I’ve been playing the fiddle here in Bisbee for a couple of years. As the music which my friends and I play has become better known, other fiddlers and violinists have stepped out of their private shadows and joined in. Some just for a while or occasionally, while others have become frequent jam session partners. But there can be too many fiddles, hard as that may be to believe!
After playing in several sessions with as many as six or seven fiddles forming a soprano/alto wall of sound, I began to think about taking up the upright bass. There just aren’t enough bass players in Bisbee, and I’m sure I could pick it up without straining my powers of learning, a case of an old dog learning not a new trick, but a variation of a trick I already know pretty well. I just have to learn the larger scale of the bass. The musical intervals involved are analogous. Does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself?
So, I thought, how am I going to go about this project without going into debt, a state which I generally try to avoid. I figured it all out in one morning of many internet communications and transactions. The net to me is like water to a fish.
First, I had to sell a Hohner button accordion. I’ve realized recently that I will never get very good on that instrument. Strings are my musical medium. That accordion will soon be en route to the dealer in Massachusetts from whom I bought it. They are charging a small commission to sell it for me. Okay, now how to get hold of an upright bass for a good price?
Well, the current fiddle I play is a nice one made in a small factory near Shanghai. I’m familiar with several Chinese Ebay vendors who sell instruments made in a closely-knit group of of factories in the Shanghai area. Their instruments, in my opinion, are the best value in violin-family instruments today, especially if you don’t get hung up in the desire for that “old European mojo”.
So I did some searches on Ebay for new upright basses. I know what beat-up used ones go for in the US, and they are generally all-plywood student models. I don’t mind plywood for the back and sides, as the wide pieces of wood for solid-wood backs and sides are becoming rare and expensive. As a species we use the good stuff, wood-wise, faster than it is being grown. But the top is another matter entirely, and I prefer solid spruce for the tops of stringed instruments. That’s the part which vibrates, and plywood is a liability, in my opinion.
I found what looked to be a very good deal, especially for me, as I can do instrument assembly and set-up. It’s an “in-the-white” 3/4 size upright bass with the neck not yet glued to the body. The top is solid spruce, while the back and sides are rather plain-looking plywood. The neck is shipped unattached so that the shipping container wouldn’t be huge, and thus expensive to ship. What I will have to do is glue the neck into its socket with hot hide glue, apply finish (varnish over shellac sealer, maybe some decorative painting on the the back), install the tuners, bridge, end-pin, tailpiece, and maybe set a soundpost if that hasn’t already been done. This sort of fiddly work is one of my ideas of fun.
Because of this coming speculative musical transition I’ve been re-familiarizing myself with the best bass players on the planet. Being a person with non-specific and non-organized religious ideas, I have to say that included in my personal pantheon, along with various plant and fungal spirits, are those inspired musicians who stride among us as gods, capable of inimitable feats of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic magic. Here’s a long video of three bass players who have taken Leo Fender’s early and crude electric basses and exploited the successors to Leo’s instruments to the max. Stanley Clark is about my age, and I used to listen to his playing when we were both young. He’s still going strong! Marcus Miller is just one cool player, a masterful bassist who has played on a slew of pop, R&B, and jazz recordings. He’s the player in the porkpie hat. Victor Wooten is simply amazing, a younger player who has tapped into some divine veins of music. A few highlights of the video: Victor Wooten really struts his stuff starting at 11:50. Stanley Clark really wails on an upright bass starting at around 19:00. All three play wonderfully towards the end of the video in a funky instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s classic song “Beat It”. This is ultra-funky, groove-laden, and sexy music, and be warned that it might not be suitable for strait-laced and inhibited folks!