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…


George Righter

About George Righter

American composer and musician who lives for the outdoors.

07. November 2011 by George Righter
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