Switching from Electric Bass to Upright Bass

Switching from electric to upright bass

Maybe you’re a seasoned veteran of the electric bass, or perhaps you’ve been at it just long enough to get your feet under you. Or maybe you’re a guitarist who can function on electric bass but you feel bewildered of where to start on upright bass. For me, I played guitar, then learned electric bass, then through exposure to more kinds of music, fell in love with the sound of upright bass. So I rented an instrument with an option to buy and got started. Boy did I have a lot to learn! I remember sitting with a tuner and trying to find each note on the neck because… well, there’s no frets!!! It’s true that the upright bass can be a daunting instrument to tackle. However, my 10+ years of experience have helped me gain some insight that will help those just beginning the rewarding journey of learning upright bass. Here are some starters to get you going.

1) Get the instrument set up

It is unfortunate that for many, the first upright bass they play is in a state of near disrepair. The strings might be from the Reagan era and they might also be an inch off the finger board. At any rate, do yourself a favor and locate a local bass technician to give your instrument a good setup. Here is a link to a resource of bass technicians around the country.

2) Standing with the instrument

Upright bass can be played sitting on a stool or while standing. I advocate for standing while playing to get the best sound out of the instrument as well as to allow your body to be in a good posture while playing. Here are some helpful guidelines while you’re finding the best way to stand with the instrument.

  • Endpin Height – Generally I strive to find an endpin height that brings the nut (where the strings connect to the headstock) to the height of my eyebrow.  
  • Lean the bass into your body so that you don’t have to hold it up with your hands
  • Keep your feet a comfortable distance apart (usually shoulder width) with your weight evenly distributed
  • If/when you bend to reach higher notes, take care not to slouch over the instrument but rather bend at the waist and keep a good strong core.

3) Hand frame

One of the first things you will notice about playing the upright bass is that the notes are farther apart than on electric bass. To account for this large scale, upright bassists employ a ninja turtle style 3 finger approach. This means the 3rd finger is omitted and therefore 3 adjacent chromatic notes will be played with the 1st, 2nd, and 4th fingers.

Additionally, time should be taken to develop this 3-finger hand frame. A best practice is to strive for a straight wrist with an imaginary line from the left elbow to the beginning of the curvature of the fingers. The fingers should be arced without allowing the knuckles nearest to the fingertips to collapse backwards.

I hope these are helpful to those getting started on the instrument. A last recommendation would be to find a local bassist and begin some private lessons. If you’re in the Nashville area, I would be happy to meet with you at Green Hills Guitar Studio.

Happy Bassing,

Patrick Atwater

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