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The Politics of Doubling

By Brent-Anthony Johnson


Isn’t it interesting that many bassists on the planet consider the acoustic contra bass and the electric bass guitar to be the same instrument?   As a bassist trained on the acoustic contra bass as well as the fretted and fretless electric bass guitar, I’ve come to understand the importance of viewing the acoustic instrument as a completely different entity, from it’s electrified “grandson”.  Before I was able to rectify the vast differences between the two instruments, my path would take me away from the acoustic bass for several years – as I focused on fretless studies – and then return me to the deeper, richer roots of the acoustic bass as a result. 

During my self-imposed exile from the acoustic bass, I met and talked with a number of bassist in the Denver Area who also play both instruments.  These “Doublers” are some of the best in the business, and they are also close, personal friends of mine. 

When Warren at GB approached me about writing such a story, I knew exactly where to start!  I immediately got in touch with Jon Baron (Dado Sa Band, Senior Gato); Derek Brown (Mary Lydia Ryan); Tim Carmichael (Usual Suspects); Michael Olson (far too many bands to mention here), and Kevin Fanberg (downPoor).

Jon Baron  Derek Brown

The following round-table discussion occurred in early March 2001.  As we meandered through the questions, and spoke with one another, I began to understand the value of this type of story!   I don’t believe I have ever read a story like this in all my years of scouring through the volumes of monthly bass-oriented periodicals that magically appear in the mail!  Hang on… Here we go!

BAJ: Let’s begin by stating the obvious: 

What, in your opinions, is the greatest difference between the electric bass guitar, and the acoustic contra bass.

JB:  Tone! There's just a fundamental (pardon the pun) difference in tone because of the longer string length and acoustic properties of the upright. I find myself exploiting the lower frequencies much more on upright, and because of the percussive nature, and inherent postponed decay of the instrument, I find I have to be much more rhythmically conscious. In other words, the upright has a “thump”, followed by an enormous swell of the note… So, you have to put the note in just the right spot!  The electric, on the other hand, says what it has to say without a lot of fuss… then sits down.  I think that upright “thump” (or “boom”, or “swell”) is wonderful!   But, you have to know when it's appropriate for a tune.

I was playing a Samba on a gig recently, and I took a solo.  At that moment I decided, “I’m going to play what I hear!”  - Versus just going for chops.  I found myself more satisfied with my sound and approach.  The understanding of the upright, and the experience of playing the instrument, brought me to that decision.

DB:  Aside from the physical nature of the instruments, the inherent voice of the instrument so very different than the electric.  The ability to expand my voice by playing both the contra bass and the electric bass guitar offers much more, musically speaking, than one might imagine. The electric bass rarely matches the rich, full tone of the upright. From the opposite view point… The upright rarely (if ever) matches the “cut” and “punch” offered up by the electric. Both offer amazing ranges of vocal, percussive and harmonic qualities… Not to mention the satisfaction of holding down the bottom-end!

In my opinion, the electric bass guitar is great for the obvious physical reason, in that it inherently allows more freedom and agility across the fingerboard.  It is so satisfying to set aside the physical “limitations” of the upright and just work on the chops occasionally.  However, because of those limitations, the tendency is to pay very close attention the harmonic choices one makes.   It’s kind of a “love/hate” relationship in some ways… but it’s worth the “pain”.

Tim Carmichael

TC:  Technique is the first thing that comes to my mind!  The left hand stays the same, as far as shape is concerned, when playing the bass guitar.  However, on the acoustic upright, you go from a very stretched-out hand, to thumb position in the upper register.  With that in mind, it can be said that you have two different hand concepts on the same fingerboard when playing upright – versus the consistency of the electric instrument.

As far as sound, many players have compared upright to a washtub with strings -  (laughter), as it is so much easier to get the articulate sounds with an electric bass.  The muddy nature of upright has been a challenge ever since pizzicato technique has been around!

As far as my listening habits… I really don't listen to many doublers.  I would rather listen to guys that have chosen one, or the other, to play on a regular basis.  They do the most justice to a given style – as far as technique is concerned. (Comments and nods of general agreement)

Currently my favorite electric player is Jimmy Haslip!  My favorite upright guy would either be Anthony Cox or Marc Johnson… with much respect, always, to the great Paul Chambers.  However, if I were going to pick one doubler that I most admire over all, it would be Steve Rodby (Pat Metheny).  I have had the chance to speak with both Jimmy and Steve about various bass topics in the past, and they are both very nice people who share their knowledge without agenda.

DB:  I really don't listen to a lot of doublers either. I'm inspired more by players who push the limitations of a particular instrument, as well as musical genres, rather than someone who has "divided their time". Currently, my favorite electric player is Arnie Livingston, of Seattle’s “The Living Daylights”.  I also enjoy Charlie Hunter - although he's actually a guitar player!  My favorite upright players are Avishi Cohen and Edgar Meyer.  Jazz legends Paul Chambers and Scott Lafaro are also among my favorites.

I agree that Steve Rodby sounds fabulous with the Pat Metheny Group!   Stanley Clarke is also in the “absolutely amazing” category!  My favorite doubler, if I had to choose, is Chris Wood of MMW.  The bass tones on "Shackman" and "Combustication" are virtually indistinguishable!

Kevin Fanberg

KF:  The differences, to me, are like selecting an iron for the golf fairway.  Certain venues call for certain instruments...  Sometimes you want a driving rock bass sound, and other times, a lyrical fretless electric.  Then there’s the flat-wound strings on a Fender Jazz, and the pizzicato and/or Arco approach to the acoustic contra bass.

Michael Olson

MO:  The biggest difference for me is that the string bass is a whole body instrument.  Every ounce of my being goes into every note I play on upright!  Every muscle in my body plays a role in producing the tone - which has a number of side effects.  For one, my hips and lower back get pretty sore after three straight upright gigs.  More important, however, is the fact that you will never really have the chops you'd like to have in a perfect world… Particularly, if you started on electric and then adapted that technique to upright (guilty as charged your honor).  This can be particularly frustrating if you've learned to play by memorizing riffs and runs.  But it can also be very liberating, if you've learned to listen for the note you're supposed to play before you play it.  The tone of the upright is very powerful, unique, and intimate, and it can take you on a fantastic journey if you let it!  You know how Warwick's slogan is, "The sound of wood?" …They can't hold a candle to the upright!  (Agreement around the panel)

BAJ: Do any of you find the expressive voice found in the fretless bass guitar can also be accomplished on the acoustic contra bass?  Also, let’s talk about the differences between the fretless bass guitar and the acoustic contra bass…

JB: I don't treat them the same way at all… But that's not to say that one couldn't, or shouldn’t.  Because it's so much harder for me to cover a lot of ground on upright, and I find myself thinking in more simplistic terms on that instrument, than on fretless.  I'm actually really getting off, right now, on just hanging around roots and fifths on the upright - or working on musically efficient ways of getting around the bass.  This is partially out of necessity… But, it also seems that the voices of the two instruments are distinct, so I try to utilize the differences.

DB:  Good point, Jon!  With the right fingers and a little “tweaking of the knobs”, the upright and the fretless can express very similar voices!  Listen to Gary Peacock!  The man is a tonal monster, and he brings those qualities of the fretless and upright closer together than anyone else.

Ultimately though… The inherent richness of the upright lends to a very natural, woody tone, which, in my opinion, falls short with the fretless.  The voice of the upright can be extended even further with the use of the bow… just listen to Edgar Meyer! The first time I heard “Uncommon Ritual”, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t listening to a cello until the third track in when he hits that low D… Ouch!  (General “ooh”, and “ah”! – I love bassists!)  

On the other hand, the possibilities to achieve sustain with the fretless are, for the most part, unmatched by the upright.  Listen to Mick Karn on Polytown.  The vocal quality and punch he achieves on that album are enough to bring a grown man to tears.

TC:  I like to think of this question in opposing (no offense) terms. 

Can the expressive voice of upright be found on fretless electric?  This isn’t to downgrade fretless as much as to acknowledge why fretless came into being.  Players like Jaco were listening to acoustic guys.  When Jaco’s upright exploded he took out the frets on his Jazz Bass.  He wanted the acoustic sound at half the cost – and a bass that would better handle the Florida humidity.  However, as time has progressed some the fretless players have come very close to emulating the sound of upright and maintaining the integrity of electric.  A round warm tone is great no matter which instrument it comes from.  I listen to Jimmy Haslip and Paul Chambers with the same ear. 

KF:  I find that the “Heart of the Bass” (borrowing John Patitucci’s recent disc tittle), is rooted in the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic expressions of the dance between the player and their extension in the bass.  We can mimic the individual instruments with a similar counterpart, but I find each instrument an individual tool designed for specific applications.  Can one bass cover for the other?  Yes, but it would never exactly copy the other.  A fretless can effortlessly float over a lyrical line, but there is another magic when a mass of air resonates from the contra filling the bass cavity and projecting out into an audience.

MO:  They're really apples and oranges...  Aside from tuning and intonation (or lack thereof), there isn't much that the two have in common.  Legend has it that Jaco pulled the frets out of his Fender Jazz after the Florida humidity destroyed his upright, and I'll always wonder if his sound came from trying to emulate the sound of an upright.  I think of a good fretless tone as somewhere between a cello and a trombone, which doesn't really remind me at all of the upright.  But each instrument's tone is so personal that I know that if I just shut up and listen, the bass will tell me what to play.

BAJ: I find as many acoustic contra bassists emulating the sound of cello (or, simply, playing the cello) as I find electric, fretless players reaching for the upright’s sound.  They’re all bass instruments, aren’t they?  And, it is a matter of one’s personal taste, isn’t it?

BAJ: What are your comments on the Electric Upright Basses on the market today, and how can they be bettered for your use?  Also, which “EUB” is your favorite, and why?

JB:  I currently play an Azola Bugbass… and I love it!  I chose it after checking a number of online sources, and talking to a bunch of manufacturers and dealers.  Jill Azola has been very helpful, knowledgeable and honest in each of the conversations I've had with her.  That made a huge difference in my decision - because it's nearly impossible to get hands on information about EUB's - let alone, play them!  The Bugbass seems to me to be "Fender-ish" in its construction: Sort of utilitarian.  But, not lacking in class in any way.

I play a lot of Latin Jazz, and it really sounds great I that context.  It's hard to get used to not having the big body of the upright, and the way the bass leans on me took a little getting used to… But the portability is a big plus!

DB:  I actually never play electric upright basses, and I don’t currently own one. I really enjoy the feel and the physical presence of the acoustic contra bass.  From my experience with EUB’s, I’ve concluded nothing quite “replaces” the natural tone offered up by the contra bass.  However, if the “affect” of the upright is desired, (the affect that it has on the mind of the player and the overall sonic quality of the music) it seems a more realistic “substitute” than the fretless bass guitar.  Listen to Tony Levin on “Upper Extremities”, or even his album, “Waters of Eden”, where he uses an electric cello.  He has truly been an innovator with the Bottom End.  If you listen to what he’s doing with the instruments though, they are acting much like an electric guitar would versus an acoustic guitar. 

My take on the EUB is that it is another instrument/voice all together.  I would certainly not look into an EUB to replace the upright.  If you want to hear the upright… play the upright!  If you want to hear the Chapman Stick… play the Chapman Stick.  For convenience situations: traveling, touring, and performing in loud situations (where you really need the volume and the ability to cut through) I would consider an EUB.  If you want to hear the warmth and the feel the size of the instrument in your hands… need I say more?

TC:  As far as I can tell, EUB’s still an attempt for electric players to emulate the upright voice.  The crossover basses on the market are in my mind kind of like putting a Porsche engine in a 73 Pinto.  You still have a 73 Pinto.  The real difference comes when you have to play Arco.  I have yet to play Arco on an EUB and have it sound even close to a real upright.  I would rather spend the money on a better electric or a better upright.

KF:  I am currently looking for a good EUB and hope to work with (Boulder Luthier) Harry Fleishman to create the best representation of my style, and yet fit as an airplane carry-on.

BAJ: I’ve played the Clevinger, and I really dig it.   But, The new NS 6-string EUB has my attention at this time!

MO:  I have the same complaint about EUBs that my violinist friends have about electric violins: you don't get to "hunt" for a tone.  Rather, and on the contrary, the tone is simply presented to you.  EUBs tend to sound like this or like that… whereas a good acoustic instrument (bass or not) can also have an inherent sound, but with a more “hands on” facet - facilitated specifically by acoustic instruments.  This fact has had the somewhat unfortunate effect of making me relax a little too much, instead of staying on top of my game.  Also, it seems to limit my ability to find my sound easily.  I miss that physical "thud" that goes through my entire body each time I play a note on an acoustic bass. 

Harry Fleishman - who built the electric upright 5 that Dave Pomeroy plays - to take Kevin’s side on this subject, builds the EUB’s I am most impressed with.  It has piezo pickups in the bridge… But it also has transducers, and magnetic pickups, and an onboard preamp that sounds incredible!  I might have to buy one soon - because I'm jealous of Jon, and I'm tired of driving station wagons!

BAJ: During a given set of music, when will you play electric verses acoustic, or vice versa?

JB: Boy… that's a really tough question!  A lot depends on my mood.  But as a rule, I tend to go vertical for standards and more traditional Latin, and electric for much of the rest.  Simply, I want to find the center of the music… and go there by the best means available to me!

DB:  I would have said it totally depends on whom I’m playing with.  When I’m playing with Mary Lydia Ryan (Seattle piano Jazz/Pop trio), I find the more powerful arrangements involve me playing the upright.  So if we want to come out “with a bang”, I’ll play the upright.  It gives the music the warmth and fullness it needs.  People also respond very well to the sound and the appearance of the upright, in that context. They also respond well to the sound of the fretless… But they seem to do so, even more, after they’ve been listening to the upright for a while.

Playing the fretless later in any given set has the effect of tightening up the sound.  There appears to be a more direct focal point with the electric bass because of its natural presence.  In fact, I would say - where the electric bass has a more direct presence, the upright has more of an implied presence - as it tends to fill the room with that certain quality of low end that the electric just can’t compete with.   And besides… it’s just so much fun to play!

TC:  In general, if I have the choice, straight ahead or bop tunes absolutely scream for upright!   However, on a tune like “Mercy Mercy”, you could go either way - as Jaco, and others, have presented formidable electric voice on that particular tune.  Also, many players just aren’t willing to try to play funk on an upright!  That’s too bad, because funk can sound really hip on upright!  Ron Carter has done a few tunes with a rap artist, recently, and that was very well done.  It was amazing to see what Ron would do on a rap tune!  When it comes down to it… A lot of the decision rests on how tired my hands are at the end of a gig.  However, I probably wouldn’t play a Rush tune on upright!  (HUGE laughs!  Michael gives ‘thumbs up’)  

KF:  In “downPoor”, the acoustic rock project, I usually play the electric.  But some tunes call for the acoustic contra.  When I’m switching, I try to keep continuity for a few songs… so that I don’t have to change basses for every tune.

MO:  I agree with Jon, although I tend to follow my mood a little more...I've been known to play P-Funk, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath on upright, and J. S. Bach and Charlie Parker on my fretted six-string.  Sometimes my "ego-devil" will sit on my shoulder and give me bad advice, though: I'll get halfway through a tune and wish I had the other bass.

BAJ:  Are most of your gigs acoustic, or electric?  As a Doubler you must have an instrument you favor… which instrument is favored, and why?

JB:  Since I have the Azola, I tend to take both to just about every gig.  It's got a big "wow factor", and I can usually find someplace to work it in - even on gigs where the front person wouldn't have necessarily thought it appropriate to have upright bass.  As for favorites… I would have to say I lean towards the upright (Or maybe it leans towards me...hard to tell).  I would love to have Stanley Clarke chops and just be able to say,

"Yeah, I COULD play electric on this tune, but I'm in it for the ART!"  Ha!  Maybe next year…


I’ve just recently gotten a brand-new Status Graphite S-1 Classic Natural 5 fretless, and it’s a great compliment to the Azola!  In the case of the S-1… I don’t want it to sound like an upright, and it doesn’t!  Status Graphite makes an incredible bass guitar, and I’ve really enjoyed my online and telephone exchanges with Rob Green, there.  Nice people, and a valuable addition to my bass stable. I can’t recommend Status Graphite basses enough!  Thanks guys!

DB:  Most of the gigs I’m hired for require me to play upright, fretless, or both.  I’m virtually never hired to play fretted bass.  As soon as somebody finds out I play upright, that’s all they want to talk about... It’s a great feeling to know I have a skill that is in such high demand. 

As of lately, though, I’ve also been getting into playing my fretted Status Graphite Stealth 5.  I love playing this instrument, in particular, because the tone is tremendous.  The neck is incredibly smooth all the way up the fingerboard, and it is really light.  Status is an amazing company!  The instrument itself weighs only 6-½ lbs., and it carries a punch that’ll knock you off a stool!  What I like most about this bass though is that the first time I played the instrument, I heard all the flaws in my hands. Thank you Rob Green, Status Graphite Instruments, and also to BAJ for getting the instrument into my hands!  Like Jon (and BAJ) I’ve told everyone I know about the instrument, and the company.  More people should know about them!

I highly recommend playing the fretted bass in combination with the fretless or the upright. I’ve found that playing fretted bass at least a couple of times a week, combined with bow technique on the upright, really helps keep my intonation in check.

TC:  Right now I play every Tuesday night with a jazz trio, the “Usual Suspects” jazz quintet, and also in several pop projects.  For the jazz gigs I tend to only play upright.  For the pop projects I lean towards electric.  However, I am recently playing with a female singer/songwriter who utilizes more of a blues sound.  For that gig I will take my upright, one fretted, and one fretless electric.  The option of utilizing all of your tools makes for a more interesting gig.  In fact, I wish there were more pop players like Sting, who are willing to work with a deeper musical backdrop.

KF:  Currently, most of my gigs are on my Fleishman 5-string electric bass guitar.  My favorites are based on style.  For Jazz, I love to dig into the contra – using it also for Symphony and Baroque Orchestra.  For downPoor, I have the flexibility to choose, but I generally prefer my 5.

MO:  I do a lot of both, but I tend to get more electric gigs... I don't really favor one or the other, although given a particular musical situation one is usually more appropriate than the other.  I feel like I'm much more in love with the role that I play as a bassist, than the actual instrument I choose to play.

BAJ: What is the greatest weakness of Doubling, and do you recommend it as necessary to all bassists?

JB:  You know why it's called "Doubling" right...? Because it doubles your practice time! (Agreement all around)  I don't think that it's necessary for all bassists to Double.  But, I do think it's really important for serious bass players to know why the electric bass is a BASS - and not a guitar with a long neck!  In other words, if you don't play upright… listen to upright players!

DB:  Doubling has been great for me, as far as work is concerned.  It has opened doors to other worlds of music that might have otherwise remained closed if I’d stuck to one instrument or the other.  In that capacity it’s been an interesting challenge.  The experience of playing both instruments has allowed me to more thoroughly define my tone, my musical place, and my individual role as a bass player in various musical situations.  The education itself has been priceless!  However, there are pitfalls. The most significant of which is the difficulty to really “dig in” to any one instrument.  I’m constantly being pulled in different directions.  If, for example, I’m really into working on my Arco, chances are I’ll have two gigs that week that require me to play the fretless, or vice versa! (Agreement)  It becomes very frustrating to feel as though I don’t have enough time to push both instruments as far as they want to be pushed, and I always feel like I’m falling short somewhere.

As far as whether or not I would recommend doubling on acoustic contra bass and electric bass guitar… unquestionably YES!   I definitely think it is necessary for all serious players to double at some point in their careers.   Explore the upright by playing around with it at home.  Try gigging or recording with the acoustic.  It’s a totally different world out there!  But, at the same time, it’s brought me a lot closer to home.  Playing the upright, after all, will only… better your ear, your musicianship, your (note) choices, and your appreciation for what you know… and hopefully, take you out of your comfort zone.  This is the key to becoming a better musician: practicing the things that are unfamiliar and building on the things that are.

TC:  The greatest weakness in my opinion is that when people hear that you double it is assumed that you probably can’t make up your mind - or you don’t necessarily play any style really well.

(Which is a common failure of many doublers) 

It’s kind of like trying to be the world’s best classical and jazz player at the same time.  It is a noble effort, but not highly likely to be accomplished by most. 

I have personally studied and played far more upright than electric.  That’s where my heart is and will probably stay.  My electric playing sounds a lot like my upright playing, and usually not the other way around.  I do believe that you have to focus on one or the other to be really good at one thing.  However, with my bass students I do recommend doubling for the purpose of being better-rounded bassists.  I have taken part in gigs that would have never come my way had it not been for the option of picking up either the upright or electric.

KF:  I’ve just finished a week with the Ft. Collins Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve been busy with music everyday on the electric - in Jazz and in composition.  As a result, my orchestral technique had been neglected.  With multiple instruments, comes additional practice - and not, necessarily, practicing your favorite concerto or funk slap groove. 

(Agreement around the room)

I continue to focus on precision, the basics of tone, intonation and rhythm. 

Is doubling necessary? Certainly not!  If a nine iron gets you the double eagle why carry a driver or putter?  I do believe that each instrument has significantly contributed to expansion of my musicianship. (I don’t think anyone else plays golf… laughter)

MO:  I don't think there are any true artistic weakness to doubling.  But it does make for an awful lot of gear on stage -not to mention extra trips to and from the car!  As far as whether or not doubling is necessary… I think about trying to imagine Lemmy of Motorhead, running a 50's Kay through his Marshall stack.  Not a pretty picture, is it?  I think we should all be educated listeners… But in the end we're happiest searching for that sound in our soul.

BAJ: What are some of the pitfalls of your profession?

DB:  I agree with Michael…  The most obvious pitfall is the added gear one has to drag around.  Small practice spaces become even smaller with the upright, too.  Basement recording studios are scary - as if we all didn’t know this already!  Transportation and instrument safety is difficult, especially when touring.  Flying to gigs is almost completely out of the question (unless you have an electric upright).  Otherwise, it’s just too expensive to fly with the acoustic. 

Finding the right amplification to satisfy both instruments is also very difficult.  Volume levels on stage are a challenge, and constantly switching instruments can kill the momentum of a show.

TC:  My back really aches at the end of a day! (Grunts and groans from the entire panel)  Other than that… I think it is possible for bassists - especially younger players - to perceive that they must be all things to all people.  I still have people assume that since I play an instrument with strings that I must also play guitar and cello! 

I try to encourage people to explore all forms of music, but to also feel free to focus on one style and one instrument as their main source of inspiration.  I will always consider myself an upright jazz bassist before all other things. However, I love all forms of music, and I wish that I could do everything well.  Unfortunately, there are not many players that have that kind of facility.

MO:  I’m bummed that I can’t drive my Lamborghini to the gig...

JB:  I’m also bummed that I can’t drive Michael’s Lamborghini to the gig.

(More laughter)

KF:  Over exertion.  Other musicians, on other instruments, are not in as much demands we are and it is important to select situations that fit into your own personal values and goals.

BAJ: Okay… if the greatest benefit to Doubling is being paid as if you were “2 different people”…  is there a discipline in choosing which gigs you play?

DB:  For me… It’s truly a balancing act. I make decisions based on what makes my life feel most balanced.  Choosing a “good” balance for me has definitely been the challenge.  I want to work and make money, just like everybody else, but I want to feel good about what I’m playing.  Because I play both the electric and the upright, I want to be able to utilize all my skills.   I have one project that is solely electric; another that is just acoustic; and yet another one that allows me the freedom to play any instrument at will. These gigs keep me pretty busy, and feeling challenged.

TC:  The discipline lies in knowing one’s own limitations.  It never makes sense to take a gig that is completely over your head.  If you are the best electric funk player in town, you might not be real effective at the Bach Festival down the street.  Know your comfort zone inside and out.  My favorite quote is from Robert Shiller, “The ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence”.

KF:  It is essential to have a solid business sense and a value focus to determine the gigs you chose.  Sometimes the $50 gig expands your musicianship, while the $400 commercial gig causes you to feel that your musical integrity is compromised.  We all have to eat… but without integrity, the rest is just a game.

MO:  As you well know… I am two different people... (And so am I)!  (Laughter)  None of us would turn down a gig on either electric or upright without a really good reason!   I will admit, however, to getting a little more excited about playing the acoustic upright gigs - because I don't get those calls as often.  Besides, upright basses are great chick magnets...

BAJ: What revisions have you made to your electric instruments to maintain a consistency between electric playing and acoustic playing, or vice versa?

DB:  This is one of the most difficult tasks, the fluid swapping of instruments during the set. Chris Wood, of MMW, definitely has the most fluid tone I’ve heard.  The two instruments are virtually indistinguishable.  Listen to John Scofield’s recording, “A Go Go”.  Chris has definitely become a master of tone and fluidity, as I’ve stated throughout our time together.

I found that in order to make the sonic shift work for me, I really had to reign in the “boomy” nature of the upright while giving it some of the cut and sustain inherent in the fretless and fretted basses.  With the fretless, I had to back off on the mids while filling out the low end for added warmth.

TC:  The only thing that is similar between the two is my action.  I like my strings close to the fretboard on both instruments.  I don’t want to be the tendonitis poster child.  I also like to use a string with a lot of low-end growl.  On upright, I use D’Addario Helicore strings, and on my fretless I use nickel GHS bass boomers.  Those two strings have a lot in common.

KF:  If I’m trying to copy qualities of another instrument, I look first at my tone.  I believe that our tone and style are developed first and mainly within us and then extended to the instrument.  Specifically, I look at string attack and vibrato.  Beyond that, there are many technologies that allow us many options in EQ enhancement and simulators.

MO:  When I began to get serious about upright (about 5-6 years ago), I decided that my hands weren't strong enough.  So I bought a really cheap P-bass copy and raised the action to the point of pain, and dragged that around to teach with for about six months.  That really improved my hand strength, but I sure went through hell to get it.  Lately, I try to keep all three basses (fretted, fretless, upright) set up so that they'll sound their best, rather than giving in to a "comfort zone".  I find the cooler the tone I'm getting; the more comfortable the bass becomes, no matter how it's set up… Even if I'm bleeding.

(All agree that Mike, though very much loved by all present, is completely insane!)

BAJ: Is there a symmetrical approach to playing both instruments?

JB:  The symmetry, for me, is in the music.  To me, bass is a function… more than an instrument.  I try to think in music first and worry about getting my fingers in the right place second.  I'm motivated by the thought that my job can be done by a one-handed piano player, and that there's a really good chance that he knows more about where my notes should fit (in the overall scheme of the music) than I do. (Much laughter)  So on either instrument, I tend to practice and play, "from the ground up": Rhythm first, harmony second, melody third, and lastly, keeping a cool head so I can put them all together.

DB:  All the information translates from one instrument to the next.  Because of this, it is natural to assume that the instruments might work the same.  They are tuned the same, and play the same role in most musical environments. So, when I think about it, the biggest difference for me… is me!

I think differently when playing the upright versus the electric.  That, of course, is the beauty of doubling.  When a certain thought asks for a certain type of expression, and the tools are all in place, that thought can be expressed as accurately as anyone might be able to interpret the expression of that thought.

This is my goal, to express thoughts as accurately and intentionally as they come to me.

TC:  The essence of good tone and relaxed technique are applicable to both entities.  My upright technique has influenced my electric playing greatly.  My fretless tone is a direct result of hours with the upright.  At this point I wouldn’t have one without the other.

KF:  Symmetry? 

BAJ: You object to the question?

KF:  No.  If the approach is musicianship, then the instrument is indifferent.  Technically I play contra with three fingers, Simandl Method, and a one-finger-per-fret approach for the electric.  The symmetry would be found in attention to tone, intonation, and rhythm.

BAJ: Uh… I think, then, the question is, “do you also employ this same technique on your electric?”  No sweat. 

MO:  From a technique perspective, I find that the different instruments tend to bleed into each other.  I have a six-fret spread in my left hand.  So, I've been known to play with all four fingers in half-position, if the music gets going too fast and I paint myself into a corner.  This is commonly known as cheating.  The truth hurts, yes, but I've learned to live with it.  Interestingly enough, I've also found that 1-2-4 ‘upright fingering’ has infiltrated my electric playing - as well as using my thumb on the fingerboard. 

It comes down to getting to the note you're looking for by any means at your disposal!  I've never had anybody come up to me after a gig and tell me that I needed to work on my fingering…so far.

BAJ: What are the differences in equalization and amplification do you use for he different basses?  Is there an amp that facilitates both instruments?

JB: I’m using an Eden Metro for both my Azola, and the Status bass. My fretted 5-string is an Elrick.  Each instrument presents a different tonal foundation, and I adapt accordingly.  It’s all “in the hands”, anyway.

DB: For my upright, I use a Schertler pickup & preamp. I run this through a Sans Amp Acoustic DI and into an Eden Metro 2X10 combo amplifier.  On the Metro there are two separate channels. Channel two has a preamp built into the cabinet and channel one does not.  I run the upright through channel one.   This gives me a very woody, warm tone. For recording purposes, I usually just mic the bass and use the Schertler pickup & preamp for clarity and bite.

I typically run my fretted or fretless through a Line 6 Delay Modular and into channel two on the metro cabinet. Depending on the room (and the bass) my biggest adjustments occur with the “bass” and the “highs”.

TC:  I have used a SWR Working Man 12 for five years now.  I have found that there isn’t a great deal that I have to change between my electric and upright settings.  I usually take some of the low end out of the upright and add a bit more compression.  I want to try a new Polytone that is on the market for my upright.  However, on any set up and with any amp the sound must initially come straight from your fingers.  Good tone doesn’t come in a box.  

KF:  I am constantly looking for the best mix of amp and cabinet that covers all basses.  Currently I’m running a SWR 350 through a 4x10 SWR Goliath III and sometimes a 15” Cabinet.  On my contra I run a Fishman BP-100 pickup directly into the amp.  I hope to try Wayne Jones Amplification speaker cabinets and a David Gage Contra Pickup soon.

MO:  With an acoustic upright, every day is a different tone--I never know what to expect.  But the amp shouldn't matter that much, as long as it's powerful enough and clean enough.  I'm a firm believer in the concept that tone should come from your fingers first and foremost, and the EQ on the amp should be able to recreate your tone rather than create it.  I used to own an SWR Baby Blue that did a fantastic job of making my bass sound like I expected it to.  Now I use a solid state Ampeg head and a Carvin 2x10 cabinet, and that combo works just as well.  I borrowed BAJ’s Wayne Jones’ “WJ Bass Enclosures” for a few months, and they are incredible!

I hope you enjoyed the roundtable as much as I did!   Jon Baron and Derek Brown are representatives of the UK’s Status Graphite Basses, here in the US, with me.  Michael Olson has long been associated with Ibanez basses (after along association with Tobias).  Kevin Fanberg loves his Fleishman 5-string fretted instrument.  Last, but hardly least,least, Tim Carmichael plays a 6-string fretless bass guitar that was built by Christopher Murphy - and is currently looking for the perfect fretted instrument.

Brent-Anthony Johnson is a bassist, composer, author, and instructor in the Denver Metropolitan Area.  He currently endorses Fodera, Status Graphite, Aguilar Amplification, Wayne Jones Amplification, and LaBellla Strings. BAJ can be contacted through:  

Mary Lydia Ryan at:

downPoor at:

Dado Sa at:

Status Graphite Instruments:

Eden Electronics:


Fleishman Instruments:

Ibanez Instruments:

Wayne Jones Amplification:




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