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Afraid Of Open Strings

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by drwv, Jan 20, 2021.

  1. drwv


    Nov 26, 2019
    When I first started playing upright bass, coming from bass guitar, my preference for "home" was up around 3rd or 4th position. Finger stretches were smaller so I could move faster with less pain and more precision, fingerboard patterns made sense in the up and down direction, I had a wider range of notes available, and it was a "sweet spot" on my particular bass.

    As my sessions got longer and longer, 45, 60, 90 minutes... I realized that I needed to conserve energy, and I've been re-learning all of my tunes down in half and 1st position instead, so I can take advantage of the brief left-hand "rest" by playing as many open strings as possible.

    This has taken a lot of mental re-training, because the open string "jumps" always feel discontinuous to the way I think about fingerboard movement. But my biggest problem is that it sounds and feels so drastically different! There's obviously a timbre difference between, say, the open G string versus the stopped G on the A string; I'm pretty sure that I personally hear that difference much more than the audience does when other instruments are playing along, and have accepted that part.

    But I feel like I have so much less precision with muting an open string note than a stopped note, and in a run of 16ths the open notes always stand out as rhythmically distinct. I also feel like I have less right-hand precision in plucking an open string, or in following up with a stopped note on that open string once it's ringing.

    Do others fight with the "easy notes" like I am? Do I just need to suck it up and practice until there's no difference between an open note and stopped one? Am I going about this all wrong?? Help me learn to love the open strings!
    Keith Rawlings likes this.
  2. Open strings are our best friends with double bass. My two reasons are 1: it conserves energy as you have most of the notes you need for a solid bassline in half and first position. 2: you can get a louder and fuller sound in half and first position because the string length is much longer. It may sound bright to you, but it won't to your band and the audience. The higher overtones translate to a stronger sound in a mix.

    Also open strings are very helpful intonation and volume tools for double bass due to sympathetic resonance.

    In regards to practice, I can't offer direct advice since I'm not well versed in Bluegrass or other old time music styles. When I've done 1920s style jazz gigs, I usually aim to mute both open strings and stopped notes with my right hand so there isn't modern jazz levels of sustain.
    roccobass, Jazzdogg, neddyrow and 3 others like this.
  3. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    Upright players are much more likely to use open strings than bass guitar players in my experience; for exactly the reasons you describe. I played upright first, so I use open strings quite a bit on bass guitar as well.

    It takes time and practice to learn how to use the open strings well. You have to learn and become comfortable with a different muting technique, and you also need to learn and internalize a new set of finger patterns.

    As far as dealing with the difference in timbre, perhaps you are thinking about it the wrong way. Instead of comparing the the sound of the open G string to the stopped G string, compare the sound of the open G string to the first fret (Ab, G#). If you view it this way the timbre is much closer. Of course the difference in timbre varies from bass to bass and with your setup, string choice, and technique to some degree.

    IMHO there will always be a difference between stopped notes and open notes, but yes the answer is you need to suck it up and practice till this difference is as small as possible. Also there are times when you really must use stopped notes due to phrasing and style. For example you can't generally play a cantabile line with vibrato using open strings without loosing the motion of the line when you hit the open string.
    Keith Rawlings, AGCurry and drwv like this.
  4. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Seems to me that most of the bluegrass players I know mute open strings (and stopped notes) with the left hand.

    In my case with practice the left hand muting has become largely automatic.
  5. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Muting? 16th notes? Isn't this the Bluegrass forum?

    Seriously, I echo what everyone else has said. Open strings are friends.
    AOBASSMAN, Keith Rawlings and Wasnex like this.
  6. jazzyvee


    Aug 11, 2012
    United Kingdom
    I'm still a newbie on DB and my tutor advises me to use open strings as much as possible. I'm not competent enough to ignore in that advice yet. :)
    Keith Rawlings and AGCurry like this.
  7. drwv


    Nov 26, 2019

    Well if I had asked in the Orchestra or Jazz forums, every response would be "you need to take lessons with a qualified instructor"! I play more Celtic / Eastern European / Folk style tunes, but my baseball bat pizzicato technique is in better company with the Bluegrass / Old Time / Country crowd.
  8. A few random thoughts:

    - You'll find that if you do this long enough, you'll sub-consciously pick up techniques that minimize the difference in sound between an open string and a stopped string....or you may learn to value and showcase the difference; There's nothing more powerful than my Spirocore open E played 'con gusto'.

    - One issue might be less-than-perfect intonation on the stopped string that becomes apparent when you play the (in tune) open string. Including open strings in your bass line helps to fine-tune your ear so that over time the intonation differences become less. I find that finding and playing double-stops (when tasteful and appropriate) using an open string as a drone also helps my intonation.

    - Some strings (like Spirocore) are very zingy when played un-stopped. I'd never recommend switching from a good set of Spirocores, but see the 1st bullet in this list.

    - Seriously, it takes people like me about 10,000 hours of practice to play so that it looks effortless.

    - There's a recent thread in another forum celebrating the use of open strings. Check it out.
    AGCurry, Keith Rawlings and Wasnex like this.
  9. BobKay

    BobKay Supporting Member

    Nov 5, 2012
    Estero, Florida; USA
    I've been playing bluegrass, roots, Americana and folk for years and years now. I'll take an open string over a stopped string any time I have a choice. The power and personality of the upright really comes through in the open strings. That's my story, at least. When I use a stopped string, it's because of the key we are in, or because it adds color to the piece.
  10. Jazzdogg

    Jazzdogg Less barking, more wagging!

    Jul 29, 2006
    San Diego, CA
    1. Practice slowly and deliberately. Increase the tempo incrementally, only after you are playing "perfectly" at slower tempos;
    2. Listen critically - do everything you can to develop your ears as much as your technique;
    3. Remember: double bass and electric bass are two completely different instruments: practice until you feel competent and confident playing double bass: until then, limit your electric bass technique to electric bass.

    My two cents...

    Good luck! :)
    Keith Rawlings and drwv like this.
  11. Keith Rawlings

    Keith Rawlings

    Aug 3, 2019
    The first 5 years I played double bass I rarely ventured out of first position so open strings were ideal. Add to that the fact that the majority of the songs we played were in E major/minor, A major/minor or G major/minor because of the singer’s range and because we played mostly rockabilly, roots country and psychobilly in either a I/IV/V, I/II/IV/V or I/V chord progression.

    I always mute unplayed open strings with my left hand and, as others have said on this thread, the process becomes almost automatic after a while.
    AGCurry, Wasnex and drwv like this.
  12. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    We are talking about bluegrass here, right? Open strings are your best friend. Assuming two-five parts and only the I, IV and V chords, no walking, etc. you can get by in the common keys playing mostly open strings.

    D: all open strings for both root and five

    G: you need to fret the C, the other notes are open

    A: you need to fret the B, the other notes are open

    C: you need to fret the C and F, the other notes are open

    E: you need to fret the B and F#, the other notes are open

    So in the five most common keys, you only need to be able to fret B, C, F and F#. You can play all three in the lowest position. F# on the E string, B and C on the A string and F on either the E or D string.

    I was gigging playing like this while I was still working out the rest of the fingerboard in the lowest positions so I could start walking, play minor chords, etc. Even then I was only using the first four fretted notes on the E, A and D strings and the fifth (C) on the G.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2021
  13. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    What everyone else said. As I recall, when I was learning bass guitar back in college, my buddy/teacher told me to used closed positions as much as possible, to avoid the difference in tonality. I have pretty big/strong hands, so it never was an issue. I could use a nice open hand form, w/o relying on the clawed shape.

    Not sure when on upright I was told by whom to use open strings as much as possible, but it made sense and became quickly ingrained in me

    Your reliance on 3d-4th position strikes me as odd, and is exactly the opposite of my experience. For one thing, if you are playing up there, you are in the guitar's range, and are robbing your group of the low end only the bass can bring. There is a reason so many bassists say all the $ is to be made in 1st position. To me, long before I learned how to number the positions, I knew I felt most comfortable with my middle finger locking in on the low G/C. That's just was always my wheelhouse for songs in G, C, A, D ... which is probably 90-95% of BG tunes.

    Now, as I'm learning more about the instrument, and working on my shifting and technique, I'm more comfortable up around the heel. But that is basically for color and the occasional break - not for meat and potatoes BG. There are plenty of other instruments eager to show off. Less is definitely more.

    Now that I'm bowing more, I'm working hard on the tonality of stopped strings. At present, I'm persuaded the majority of my problem is my technique. And the poor tonality is often the result of fatigue/sloppiness. I'm definitely a neophyte, but one thing I've been incorporating into my practices is bowing only 4 notes of an exercise/etude/scale at a time. Play 4 notes as perfectly as I can, then pull my bow entirely off the strings. My teacher told me to stick the nut of the bow in my belly. Then go back to the string and play the next 4 notes, then back to the belly.

    Then do the same thing playing 8 notes at a time. Work up to playing the entire piece. I'm still an arco beginner, but I'm seeing improvement in the tone I get w/ all stopped strings, from 1st thru 4th position.

    Thumping BG, I never really noticed a big difference between open and stopped strings. I mean, unless you are ending a phrase/song on a booming open E or A. Yeah, then you just have to make sure you don't get carried away such that rings instead of slaps and buzzes. But otherwise, locking down a note in 1st position, there is no reason it shouldn't really boom. In the middle of a song, there is generally another note coming along quickly enough that neither I, other player, or listeners can note any tonal difference.
    Keith Rawlings and AGCurry like this.
  14. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    I suggest taking a bluegrass tune, maybe in key of D, and play it completely with open notes. When in D, you have the root, 4, and 5 all available via open strings. Start each practice session this way to make it a priority. Experiment with muting with either hand to get the groove you want. Keep doing it until it sounds good to you. See, i love open strings because they are always in tune! But muting/note length become something you have to manage when you don't want all your notes to be legato. I mostly play swing so want my notes as long as possible.
    Keith Rawlings likes this.
  15. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Not much more humbling than feeling your bass is out of tune while playing a song, turning on the tuner after and seeing it read rock solid in tune! ;)
    Keith Rawlings, drwv and Seanto like this.
  16. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    I've never understood this -

    On bass guitar (fretted, of course) open strings resonate between a hard plastic or metal nut (or in some rare cases, a zero fret) and the metal bridge, and stopped notes resonate between a metal fret and a metal bridge. How can that present a difference of any significance comparred to open vs. stopped strings on a fretless double bass?

    Now if you're playing one finger per fret on a 34" scale bass guitar with small hands, THAT could be a good reason to move up into higher positions.
  17. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    What you say makes sense. I haven't touched bass guitar more than 5 times in the last 25 years - don't even have mine anymore - gave it to my kid.

    Just what my friend/teacher told me. As I recall, I had pretty large/strong hands, so I had no problem playing closed patterns w/ a good hand position, w/o needing to "claw" my hand or rely on open strings. One other wrinkle is that knowing how to play patterns closed allows you to transpose and play similar patterns in any key.

    W/ upright, unless you have the hands of an NBA center, there is just no chance of playing everything closed. It will just kick your ass.
  18. drwv


    Nov 26, 2019
    No offense, but that's not what I'm talking about at all! I don't mean to imply that I'm playing up in orchestra solo range...

    I simply mean that if I'm playing in the key of A or Am, I'd rather play my root note on the E string at the 5th "fret", as opposed to the open A string.

    If I'm playing in D, I'll prefer my root note on the A string at the 5th "fret". My fifth-down will be the A on the E string at the 5th fret.

    If I'm playing in G or Gm, my home bass will be the low G, 3rd "fret" of the E string. One thing that drives me crazy about "standard" Bluegrass or Old Time playing is that everyone always reaches for that high G just because it's an open string. If I'm in the key of G, I'm reaching for the low one as my root. The open G string might be a G, but it's not always the right G.

    The key of E is one where I do sometimes find myself sometimes creeping high up there. It's pretty cool to hover up at the 7th "fret", and you've got access to both octaves without much effort. Of course, choosing the higher octave for E is the only way you've got a fifth-down available, so I'll use that as my excuse.

    Anyway, since airing my dirty laundry here on TalkBass, I've been thinking more about why I prefer to play stopped than open as I'm practicing, and I think this might be the biggest hangup for me: To cut a stopped note short, I simply have to relax the finger on my left hand, and the string is instantly muted. To cut an open note short, I've got to fling my left hand fingers at the violently vibrating string, which is somehow never rhythmically perfect, makes an audible sound, and it makes it difficult to follow up with another quick note, especially if there's a string crossing involved.

    Thanks to all of you for the great advice, wisdom, and stories!
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2021
    Keith Rawlings likes this.
  19. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    Sounds like you may have flailing fingers...in other words you don't keep unused fingers close to the strings.

    Muting is a multi-faceted technique. Depending on what you are doing and what you will do next, you use different approaches. Maybe this video will give some ideas:
  20. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Hey, no offense at all. I'm the first to admit I'm just a hack. I must've misunderstood what you were talking about when you said your. "preference for "home" was up around 3rd or 4th position." And then I thought you said you were less comfortable "down in half and 1st position instead".

    Play wherever is comfortable and makes sense to you.

    I also tend to gravitate to the low G instead of the high open G.
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