Exploring the options for accompanying an acoustic guitar on bass
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.