Double Bass Diaries #3

March 10, 2014
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Welcome to the latest entry of Double Bass Diaries, documenting my journey of learning to play The Big-Ass Bass Fiddle. Links to my previous diary entries are at – Double Bass Diaries #1 and Double Bass Diaries #2. To quickly summarize my situation, I play electric bass and decided a few years ago to learn how to play double bass. My biggest obstacle to playing double bass well has been developing proper playing technique. It’s been frustrating because I’m an experienced electric player – but those “electric” skills don’t translate naturally to double bass without extensive practice.

After a few years of playing the double bass, things are going much better. Routine practice has payed off.  In general, I’m more confident playing the huge ebony fingerboard and my hand strength is far better. Playing while sitting is quite easy now but it took me a long time to finally find a standing position that works for me – one where I can balance the bass upright with no hands and play comfortably using arm weight to minimize pain in both hands. Bass balance is very important to master as it prevents your hands from holding the bass while trying to play. I’ve also developed good right-hand technique after rather lengthy practice. I was not used to playing with one finger and it took me quite a while to get good at it. Single finger technique is important to get right – that’s how many of the great jazz players pull the sound out of their basses. Oddly, I also needed to practice proper alternating finger technique as well. You’d think an electric player would have no problem playing this way because we’re taught to do it from day one. However, playing double bass like it’s an electric is hard on your finger pads. The strings are much bigger and tension is much higher. You’re supposed to angle the right hand and play with the sides of your fingers. Simple concept right? For me however, my right-hand always migrated from the “play with the sides of your fingers” parallel position to the more painful “play with the pads of your fingers” perpendicular position. It’s getting much better now but occasionally I still catch myself playing with “electric” technique.

Here’s a quick run-down of what worked and what didn’t work for me as I struggled with the double bass. Hopefully this information will help other players that are considering picking up this instrument.

  • Get your bass setup by a good Luthier and invest in good strings. Many new double basses (especially cheap ones from China) are sold with no setup and really bad high-tension steel strings. I’ve had quite a bit of work done to my bass over the years – replacing many parts and getting the fingerboard sanded. It plays much better now.
  • Try practicing in both standing and sitting positions. Sitting helped me get the hang of proper left arm technique and arm weight because you can anchor the bass against your legs and lock it in place much more easily than you can while standing.
  • Find a comfortable stance that lets you balance the bass with no hands. This stance is different for each player so don’t go by what many instructors tell you on Youtube. I’m 6’-1″ and have to keep the end-pin quite long which raises the body of the bass and center of gravity quite high. This makes it more challenging for us taller players to find a good working stance.
  • Practice in front of a large mirror to see if you’re using proper left and right hand technique. It took me many months to get this right. Had I got into the habit of practicing in front of a mirror from the start, I would have improved much more quickly.
  • Practice playing all major, minor, dominant, diminished, and augmented scales and arpeggios with cycle of 4th practice tracks at various tempos. This really helped me get comfortable with the fingerboard.
  • Using a bow to practice intonation. My bowing technique really blows but it’s amazing how much it helps with proper intonation.
  • Jam regularly with local musicians. This helped me develop pain-free stamina and allowed me to focus on technique while playing songs. If your sing, it also helps coordinate your playing and singing.
  • Get some lessons from a real instructor. Don’t rely on Youtube or DVD lessons because you get absolutely no technique feedback while you play.
  • Develop good music reading habits while playing. There is so much good instructional and transcribed jazz bass lines in written form. You would really miss out from learning this valuable material if you couldn’t read it.  I’m continually trying to improve my bass clef sight reading skills while playing.

Getting back to Youtube for a moment, you will find many instructional double bass videos if you look around. Some instructors are good but unfortunately most are not that helpful. The worst ones for the most part appear to be either students uploading lessons after learning a new technique, unqualified or inexperienced people teaching wrong technique, or decent instructors who just don’t teach and communicate well over video. Rarely will you find someone who takes the time to explain good basic technique. Concepts like standing position and arm weight for example are glossed over frequently. Of the good ones, I highly recommend the videos of Luke McIntosh and Geoff Chalmers. Keep in mind that video lessons generally do a poor job of teaching proper upright technique in my opinion. You may get the basics but you get zero feedback while playing. Take lessons from a real instructor to help avoid painful and unnatural playing positions.

Here’s something that really helped improve my double bass playing. Several months ago I started jamming weekly with a few local musicians who love to play a mix of traditional roots, folk, swing, blues, country and fiddle music from the early 1900’s through to modern day. It’s a great experience and we’ve developed a good sound – upright bass with acoustic guitars, fiddle, and vocals. Hopefully we’ll get around to playing some public gigs soon. I’ve said this before – there’s really nothing better than jamming and performing with other musicians to accelerate and improve your double bass playing skills.

One other important aspect to improving my double bass play was getting bridge adjuster wheels installed so I can lower the string action for faster jazz playing. This was recommended to me by a few local players.  I enlisted the services of a local Luthier to modify my bass bridge and install a Fishman Full Circle pickup. The pickup has a unique design – it’s encased in one of the aluminum height adjuster wheels. I can now adjust string height and get a better feel for what works; and amplify my bass using the pickup. I really like this pickup. It seems to provide a very natural, transparent double bass sound which can be fine-tuned using the adjuster wheels. I’ve included a few photos of the bridge work and end result below.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more Double Bass Diary posts!

Clamping the bridge
Installing bridge adjuster wheels
Cutting the bridge for adjuster wheels
Installed Full Circle pickup
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