Consistent Tone and Volume

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by David Abrams, Jun 25, 2003.

  1. I am finding a significant problem achieving and maintaining consistent tone and volume across all registers of the double bass, both when playing arco and when playing pizzicato. As a former classical guitar player, it is not too difficult to maintain consistent volume for a 3 octave scale, for example, on the classical guitar. But the double bass presents significantly more major problems in this area, I think, because the low register resonates so powerfully that the sound is naturally very loud with wonderful sustain. It seems to me that the double bass notes in the high register are naturally dramatically different. As one ascends to the higher registers, the sound gets quieter, thinner, and it seems with less sustain.

    I am sure this is a very big problem for us beginners on the instrument. However, I have occasionally heard some professional classical and jazz double bassists appear to play with one type of sound in the lower registers and a different, quieter sound in the higher registers. Of course, there are some great players with wonderfully consistent tone and volume across all registers. (Edgar Meyer and Francois Rabbath in classical, Ray Brown and Ray Drummond in jazz immediately come to mind).

    On the piano, a relative beginner can fairly easily play a 3, 4, or even 5 octave scale with consistent tone and volume, which makes it a great instrument to play tunes and improvise for fun in the jazz idiom. However, it is really disappointing during a jazz bass solo to hear the bassist move into the higher register with a noticeable drop in volume, a changed tone, and even a muffled sound on some notes and then return to lower registers with a big, booming, beautifully sustaining sound! Since this occasionally occurs with arco playing as well, I am wondering if people here recommend practicing playing louder in the higher register to address this problem?

    I recently posted what Ray Drummond stated about this problem in the right hand pizzicato thread. However, I see this as a problem for right and left hand pizzicato technique, arco playing, and also because of the E string not having a string below it for playing strong pizzicato right hand technique consistently on all 4 strings. I find that when playing scales or tunes, my E string notes also often tend to lose consistency in tone and volume compared to the 3 highest strings.

    Therefore, what specific suggestions do people here have to get the E string to have the exact same good, strong, identifiable, and musical basic "sound" as the other 3 strings as well as achieving consistent tone and volume across all registers on all strings in arco and pizzicato double bass tecnique?
  2. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    This is strictly my opinion, but I don't think the E string should or even can sound exactly like the other strings - in the first place, the lower you go in range, the longer the string is supposed to be to fully recreate the fundamental of the pitch. On a concert grand piano, that same string (lowest E on the piano unless you happen to be playing a Boesendorfer Imperial) is about 7 feet long, and if I remember my acoustics right, that's still not nearly as long as it should to shorten it to about 3 1/2 feet can't be helping.

    In addition, all instruments get muddier to our ears as they go lower, as they are producing some fundamental frequencies that are in and of themselves "muddy" to our human ears - if you have ever worked with a multiband parametric EQ or multiband compressor and soloed any of the low frequency bands (below about 120 hz), you'll find that the sound of the fundamental without all of the overtones sounds like James Earl Jones singing Barry White tunes through a giant wet sock. Nature of the beast.

    Regarding the E string pizz issue, that's a good question, since the fingerboard provides a certain measure of that "snap" you get with the other strings. My own technique (not necessarily recommended)for getting the biggest possible sound out of the E string involves pulling the string hard at the same angle as the other strings (along the curvature of the fingerboard), which causes my hand to "fall" off of the fingerboard and slam into the top of the bass at the first thumb joint. There's actually a spot on my bass where the finish is eaten away because of this...and on one recent and very intense gig with lots of up-tempo stuff, I actually started bleeding from the same spot, as all of the skin at that area had worn off - but that's the only time that has happened.

    Like I said, I don't know if I would "recommend" this technique to everyone, but it's the only way I've been able to find to get close to the sound I'm hearing out of the string. If you listen to Charlie Haden recordings, you'll hear a "snap" of his fingers when he plays on the E, which to me indicates that he also has a special way of applying force to that string. As with everything, a grain of salt is recommended. Do what works for you.
  3. I have never seen Charlie Haden playing in person, but I sometimes get a finger snappping sound when playing pizzicato on the E string. Yes, I do have a teacher, to Jason's question,who explained that Rufus Reid showed him the best way to get a "sweet, good sound" from the E string, which is to pull the string and then to make a slight upward twist motion, which sometimes results in the finger snapping sound. Rufus Reid may have gotten this from Ray Brown, who can be observed on videotapes to sometimes lift his right arm up in the air, after pulling the E string and twisting his hand upwards with an emphasized flourish gesture, when he has pulled the E string to strongly accent the note. If I go to the Rabbath summer institute at the University of Maryland at the end of July, I will hope to ask Rufus about this, since he will also be teaching there. Rufus has what I find as one of the strongest and most beautiful pizzicato sounds going. I am also struggling with arco exercises, and I will try those Jason recommends.