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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

Bring the Thunder – The Magnificent Upright Bass 3/06/2014

Okay, confession time. It’s like a 12 step program. I stand up and say, “Hello, my name is Craig and I am a Bass addict.” Indeed, I am an unrepentant, unapologetic, unabashed, knuckle dragging, thump craving bass junkie. I love it in all it’s forms and incarnations – be it called Upright Bass, Double Bass, Acoustic Bass, Bass Viol, Bull Fiddle or Dog House Bass; be it in the symphony, bluegrass band, jazz combo or some guy with a crazy rooster plume of hair slapping it rock-a-billy style on some great old Johnny Cash song. I love it all. I get the same chills from that ominous and wonderful opening bass motif from Stravinsky’s Firebird as I do with Paul Chambers playing that fabulous opening figure on Miles Davis’s famous jazz song So What. I probably shouldn’t admit this but I even love electric bass. I am a big fan of Chris Brubeck, Victor Wooten, Flea, James Jamerson (Motown), Mark King and John Entwistle to name but a few electric players (Chris plays both). If bassists had trading cards I would probably have a great collection. I’ve seen Stanley Clarke twice. He is amazing on electric bass but when he picks up his upright bass I would swear that he was an alien from Pluto or the planet Coosbania. Nobody plays double bass like that and I believe that his fingers are at least eight inches long!

What is it about this instrument that I resonate with it so much? I think that part of it is that visceral feeling I get when the low frequencies resonate within me. Also, I think that bass makes the music. It tends to be the unsung hero of every style and genre. Sometimes it is more conspicuous by its absence than its presence. If the bass is doing something Really interesting in a piece we usually notice it but most of the time it is in the background unobtrusively doing its thing. But take the bass out of a song or a piece of music and then everyone notices. The heart, soul and power falls out of the piece. It goes from marvelous to mundane. If you’ve been to the symphony you’ve probably experienced that last part of the last movement of many pieces where the music kicks up another notch at it leaves you exhilarated and on your feet clapping and maybe even saying bravo. Composers do that on purpose. There are many different ideas that go into making that huge rousing crescendo but a big part of it is the string bass section. In jazz it is the pulse of the walking bass line that makes the music come alive (okay, piano, sax and drums are important but I stand by my statement). I love that jazz/pop cross pollination that bassist John Klingberg gets with his famous and obviously improvised walking line on Van Morrison’s Moon Dance. The pulse of the bass line, usually an electric bass, is what also makes today’s pop music POP and that can be traced back to one man; Leo Fender. He invented the electric bass and also popularized it. I believe that it is the greatest of all his great contributions to popular music but without the upright acoustic bass for him to emulate there would have been no Fender bass.

Where did the upright bass come from? Before the string bass there was the violoncello or cello which functioned as the low frequency foundation of stringed music. That instrument is still used as the bass instrument for the small chamber ensemble. But the lowest note on a cello is a C and the lowest on a bass is an E, 8 semitones or two thirds of an octave lower. That is a huge amount of bass frequency real estate. There are two silhouettes for the acoustic bass: the more rounded viola da gamba and the more sharp cornered violin style. Musicologists almost come to blows when debating where the instrument came from and they are fairly divided as to whether its ancestor was the viol family or more contemporary violin family. Maybe it was influenced by both. It does seem to be a bit of a magpie instrument with features that are reminiscent of both lineages. Unlike the violin all modern basses have sloped shoulders to facilitate reaching the higher pitched notes. The earliest reference that we have is from Prospero who in1493 wrote of ‘viols as big as myself.’ No matter where it came from the bass has influenced music profoundly. Think of all the solo instruments that there are. Think of all the midrange instruments. Yes, in the low range there is the tuba, the timpany, the low pedal tones of the pipe organ and the low range of the concert piano but the hands down, shut your mouth, stand out from the crowd is the bass. It really owns that real estate that it covers.

I should break now from writing and musing and go practice my own bass. Don, the worship leader at my church, is having us play some R&B tinged gospel style music for Sunday service. It is a bit of a pain in the tushy to learn but once we’ve got it nailed we will have fun. The bass lines are quite funky. Yes, quite funky indeed.

Keep Practicing


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