Electric Bass Guitar or Upright Bass?

Recently I got back into playing jazz standards. These tunes are timeless, the swing is second to none, there is room over the melodies to improvise, and there is some opportunity for decent pay at some local lounges. But in order to play this style of music, and perform gigs properly, an upright bass is often required—or is it?

It seems that most upright bass players have been or are currently exploring a more viable option of transitioning over to an UEB, or upright electric bass.  For example, I recently asked world renowned bassist Jen Leitham if she could recommend any decent UEB’s. She told me she had recently been out to visit Eminence basses, and that she would recommend one. The price is in the $2500 range, for a bass that has a removable neck for travel.  The only UEB’s I’ve heard live were Jimmy Bruno’s bassist in the 1990’s playing at JJ Grottos in Philly, and Sting from the Police in the 1980’s. These UEB’s are essentially just an ebony neck, with an electric pickup. The Eminence does a nice job emulating the upright sound, without the player having to lug around a full size, or even a ¾ size upright.  You also don’t have to worry as much about temperature changes and humidity issues affecting the instrument.

Upright basses are difficult to travel with (try fitting one in one of these new, hip electric cars), they can be temperamental with the weather changes, and in most cases are still required to be plugged into some sort of amplification.  They also require more effort to play, and can result in quicker arm fatigue, due to the higher string action, and tension required to finger the strings.  But of course, they have that unmistakable thump and overall warm, yet percussive tone.

Leo Fender unveiled his Fender Jazz bass in 1951, and its slim fast neck was aimed at jazz players. The player had a great deal of tone control, since (he) was playing through an amplifier. They could also turn up quite loud without having to worry about feedback.  While I am lucky enough to own a Fender Jazz Bass, I feel it is a better fit for roundwound strings and a bright punchy tone—but that’s just what I use it for.  While the Fender P basses tend to have the most bottom end, the necks are just too wide for fast playing styles, such as jazz.  I also own an old Rickenbacker bass, which most players know for their bright trebly tone. However, the Rics were really designed, to be used for jazz. With flatwound  strings, they really have a smooth, mellow tone to them. This is great for jazz. The only problem is that the Rics tend to lack overall bottom end, so there is no way to get them to “thump” like an upright bass.

Fortunately, a friend of mine recently lent me his electric Hofner bass. At first, it was actually tough to play—the strings were really close together,  the short scale was different,  and  it needed to be played gently—no spanking or the strings would not stay on the bridge.  But after getting used to, the bass was almost impossible for me to put down. I could easily play it for several  hours without getting any arm fatigue, which is important for me since I also play regular guitar.  I could vary the tone, I could get a thump and a very close upright sound to it, and most importantly for me, it was light. In fact, my friend used to say he’s had sandwiches that weighed more than the Hofner.

So, since then, I’ve been sold on the Hofner basses. Jen Leitham endorses them. They sound great, and you can hear all of the notes. For me at least, I have trouble hearing all of the notes on a more percussive upright bass, and sometimes, even renowned players miss the proper notes on their uprights.  The only downside I have at the moment is not being able to really spank it or play too hard—which actually may be a good thing when playing lounge music.

Here is a live standard called “Perdido” that features Ben Green on vibes, Vince Piselli on guitar, and me on my Hofner club bass. The creaking sound, is me sitting on an old piano bench. But hey, live is live…


About George Righter

Musician, Hiker/Camper, and proud Dad. President of RighterTrack with expertise in barcoding, label printing, security label solutions.

07. November 2011 by George Righter
Categories: Music | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. I was one of those bass players playing with Jimmy Bruno in the early 90′s, though not with a UEB. My mentor, Craig Thomas, was Jimmy’s go-to guy and I was audacious enough to talk Craig into sometimes letting me play with Jimmy when he couldn’t do it himself.

    By that time, the question of upright vs. electric for jazz came up more often than I cared to mention. My tastes leaned more to Jaco Pastorius than Milt Hinton so, one day when my beautiful, hand carved Andrew Schroetter upright developed a crack longer than my arm, it somehow proved to be the catalyst to have it repaired, and sold, the funds from which I used to commit to electric through and through (I picked up Anthony Jackson’s old Fodera 6-string after they had built him another).

    From then on I made it a point never to bow to anyone’s preconceived notions of what Jazz should and should’t be. After all, Bebop and Fusion, the two types of Jazz I loved the most were founded by a bunch of coke snorting, heroin shooting virtuosos who played any instrument they wanted and did it better than anyone else in the world, regardless of whatever biases had been developed by the previous generation.

    Jazz is a fantastic wonder of classics like Perdido, re-imagined night after night through improvisation, sweat and a kind of honesty you can’t fake. The instrument you choose to do it on is arbitrary as long as you have a brilliant command of it.