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"Acoustic" vs "Electric" Rant

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by matthewbrown, Apr 1, 2014.

  1. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    I have decided that the distinction between acoustic bass and electric bass (and guitar, but we'll leave that aside) is meaningless. When I go to hear a band, everything is amplified, almost always. I went to hear a jazz group: the flute was amplified, as was the bass, and the singer.

    When I listen to jazz, there's this huge emphasis on which instruments belong, and which don't. When I listen to (or read the comments of) upright players, they sound obsessed with making the amplified upright sound like some imagined version of an acoustic upright.

    It seems that some styles -- in particular "mainstream" jazz -- on what instruments belong and what instruments don't, usually on some basis of "acoustic" rather than electric. I think it's nonsense. A Hammond organ is a synthesizer. A muted trumpet played through microphone, drenched in reverb, is an electronic instrument. If all the acoustic instruments end up being amplified in the end, altered by electronics, as they do, then the distinction is a false one.
  2. Munjibunga

    Munjibunga Total Hyper-Elite Member Gold Supporting Member

    May 6, 2000
    San Diego (when not at Groom Lake)
    Independent Contractor to Bass San Diego
    I disagree.
  3. Bassmunnky


    Jul 3, 2004
    New York and Philadelphia
    Endorsing Artist: Ernie Ball MusicMan Guitars
    Go see Ron Carter live. Not true
  4. Draculea


    Oct 2, 2011
    Mexico City

    Acousic is acoustic, no matter if it's amplified through a mic or any other similar device. Otherwise we would have synths, which in most cases poorly emulate the sound of acoustic instruments.
  5. buldog5151bass

    buldog5151bass Kibble, milkbones, and P Basses. And redheads.

    Oct 22, 2003
    In most "traditional" jazz, (as opposed to fusion) the intent for all instruments is to re-create the acoustic sound when amplified. I have not played upright since college, so the best I can do is an ABG with flat wound strings. Horns may be amplified, but without effects.

    Same with folk music. Think when Dylan went electric.
  6. BassCliff


    May 17, 2012
    So. Cal.

    I would tend to disagree. An acoustic instrument that happens to be amplified is still an acoustic instrument, with all the tonal qualities and personality of an acoustic instrument. Amplification does not an electronic instrument make.

    Once you start adding effects to amplified acoustic instruments, be they strings or brass, then you are getting into a grey area that I feel may be farther away from pure "acoustic", but acoustic nonetheless.

    I play an ABG. It does not sound like an upright "dog house" string bass. I don't use flats on it to try to emulate an upright bass. It still sounds like a fretted instrument but is definitely "acoustic" sounding even when amplified.

    I wish I still had an upright bass. I love the sound. I just don't like hauling them around. ;)

    But what do I know? I'm only the bass player. :p

    Thank you for your indulgence,

  7. Sav'nBass

    Sav'nBass What the .............. Supporting Member

    Jan 18, 2009
    Northern Va.
    I'm with him....
  8. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    If acoustic instruments amplified sounded the same as electric instruments amplified, then I'd agree with you. But anyone who's heard an amplified upright and an amplified electric bass next to each other can tell you there's quite a difference. Or an acoustic and electric guitar. Or even an acoustic and electric banjo.
  9. Jim Carr

    Jim Carr Dr. Jim Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2006
    Denton, TX or Kailua, HI
    fEARful Kool-Aid dispensing liberal academic card-carrying union member Musicians Local 72-147
    Making something that cannot exist without audio amplification or reproduction such as an orchestra in your earbuds, or an upright audible over a loud big-band, changes the orchestra and the upright bass by removing the ritualized "acoustic" performance context and limitations.

    Ergo, a symphony orchestra, playing in a concert hall beneath a large array of microphones creating a high fidelity stereo recording to be played back on an iphone through ear-buds is an "electric instrument."

    Paging Walter Benjamin! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Work_of_Art_in_the_Age_of_Mechanical_Reproduction
  10. nostatic

    nostatic Supporting Member

    Jun 18, 2004
    lost angeles, CA
    Endorsing Artist: FEA Labs
    True - my Rob Allen sounds better than any amplified upright I've ever owned or played :D

    Was just having this conversation with steubig. Once pickups and amps are in the equation, and assuming the player can play an "electric" with an "upright" approach, there are two reasons that an upright is a clear advantage: if arco is needed, and/or if the bandleader wants the look. Beyond that, as far as the sound is concerned, the upright doesn't have a significant advantage IME. But there is more to a gig than the sound. I'm not saying that electric and upright are equivalent to the player, and certain instruments tend to lead a player in certain directions. Everyone should play what they love, and/or what gets them the gig.
  11. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
  12. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 20, 2004
    Madison WI
    HPF Technology LLC
    I'll admit that I'm mainly an upright player, and I clicked on this message because I thought that I was in the DB forums. But still, I'll share some notes. I learned jazz on electric bass, and played it through high school and college jazz bands. So I know that jazz can be played on electric -- in my case a passive de-fretted Ibanez with flats. Over the years, I was also improving my upright bass chops, to the point where I was eventually able to start gigging on upright.

    Honestly, the only reason why I play upright is because I love to play it. I had 8 years of cello lessons as a kid, and classical bass lessons in college. I do a lot with the bow, including bowed soloing on jazz gigs. I enjoy the fact that upright bass is equally at home in jazz and classical music. Being a weekend warrior, most of my time with the bass is spent at home where amplification, and who cares what instruments are right for what genres, are irrelevant.

    If there's any "rational" reason for me to prefer upright, it's the fact that upright is equally at home in jazz and "legit" music. I've enjoyed playing orchestral and chamber music, and a lot of my practicing at home is classical-oriented. Perhaps another reason is not the looks of the bass, but rather the sheer absurdity of it.

    On the bandstand, typically the only amplified instruments are bass and a keyboard with a digital piano model. Most of the players who I work with keep the electronics to a bare minimum.

    Here in Madison, almost all of the bassists who play jazz are equally competent on upright and electric, so there would be no shortage of jazz-capable electric players, and they could push the scene towards more use of electric if they wanted to. I think the preference for upright in jazz is primarily driven by bassists themselves.

    There are lots of instruments that are less commonly played in jazz groups, but the people who want to play jazz on those instruments somehow manage to do it.
  13. Apolicious


    Jan 16, 2014
  14. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    I have to agree with Boomie. Back when I played upright I played it amplified two ways. One was through the Piezo bridge pickup I installed on it. The other was with a quality microphone. In one case you might say that even though the upright was a different instrument, in many ways with the bridge pickup it wasn't much different from my Carvin AC50 bass guitar. On the other hand the goal with acoustic playing picked up by a microphone is to keep it the same experience as if it's being played next to you in the room with no amplification but allowing a great many more people to experience it.

    If it weren't for these divisions then you'd have to say that once you recorded a symphony orchestra it really wasn't acoustic music anymore, but now was classical fusion or something. It's kind of nit picky but I think that any instrument can be made into a source of electronics sounds, but when your goal is to emulate the experience of listening to an acoustic performance, that isn't what you'd call an electric instrument. It may be a bad reproduction of the performance, but that's been around since recording was invented.
  15. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    If I'd have tried that with my old upright it would have been toothpicks! I had enough trouble keeping it together just playing it! Lets hear it for plywood uprights!
  16. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    I"m really not sure what your point is. The choice of instrument doesn't need a "rational", it's just the opinion of the player (or maybe others in band or fans or critics etc) It's the same way I pick a couple of basses out of my herd for a gig. I pick the ones I feel most able to deliver what that particular music needs. (It's not an upright choice anymore because I haven't played upright in years) The principle is the same.

    I know certain jazz guys are all hardnosed about electric bass guitars, yet around here there are lots of Jazz trios etc. with 6 or 7 string bass guitars that are killin' it. And nobody says "that stratospheric solo would have been much better on on upright" because it wouldn't have been because an upright doesn't do that. It's apples and oranges.

    And even more interesting is that you don't hear a peep out of the same "acoustic promoters" about an electric piano. And that even goes for hidous things like the old Wurlitzer electric "piano" I used to own. Who knows what that instrument really was? Yes, I understand the portability thing and the practicality of a digital piano, but really if you are going to be pure, you need to stay pure. It's like being a little bit pregnant!

    But really it's all just so much jaw-flapping because in the end it's all about the music. If the instruments make music people like then it's valid no matter what combination you put together. And if the music sucks, well maybe the musicians need to rethink their vision.
  17. I wouldn't get too caught up on the names we use for instruments. Nor the idea that just because an instrument is somehow amplified it is now electric. If I played a trumpet through a microphone, then ran it through a wah-pedal, then out a Marshall stack, it is still a trumpet. Or if I use a Pitch-to-MIDI Converter on my trumpet, then ran the MIDI signal through a VSTi Trumpet for some reason, it is, again, still a trumpet. While the end sound result is vastly different from the original source, it does not rename the source.

    All music usually has parameters in terms of what instruments should and should not be used:
    I don't use a bassoon when playing Thrash Metal. I could, but that's not the sound usually related to the Thrash Metal genre. Musicians and the audience gets used to a specific sound for specific genres, and unless they're willing to hear something new and/or experimental, they will shun any deviance. So, I better be very impressive musically and visually on the bassoon.

    Unfortunately, music performance is also about looks:
    Could I play jazz on a B.C. Rich Warlock guitar? Of course. Will I look out of place? Yes.

    I bet most audience members wouldn't be able to differentiate the sound of Kala U-Bass compared to a Upright Bass. But visually all they'll see is someone playing a ukelele.

    It's really about playing an instrument for a sound that people,including yourself, expect and prefer. There's no law that you have to follow, but not everyone is open to new ideas.

    I don't have an upright bass, but I'd probably try my best to get as close to the sound as possible if I know it will enhance the music I'm performing. If I had an upright, and was in a band known for experimenting, perhaps I could get away with tapping strings with a spoon, sending the audio signal through a vocoder, and playing an avant-garde cover of "Call Me Maybe."
  18. Danomo

    Danomo Guest

    Apr 25, 2013
    I haven't played an upright in decades, but when I did... It was a school's bass that hadn't been maintained. It was so bad, I convinced my orchestra director to let me use my electric for concerts (hollowbody Aria 335 style) when possible. I WAS trying to make it sound like an upright, so flatwounds with felt picks or fingers was the order of the day. This was also the case for Jazz band where I did get many atta-boys at concerts and competitions from teachers and other players for the (they said) good effort. I love to see and hear an acoustic performance (amplified or not), but I'm not an acoustic snob... I'd rather see a good performance than a sub par over-geared and synthed one.
  19. Gorn


    Dec 15, 2011
    Queens, NY
    I'm not sure what point the OP is trying to make. It seems he's talking about upright bass, right?

    He's complaining that jazz upright bassists want their instruments to sound like unamplified upright basses whilst being amplified?

    Am I missing something? It's kinda early and I haven't had breakfast yet.
  20. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 20, 2004
    Madison WI
    HPF Technology LLC
    Maybe I was rambling. ;) I was trying to say that appropriateness for jazz is not what drives my choice to play upright.
    At least in my locale, being "acoustic" isn't the issue. The main issue is that the bassists who play jazz tend to prefer upright, and impose that preference on bands. Now, I actually prefer acoustic instruments, including piano, for reason of volume. Electric keyboards tend to drive up volume levels. My reaction when I see a small stage bristling with mic stands and amps is not "this isn't jazz" but "this is going to be too loud."
    Yes, definitely. I haven't heard jazz played on an oboe, but I wouldn't exclude a competent jazz oboe player from the band.