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On Bass: Doubling (aka A Tale of Two Basses)

Three world-class bassists talk about being proficient on both electric and upright.

Jim Mayer of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band plays simple bass lines on one of the biggest touring gigs in the world, but comes from a technical upright-jazz background.

This installment of “On Bass” marks the first for me as a monthly columnist. My goal is for you to enjoy the broadest possible viewpoints in the arena of all things bass, so I’ve decided to occasionally enlist the help of my bassist friends in the coming year. You’ll hear varying opinions from some amazing world-class players as they weigh in on the expertise they’re known for. So instead of me just talking about what you can learn from my favorite players, you’ll hear from them directly through short discussions tailored to specific topics. This month, we’re touching on the benefits of doubling.

Our panel includes: Jim Mayer, a 26-year touring veteran of Jimmy Buffett’s band who’s also played on 20 of Buffett’s albums; Brian Allen, who can currently be heard in blues-great Robben Ford’s band, both live and in the studio; and Chris Autry, a Nashville-based freelance player with more than 10 major-label acts on his resume.

Let’s start with a bit of my personal background on this month’s topic. It was 13 years ago when a multi-million-selling recording artist hired me for a world tour. During rehearsals, I was asked by the management company if I played upright. It was needed on one song for a live, nationally televised award show three weeks later. I panicked for two seconds, but looked the man in the eye and said, “yes.” And yes, it was a lie.

So I borrowed an upright bass, practiced this one song for three weeks, put cheat markers on the side of the neck for intonation, and survived the gig. I learned my lesson, and while I’m still not an upright player per se, I can survive a basic upright application. Now let’s hear from the guys who really canplay it.

What have you learned as an upright player that you apply to electric bass?
Jim Mayer:
The upright helps you learn if something is in tune or not, so it sharpens your ears. And the physical nature of the upright gives you no choice but to develop stronger hands. This huge, acoustic instrument vibrates your whole body, and it changes the way you see the weight of the bass in the band. It really locks in that sense of foundation and it gives you a physical sense of the groove.

Brian Allen: I have more options for tone on electric because I play upright. The acoustic bass has helped me learn to make the bass speak in different tones through the use of only my hands and the way I hit the note. Upright bass has also taught me to work with the pulse or impact of the note because you can feel the whole thing vibrate, and I carry that over to electric bass.

“The acoustic bass has helped me learn to make the bass speak in different tones through the use of only my hands and the way I hit the note.” —Brian Allen

Chris Autry: Most electric players don’t spend a lot of time focused on intonation since most electrics are fretted. When your job depends on being in tune and you don’t have frets, it’s amazing how your ears start to work. Endurance is an obvious benefit. Four-hour gigs on electric no longer bother me.

How does being an electric player help you when playing upright?
It helps me simplify my bass lines. When playing jazz with an upright, the sky is the limit and the options are so many that sometimes the simple quality of each note can get lost. Playing electric teaches me to use the entire neck, which does not happen as often on upright since intonation can be challenging.

Allen: The electric gives me a different way of looking at the upright when it comes to both groove and solo concepts. I like trying lines or solos on the upright that I first learned on the electric, which can be both fun and challenging.

Autry: The biggest thing electric bass brings to my upright playing is a solid sense of playing with a drummer, since most upright gigs in Nashville are with singer-songwriters and there isn’t usually a drummer involved.

What advice would you give someone who is already a guitarist or bassist and thinking about dabbling in upright playing?
Instructional books are a great idea. My favorites include Andy Hohwald’s Upright Bass Primer for a simple bluegrass approach and Dr. Morton’s Double Bass Technique: Concepts and Ideas, which employs a more technical approach. Don’t let the classical folks scare you!

Allen: Spend the money on a decent instrument and a good setup. Practice in short spurts of 10-15 minutes. The upright can wear you out quickly and you don’t want to hurt yourself. Investing in lessons is always a good idea.

Autry: Be prepared to spend a good amount of time. Every time I get done practicing, I’m covered in sweat because the instrument is a beast.

It’s no secret that the differences between playing an upright bass and an electric bass are more extreme than, say, an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. Though the ability to handle both types of bass requires some serious commitment, it will certainly increase your skill and marketability. See you next month!