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Techniques for Solo ABG

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by wulf, Apr 18, 2002.

  1. wulf


    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    Max was writing some interesting stuff about techniques he uses with acoustic bass guitars in his solo stuff in the running thread about which looping device to choose. I thought it was fascinating, and wondered if the topic deserved a thread all of its very own?

    I haven't used my electro-acoustic (Tanglewood Odyssey - not high-end, but it works nicely enough within certain limits) for solo stuff that has been purely musical, but I have used it sometimes as the sole (or lead) accompaniment instrument in some of the worship I've led at my church.

    As with Max, I do a lot of slappy, strummy things on it, although not nearly so refined as what I've heard of his playing. My 'driver' is that I'm trying to provide a strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation for the singing and create sufficient volume to be clearly heard. I guess I could plug in somewhere, but that would take away the convenience of not lugging my amp up to the church - we're talking about a congregation of 10 - 20 people in a smallish building, so it's not an unfeasible aim.

    If there's interest in the thread, I'll post some more specifics of some of the ways I'm playing things - but I'm also interested in gleaning more insights from Max and others who are using ABG's in solo settings.

  2. maxvalentino

    maxvalentino Endorsing Artist Godin Guitars/ Thomastik-Infeld

    wulf; Although I certainly do think the topic is worthy of a thread...I feel somewhat "funny" about hogging up Steve's Forum!
    But then again..Steve may have a few insights into solo ABG playing of his own (of which I would certainly be interested in! :-0)

    I would be happy to toss out ideas for you (so to speak) off this list.
    I have done a great deal of experimentation and research on ABGs....
    e-mail me in pvt, if you wish....
    [email protected]

    Thanks...and best wishes
  3. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK

    feel free to post! this is a forum about solo bass playing, and you're a fine solo bassist with much to offer, so fire away... I'll come back with my usual pseudo-zen nonsense before long no doubt... :oops:)

  4. maxvalentino

    maxvalentino Endorsing Artist Godin Guitars/ Thomastik-Infeld

    and so post I shall!
    Personally I find the ABG, and esp. my Godin's, a perfect match for my own solo bass style. As with all acoustic instruments they possess certain sonic anomallies which, while make them not aptly suited for all types of music, make them very appealing as solo instruments, IMHO.
    I don't know too much about the Tanglewood ABGs, but I believe they come out of the same factory which produces some rather nice ABGs for Washburn, Epiphone, Ibanez, Dean etc.
    I will toss out this opinion: if you are trying to play an ABG "unplugged" do you find you are really getting the volume and tone you desire?
    I know many have written, on other threads, on the amazing acoustic volume of some ABGs (notably the Tacoma), but in my experience I have only found one to really have ANY reasonably acceptable volume and tone...the old Ernie Ball Earthwood. Which, by the way, is about twice as big as a Tacoma (which is a very big bass itself!)
    I have tried various Washburns, Ovations, Epis, even Tacoma, a MArtin B1 and the Taylor ABG. The last three are all great basses, magnificent even, but none really threw out the tone and vol. that is required. It gets back to basic physics. An ABG cannot due to its size amplify itself enough. Also, due to the construction, much of the fundamental freq is masked (what you get is really a prominent 2nd harmonic "masquerading" as the fundamental). This is really not a bad thing, and in some ways is cool. But, if you really want to play bass "sans amp", get an upright.

    ABGs, IMHO, really need some amplified support.I think that is why they make them with piezos. And the best ones, like Turner, Allen, and Godin, all embrace the amplification factor. I suppose we should refer to them as "electro-acoustics"...but It doesn't take much amplification,really...just a bit. My main amp is a SWR BAby Blue head, which is only 150w, and I play thru either an Ashdown 1x10 or 2x8 cab. And this provides me with plenty of vol and headroom. And this set up is quite small and portable...but I am looking into an Acoustic Image Clarus..just to make it even smaller!
    I would suggest you look into a small amp just for your acoustic. Find one which is as transparent as possible (altho no amp is truely transparent)This will give you so much more tonal possibilities....for both your solo and "supportive" work. There are many high-quality small and portable amps/combos available. I know a couple of ABG players who even use acoustic guitar amps like the Strawberry Blonde or Ashdown Radiator for their basses.

    there are caveats to the whole concept of solo bass: firstly, a good tone for ensemble or even accompaniment may not neccessarily be a good tone for solo bass work (and vice versa). This is only augmented by the addition of a looping device.
    I personally find the mids of extreme importance in solo bass work. I am not known to hype the top end too much, but in solo work, to much bottom can weigh a note down, and tend to muddy things up. Too much top end can add some zing, but also a great deal of finger/string noise, which will again distract (unless those squeaks and squawks are part of the performance! I like to try to work the inevitable squeaks and such into the music, esp. when looping!). Amping your ABG gives you more control over ,and usage of, these. It also means you could employ a looper to augment your sound, allowing for both a multi-dimensional approach to your music, and allowing for the all important interplay and dialogue between musical voices. As a solo bassist, I miss the interplay and dialogue between musicians. I think it is an integral part of musical expression. To play "solo", esp. in instrumental music, you must be very sensitive to the absence of this, and create some internal dialogues in the music, which is a very demanding discipline found in the truely great soloists (listen to Michael Manring....or Steve, and you'll hear what I mean) The use of a looper allows this dialogue, this communication, to exist; even if it is between you ( the player) and the looper. This could also open up some of the "strummy" things you wrote of.
  5. wulf


    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    I don't think I'm going to make huge musical progress on my Tanglewood as it has a couple of fairly significant flaws :( :

    Intonation - vitually all of the fretted notes seem to be out by some degree, especially from the 8th fret and above on the D and G strings. If I can hear that the chords I'm playing are out of tune, I shudder to think what a more sensitive listener might make of it :eek: .

    I must admit that I'm still using the strings I bought it with - shame on me, cos' I've got a packet of Thomastik-Infelds I bought a couple of months ago. They may make a significant difference... if not, I may try and find a luthier to have a look at it.

    BTW, I noticed that you mentioned that the sound of ABGs lacks the fundamental and emphasises the second note of the harmonic series - would this (possibly) also go towards explaining the discouraging picture suggested by my tuner?

    Pickups - the electronics sound good but with the major caveat that the D and G strings are significantly louder than the E and A. I'm assuming that the piezo pickups will be glued somewhere under the bridge, so when I change the strings I might put a through mirror through the soundhole and see what's going on there. If I play it amplified at the moment, I have to think in terms of two parallel 2-string basses, one loud, one quiet (and one more in tune than the other ;) ...)

    I certainly don't get enough volume for gentle sensitive playing. However, by attacking the strings quite agressively I harness a couple of bits of physics in my favour:
    1. playing multiple strings increases volume (just like a strummed guitar is louder than a fingerpicked one)
    2. most of the energy is used in an audible 'attack'
    3. if you look like you're playing, people can often fill in the rest! (okay - that's more like metaphysics or psychoacoustics... ;) )
      [/list=1]The main benefits I get from the instrument are that it's very portable and that I can practise at home without getting my amp set up. However, I'm open to inspiration - what I learn here may (eventually) impell me to either get the problems fixed or get a more workable tool to explore the music of the ABG a bit more.

  6. Hi Wulf,

    I've had some success with Thomastik strings - they seem to give me better intonation than some other strings I've tried. Same holds true for another bassist friend who plays with a "Rob Allen"esque bass. They do feel quite different though.

    I'd recommend getting the piezo's looked at. I've played ABGs where the pickups aren't "balanced" and it's a real pain... :(

    As for looping with ABG's... this isn't something I had thought of before. Time to break out the DL4!

    Rules? There are no rules... There's only taste...

    All the best.

    (Ovation 5 string)
  7. wulf


    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    On with the new strings then (soon.... ;) )

    Anyway, I started the thread not so much as to bemoan the problems I have with one of my instruments but to get some ideas of various playing techniques that are particularly suitable when ABG is the solo instrument, so I'd better chuck another one into the ring.

    One thing I've experimented is plucking the strings right over the neck. Traditionally bass players move between the bridge, for a tight, punchy sound, and the bottom of the neck, for a much fatter, smoother effect. However, where as you can't play much further in the bridge direction, you've got lots of room for moving the plucking hand further towards the nut.

    Of course, this works on any bass, but across my collection I've found it is most worthwhile on my electro-acoustic. The tone moves very close to an upright bass sound (with due respect to players of 'proper' upright basses).

    I also sometimes take the pretence further by holding the bass upright like a double bass. This forces me to approach the instrument in a different way. In some ways, it's not dissimilar to altering the tuning - you can't fall back on your normal 'vocabulary' and so have to voyage into new regions of expression.

    Worth a try (and completely free :D )

  8. maxvalentino

    maxvalentino Endorsing Artist Godin Guitars/ Thomastik-Infeld

    The string balance problem is a common malady with less-expensive ABGs. There are a few things you can do, other than replace the piezo and preamp with a better unit.
    One would be to cut a thin piece of wood veneer the same width and length as the bridge saddle slot.
    Remove the strings and bridge saddle, and slide that wood pc. into the slot OVER the piezo element. This will act as a sort of suspension, increasing the downward pressure on the element, as well as balancing the string pressure from string to string. A lot of the "inbalance" is from differing string pressure on the piezo element. Getting a proper balance on piezos is an art itself (and a repairperson's nightmare), the better made piezo pu's have (usually) been balanced at the factory, or a very skilled and highly qualified repairperson could put these in order...but one trick they would try I have just explained.
    Another thing would be to check the saddle. Is it leaning forward...towards the neck? If so, turn it around so it has more back lean. This will also help balance the strings, and may be a slight remedy for your intonation problems.
    Regarding the intonation: much of this could be due to the wrong type of string applying too much stress to the neck and bridge. You will find the TIs much lighter in tension....thus easier to play..and so will lower the tension of the neck, and hopefully put things in better tune.
    Try these...hope all works out.
  9. maxvalentino

    maxvalentino Endorsing Artist Godin Guitars/ Thomastik-Infeld

    oh...now on to some techniques!
    I have found that ABGs a wonderful instruments for chordal playing. This can be from simple double stops to full four note chords, to implied extensions.
    The nice thing about playing chords is it teaches you so much about the function of harmony. This increases you ability for "normal" bass playing, as well as opens up new avenues of melodic expression as well.
    Start by writing out chords. Start with the basic major/minor/diminished triads and then add the extensions for 7ths, 9ths, 11ths 13ths, 7b5 etc.
    find fingering shapes for these (due to the standard tuning being consistent fourths, all shapes become moveable..thusly transposing!) Then, work out the inversions of those chords.
    Find some chord progressions to standard tunes (Over The Rainbow, Blackbird, Autumn Leaves, My Funny Valentine, Georgia On mY Mind et al) and work those out.
    Then begin composing on your own!!
    Also learn to apply chords around melodic passages...not just as a strummy, acoustic guitar-type technique.

    Strumming, finger-style arpeggios, flamenco-styled finger rolls, all work well.

    The ABG is an incredibly responsive and dynamic instrument, with a great deal of tonal variety achieved just by the placement of your hands. Move your plucking (right?) hand up and down the "speaking length" of the string taking note of the different tones and dynamics.
    Then try altering you fretting pressure to also achieve dynamic effects. Esp. when using the TI strings, if you press into a note after plucking it, you can coax the note into swelling and blossoming as on a fretless.
    Fingernails, finger pads, finger pressure, finger position...these all are imporstant tools to be explored.

    I tend to play a great deal with my right hand in a classical gtr type position, thus allowing me to use my thumb and three fingers to apply attack to the strings. I can play very fluid triplet passages in this way, as well as grabbing chords to accent legato phrases.

    whew....thanks for the bandwidth, Steve!
  10. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Great disussion guys, and some fine tips from you, Max...

    There are some principles that apply to any musical endeavour that will push forward your experiments with ABG, Wulf... the first is to do with defining parameters - whatever it is that you're investigating - right hand technique, fretting, strumming, tapping, sliding, EQing on your amp etc. etc. it's wise to define your extremes first - instead of sitting with your usual way of doing whatever it is you're doing and jumping aimlessly around, find the extremes of loud and soft, harsh and dull, bright and bassy, smooth 'n' spiky... etc. etc. in so doing, you define a contiuum between those extremes that you can explore, and begin to gain control over them (it's back to my regular themes of 'control and awareness' - playing the extremes gives you the awareness of how far you can go, working the continuum develops the control within the parameters...)

    next, stop thinking about the lump of wood in your hands as a bass... it's not, it's just a box with some strings and a pickup. How does that pick up work? what does it work on? how do you get sound from the strings? vibration, of some sort... what happens when you hit the instrument, scratch it, tap it... experiment with different places to do this, do it between notes to thicken up your sound...

    Michael Manring has said before that the fun with any bass is that it's about taking an acoustic signal and manipulating it electronically, even if that's just amplifying it... as soon as you amplify your bass of any kind, you make things that acoustically would be inaudible audible, and you can work with and manipulate the interface between whatever kind of pickup you have and the instrument - like feedback, or EBow technique, or scraping your nails down the strings, or on ABG, playing percussion on the piezos, shouting into the soundhole and finding out what else a piezo will do that magnets won't...

    However, wulf, first things first, to misquote Shakespear - 'get thee to the Gallery' - change the strings, and see if that helps, then pay Mr Peterson a visit (might be worth bringing it with you on Tuesday, and doing a swap for your new bass... :oops:)

    Mike - let me know how you get on looping the Ovation... just do with that the crazy s**t you were doing with the DL4 anyway... :oops:) FSU indeed...

    thanks for all your input Max - some great ideas there. You're a fine example of a bassist who has taking the ABG as 'their' sound, working with piezo technology as a distinct sound in its own right - great stuff...


  11. wulf


    Apr 11, 2002
    Oxford, UK
    Just a quick comment to say that I got round to putting the new strings on tonight (Thomastik-Infeld Phosphorbronze Nyloncore roundwounds, .086, .068, .053, .041) and they seem to have solved the intonation problems I was having. I haven't plotted out the exhaustive chart of every single note that I did before, but a random scattering up and down the neck showed everything to be much more harmonious.

    The strings also have a pleasingly soft feel - I'm a happy bunny :)

  12. JES

    JES Supporting Member

    Hi All,

    I just got my first ABG after playing electric for 25 years (a Martin BC15e). I'm interesting in developing on it as a solo instrument but UNPLUGGED -- specifically for quiet settings for myself, for friends, for serenading my cats, and so forth. Though eventually I'll record it.

    The bass is 4-string and I'm thinking of keeping it EADG though I could also tune up to ADGC if that would be better for solo playing.

    I'm looking for the following:

    1. Good examples of recorded solo ABG work with no overdubbing or effects (since I can't do that acoustically). If there's something outstanding of this sort on upright, that would be helpful too.

    2. Suggestions for technique or practice patterns that would be useful. I suspect that I need to spend some time on chords.

    Ultimately, I'm looking for an open, minimalist, melodic style.

    Examples of some of my electric work (in collaboration with another bassist) at http://lo-boy.net/


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