But this might be a good choice to
add a different flavor to an acoustic track.
When it comes to toothless—er, fretless—bass
in acoustic settings, two players stand out in
my mind. The first would be Jaco Pastorius
and his collaborations with Joni Mitchell on
recordings such as Hejira and Don Juan’s
Reckless Daughter. In both albums, the sparse
mix made his flanged/chorused melodic playing part of the soundscape. If you are successful in bringing this style to acoustic music,
be careful to play in tune, while avoiding the
crutch of glissing into every note.
A second fretless bass player, Freebo, took a
more subtle approach to incorporating fret-
less bass into acoustic-oriented guitar music
in his work on early Bonnie Raitt recordings.
There, the fretless bass gave him a rounded
attack and expressiveness while playing conventional blues bass lines. Flatwound strings
added additional roundness and trimmed the
note sustain to help articulate his playing,
which leads us to our next topic.
Frets But Flats
Another way of fitting electric bass into acoustic music is to use a conventional fretted bass
along with flatwound strings. Flats are going
to emphasize the body of the note, removing
some of the fret sound. Play up closer to the
neck and use more neck pickup with a gentle
attack to get a more acoustic feel.
A piece of foam tucked close to the bridge
can add further roundness. Some basses, such
as the Classic StingRay 4 I reviewed in last
month’s edition of Premier Guitar, actually have
built-in, adjustable string mutes that can be
tweaked to accomplish the same thing.
Is That a Big Guitar?
Another route that I’ve tried—but not
favored—is the acoustic bass guitar. In some
renditions, this becomes a large-bodied acoustic, strung with phosphor bronze strings. Other
variations are more like large, chambered solid-
bodies, sometimes fretless, that still embody
the acoustic sound and feel.
As you’ll quickly notice, an acoustic bass guitar
(like the Breedlove Atlas Series reviewed in
July 2009) features a lot of the characteristics
of an acoustic guitar, but an octave lower.
You’ll get the fret noise, the pick noise (if you
use a pick), and finger slides. To my ears, the
blend is a little too close, leading to the instruments becoming joined at the hip.
Okay, Let’s Spank the Big Girl
The first time I heard electric guitar legend
Buddy Guy’s acoustic album, Blues Singer, I
was stunned. Here was this sweet acoustic
blues coming from somebody best known for
wild solos on electric guitar. Buddy was backed
by a fat upright bass (played by Tony Garnier
of Bob Dylan fame), plus light drums played
with brushes. And man, did those instruments
fit together! The acoustic bass sat on the bottom like a foam rubber floor, while the acoustic
guitar maintained its own sonic space. There
was no real growl to its voice, just a simple,
low-pitched thud that let the guitar sit out
front with the vocals.
Hopefully this column has helped you think
about how the bass can fit in with acoustic
guitar music. Your choice of bass plays an
important role in shaping the sound of the
music you’re making. Choose roundwounds,
flatwounds, fretless, upright, or any other flavor
of bass—you’re giving acoustic music part of
its signature feel and sound.
Dan Berkowitz is a professor by day and a bass player once the sun
goes down. He plays in blues, jazz, pit and classical settings. Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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