Second Bass

Bass ClefSome years ago — some many years ago — I played bass. Upright. Classical. That was in high school. My college, being rather small, didn’t have much of a music program, and I was inclined to other pursuits at the time, so it went no further. And yet, the bass has followed me. I wouldn’t liken it to an albatross, but there, in the corner of my living room, stands the dark, towering monstrosity that is my 7/8ths-sized American Standard bass (#343). It looks attractive, gathers dust, and occasionally emits strange resonances when a passing truck or a particularly gripping moment of 5.1 splendor sets it off. It deserves better.

Very occasionally — annually at best — I take a cloth to it, fiddle with the tuning (it stays surprisingly well tuned), and noodle through some dimly remembered licks. There’s a particular classical run that I must’ve once woodshedded fairly seriously, for while I’ve no recollection of the piece it belongs to, my fingers find it almost effortlessly. That, and the walking line to Miles’ “All Blues” are about all I can muster. The latter courtesy of a long-ago instructor who probably knew that if he didn’t try to get the kid playing something other than classical, he was likely to walk away from the old nagybögö for good (it’s Czech Hungarian for bass, I think… strange, the things one [almost] remembers). And so it came to pass.

Still, music hath charms, no? If nothing else, it’s a worthwhile exercise of otherwise underutilized parts of the brain, stimulating and channeling thought in different and hopefully more intuitive ways. And so… I’m thinking it might be nice to have an electric bass. Just, you know, because. Because it’s a damned sight more portable than a double bass, can be played sitting down, is something one might actually hope to become nimble upon, may be noodled with while wearing headphones, and maybe — just maybe — if I learned to play it, it might prove a useful social skill if nothing else. Hell, if I made any headway with it, the knowledge I’d gain is likely back-portable to the upright, so I might come full-circle.

I make no claim to musicianship, but I do have a fairly decent sense of rhythm, know when things are out of tune, and can read bass clef. In fact, that’s about all I’ve got going for me — I’m hopeless reading treble, my theory is for shit, and my ability to improvise or even play chords is non-existent. Still, were I to pick up an instrument again, it seems preferable to attempt to resurrect what I do know of playing bass, rather than trying an entirely new instrument (like, say, the Theramin… I almost bought one a few years ago. I’m sure that had I, it would be just as dusty as the bass.)

So, if I am to buy a bass, what to buy? General advice to beginners seems to be to pick something suitable for the style of music you’d like to be playing, which is assumed to be the music that you, yourself, like. What do I like? Well, there’s vintage Calypso, but that pre-dates electric basses, isn’t performed (or much listened to) anymore, and it’s the lyrics that I enjoy anyway. At the risk of generalizing, there are a handful of calypso melodies that got recycled over and over again, and not in an “I Got Rhythm” way. Hot Club? Again, not electric, and its merits are in the swing guitars and Grappelli-style violinistry. The Pogues? I’ll grant that Lorca’s Novena has a pretty kick ass bass line, but I don’t think pseudo-Irish folkpunk is quite my calling. The Beastie Boys? I love ’em, but purely as an appreciative audience member, I assure you. There again, a lot of it’s lyrics. I loves me a whole mess of electronica, too, but where does that get me? Nowhere, really, but I’m pretty sure that metal’s out. No metal, and no Christian rock (or non-rock, for that matter). Nothing with a -core suffix either.

A Gretsch BassLeaving that aside for the moment, another — albeit somewhat superficial — bit of guidance to the beginner is to select an instrument that looks nice, on the theory that if you think it’s a sexy piece of work, you’re more likely to spend quality time with it and may actually practice with sufficient regularity that you learn something. This is advice I can easily follow. Questions of personal musical direction be damned: click through some major instrument retailers’ web sites and see what strikes your fancy. And so, based on pure personal aesthetics, I should be considering a hollow-body of some sort. Perhaps this one, this one, this one, or anything by Gretsch. I like ’em nice and rounded, with f-holes … friendly-looking instruments that look like they’re designed to make a warm, woody noise, even if they couldn’t push an unamplified note across the room. And, for obvious reasons, given that the upright form is the one I’m most accustomed to, I also kinda like the Höfner 500/1 viol-shaped bass and its cousins, though the absence of f-holes seems strange.

The Rogue VB100Believe it or not, I didn’t know that Paul McCartney played a Höfner… guess I never paid much attention to the instruments. Remarkable the number of knock-offs that his choice of bass prompted, generally identifying themselves as “Beatle Basses.” I gather that there’s a single factory in China — maybe another in Korea — cranking out slight variations of these puppies and branding them for Epiphone, Jay Turser, Johnson, Brice, Rogue, Dillion and others. The Rogue model is pleasantly inexpensive and very well-reviewed. I stopped into a local music store this evening, thinking to sample a bass or two, and fortuitously found that they had a used Höfner 500/1 knock-off in stock (unknown brand, made in Japan c. 1970). I played around with it some, and think I could get used to something like that. Definitely enjoyed the size and weight of it compared to a solidbody. Nicer tone, too. We’ll see. It was the only semi/hollowbody bass they had in the shop, so there are other avenues to explore yet. Portland Music Co. is listed as a Gretsch distributor, so that may be my next stop.

Note: on closer inspection of the Gretsch product line, it appears that the only basses they’re making these days are in their Professional line (i.e. ~ $2K). Pity 🙁

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