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Electric Bass: Tool or Crutch?

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by fu22ba55, Dec 7, 2017.

  1. fu22ba55

    fu22ba55 Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 16, 2009
    Does occasional EB practice help or hurt development on upright?

    (I've been playing electric for 34 years, and upright for the last 4.5 years)

    Sometimes I feel like working things out on electric helps my harmonic understanding, and opens up my mind to new possibilities, but those possibilities often vanish once I attempt them on the upright.

    I don't have any reliable piano skills, so when I need to "figure things out" I'll often grab the electric to navigate a path through a complex set of changes, or a tricky bop head.

    My current ratio of upright to electric practice time is 80::20. Because if I want to get good on the upright, I have to play the upright. But every time I grab the electric, I'm reminded of MORE things I can do, in more places, which helps me tackle the whole harmonic thing faster.

    I feel like focusing solely on upright retards my development in improvisation and music theory. My technique gets way better, but it takes 5x or 6x longer to figure things out and have occasional harmonic epiphanies.

    So should I bury all my electrics in the backyard and focus 100% on upright to close the gap? Or is grabbing an electric okay once in a while when I'm mired in the quicksand of a giant untempered instrument?

    I feel bad ignoring the improv and harmonic-understanding regions of my brain while I wait for my hands to catch up.
    Lee Moses likes this.
  2. madbanjoman

    madbanjoman Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2011
    I have a similar history. When I switched to DB, I stopped practicing EB unless I have a EB specific gig. For me hearing how it should sound on the DB and how it should be played on the DB is key to internalizing it for the DB. The EB requires different concentration than the DB. I don’t think grabbing the EB would help me in figuring out something for the DB.
  3. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    It sounds like you connect hands with brain on the EB in a way you'd like to on the acoustic, which means only one thing - more time on the acoustic. On the other hand, if the EB allows you the expressive voice and works as a source of ideas or inspiration, why would anyone give that up? Without wishing to incur the wrath of the DB purists, have you considered fretless EB? It might give you a sense of how your EB musings feel without frets which might make them feel a little less alien when you hit the doghouse...
    As an aside, I've recently started playing upright and I think my 35 years of fretless EB has helped me hit the road running...
  4. sevenyearsdown

    sevenyearsdown Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    I think that you may be expecting too much too soon on upright. Let's face it, things are just easier to navigate on BG. With 30+ years of experience on it versus less than 5 on UB, it's not surprising that you'd feel leaps and bounds ahead of your upright playing when you grab the BG.

    I have a similar experience. I don't even bother with BG anymore other than messing around occasionally with it. If I want to figure out an idea on my upright bass, I grab my upright bass and get to it. Spending time figuring things out on your bass guitar is time you aren't spending figuring them out on upright. You have to make a decision in those circumstances, because they'll never be a 1:1 translation from one instrument to the other.
  5. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    Great post, great thread.

    I don't believe for one minute that time spent with EB hurts development on upright. The physical limitations of DB can place mental blocks in front of you that EB can easily knock down and open you up to different "outside the box" ideas. But your statement "if I want to get good on the upright, I have to play the upright" is undoubtedly true. And based on that statement, I assume your goal is primarily to get good on the upright rather than to get burnin' on the electric (?)

    So it seems the remaining question is, How much time do you have to practice? If at least an hour a day, I'd say your 80:20 ratio sounds pretty good. If less than an hour a day, I'd probably only pick up the electric once or twice a week.

    Just my 2¢.
  6. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    I pick up a guitar occasionally when I want to explore making a difficult set of changes but I started on guitar and got pretty far along on it so I'm not practicing my guitar, I'm exploring the changes on a instrument that takes care of intonation for me. The last year or so, my piano is good enough so I can use that too. I wouldn't put a percentage on it. For me, it's just a tool.
  7. fu22ba55

    fu22ba55 Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 16, 2009
    Thanks all for great comments so far: some responses inline below:

    I played fretless EB for about 5 years back in the day. I'm not going for that sound, I'm definitely focused on the upright for now. These days when I grab the EB it's to use a tempered instrument to figure stuff out.

    This is what I'm discovering. I THINK I'm gaining some ground by "burning in" mental images of some scale shapes and chord-tone shapes on the EB, but only so much of it helps, and I need to re-discover everything on UB anyway.

    I'm lucky enough right now that I have about 2.5 hours of bona-fide practice time daily, and I can grab maybe an extra 45 minutes in a second session.

    This is more what it's about. "Exploring things on an instrument that takes care of intonation for me."
  8. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    ANY time spent attempting to solidify the connection between your brain/soul and ANY musical instrument, (the Human Voice included), is, in the long run, time well-spent.
    RBrownBass, Les Fret, lurk and 6 others like this.
  9. If there's a purpose for picking up another instrument, esp if it speeds things up, then it's time well spent IMO IME.

    I picked up my guitar yesterday for 5 minutes to help me with a song I'm working on. I was trying to sing the melody while playing DB (unaccompanied) but struggled to properly pitch certain notes, esp over the half-dim chords. Much easier using another instrument.

    Hear it -> sing it -> play it = internalised.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2017
  10. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Far preferable to the more typical:

    play it -> hear it -> make vocal grumbles ;)
    HateyMcAmp likes this.
  11. buldog5151bass

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

    Oct 22, 2003
    It's just another tool - whatever gets the gears in your noggin turning. Sometimes piano works best for me, because I can see everything in front of me.
    SteveCS likes this.
  12. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Or more so, just adding to your idea... it's a different instrument with different challenges that introduces new ideas. Better yet, piano can comp - simply or more complex - all helpful to me in my journey.
    BrotherMister likes this.
  13. Electric Bass is a great tool. As you have described, it can open up new shapes and new ideas that you find difficult to access on upright. It is not a crutch...If I were you, I'd try playing around with shapes and cool progressions on upright. I find that if I pick up my upright, new ideas are unlocked just as if i pick up my EB new ideas are unlocked...they are totally different instruments so if I were you, I wouldn't compare. Try going thru the circle of fourths on your upright--theres a bunch of dope sounds that come out from just simple simple string crossing (low G, C, F, Bflat, Eflat, Aflat etc.)
  14. BrotherMister


    Nov 4, 2013
    PVG Membership
    My playing on double has helped my electric playing more than electric has double. They are both completely different instruments that share a similar function in music. Outside of the bass, having basic piano skills has been a massive aid to my learning. I always encourage people to invest in even the simplest cheapest 2 octave keyboard you can and it will do you wonders.
    BassiklyAC and Tom Lane like this.
  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I think anything that gets you into a deeper dialog with the music you are trying to learn is a good thing. I know that working things out on the piano helps me often when I get stuck or can't see the forest for the trees. I also suspect that all of those years playing the guitar have carried over to the big bass in ways I'm not even consciously aware of.

    Singing lines to try to find out what sounds good without going through conscious theory is also a great way to get to a more organic solution to many roadblocks I encounter. Recently I was preparing for a concert and wanted to learn to solo on an original tune by a colleague that had a ton of slash chords during a certain part of the form. My brain turned the passage into a combination of an obstacle course, a Rubick's cube, and a razor wire fence. When nothing was working, I recorded a slowed down version of the harmony on the piano, looped it in Audacity, and sang lines blind over the passage for about 5 minutes. Turns out there was a simple basic tonality with a couple of toggle switches that covered the whole thing. When I took it back to the bass, it flowed much better. Do whatever works!
    oren, Joshua, BrotherMister and 2 others like this.
  16. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    So this is the thing for me with the bass, I have to know what I'm trying to play. If I don't know... an instrument that takes care of intonation is very helpful. Singing is also extremely helpful. For tough-to-me chord changes, singing and composing a few lines are frequently the cure.
    I've done this on many tunes over the years and have always been satisfied with the results after the effort. Recently, I've encountered a new challenge on All Blues. A ridiculously simple tune that I've played for years and soloed on competently. My challenge? I can't seem to get away from the lilting bass line riff in my solo. I think it's okay that I reference that rhythm in my solo but I don't want it to limit my options. So far, I've composed a few different solos that I liked breaking that rhythm but on the band stand... damn... dong be da ba da ba dong be da be da ba... More composing, practicing and transcribing are what this doctor is ordering. This is what practice is for... growth, new things.
  17. buldog5151bass

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

    Oct 22, 2003
    It can help changing the entire feel of a standard - walk All Blues like a swing tune, play Rhythm changes as a Latin tune. It resets your pre-conceptions. I'm not much of a soloist, but the drummer I play with will follow me (or sometimes lead me) to do this. It's fun watching the horn players' eyes sometimes when we do it.
    Groove Doctor and Tom Lane like this.
  18. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    I completely agree... changing the context usually presents new paths... but for me All Blues has been unusually stubborn. I suppose that's my stubbornness I'm confronting. Usually with these kinds of problems, I struggle for a bit, the "a-ha" moment happens and then I wonder what I was struggling with.
    Still, very good advice, thanks!
    Groove Doctor likes this.
  19. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Well, I've been playing upright a lot longer than electric, and I never practice electric whereas I try to practice upright seriously, so I guess you could say the upright is a crutch or aid to me in figuring out things on the electric. Also, due to some minor hand issues it's very difficult to play with more than one RH finger on EB whereas I can do it on upright just fine, so my technique is inherently handicapped on electric.

    About the only thing I use electric for is a couple of venues where load-in and load-out are EXTREMELY difficult with the upright, or if I am going to have to leave the bass in the car all day in the heat of summer.
  20. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    I've mentioned this before but... I sold all of my fretless BGs because I wasn't serious about the instrument and as a tool it was inferior to a guitar or piano or my voice. Every blue moon, I wish I had a fretted lap bass because I'm lazy after work but I haven't found one yet with 4 strings and a 3 octave string, so, I suffer. I know, poor, pitiful me, and you're right... talk about 1st world problems.

    I listen to Victor Wooten, John Patatucci, Christian McBride, Stanley Clark... who am I forgetting? One of my teachers, Adam Cohen on his 6-string and I think... I am truly a hack on the FBG and should no more perform on this than I do on piano or drums... both of which I can do a coupla things, but, NOT really.

    The point is, these folks "play", no "work" the BG and I have my hands more than full with the DB. One challenge at a time for me if I want to make significant progress. YMMV.
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2017

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