Evolution of the Electric Double Bass
by Martin Clevinger (c)(c) 1987/1999
All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce in whole or in part subject to written approval by Martin Clevinger.
"What is that odd instrument you're playing?" Listeners always ask. They watch the player lean over a praying mantis-like stick that seems to be holding him up. He plucks its strings and powerful low notes are heard.
Bass violins have been around for many centuries. The bass as used in modern symphonic orchestras has continually evolved from a three gut-stringed antiquity to the four and five steel stringed basses of today. The range of notes has been extended to meet the demands of composers and arrangers. Fine old double basses are a precious and non-renewable resource, though there are a few makers still building good instruments. These range in cost from $8,000 to $35,000.
The practicality of the acoustic bass in many modern musical performance environments is dubious. Fragile construction, faint audibility, and handling problems have led to its virtual abandonment in popular music, often replaced by the inexpensive and easy to play bass guitar.
The bass guitar came into widespread use in pop music in the early sixties, but early Rhythm and Blues, Country and Rock was played using the bass fiddle. The curious new bass guitar was first seen in Lionel Hampton's band. The new sounds of electric guitars and basses caused a sensation in the "Atomic Age" and these new sounds were capable of starting fads and even riots. The bass violin and bass guitar co-existed in popular music and in rock and soul music until about the mid-sixties. As music became progressively louder, budgets were cut and tastes changed, Rock and Soul diverged from the traditional support for vocals. Instead of guitar, piano/organ, bass, strings, and horns, the standard pop band had two electric guitars, bass guitar and drums. Keyboard or organ was optional.
In mid-sixties pop music, the bass guitar was THE bass to play on recordings and in concert, with a few exceptions. During this period, there were still trained musicians working in movies and television but pop music had reached a level accessible by the public at large. Almost everyone under 20 could play basic chords on a guitar, and by 1967 a lot of kids owned one. The term "Upright Bass" is in itself proof that pop culture assumed that the horizontally played bass guitar was THE bass and that its alter ego was this "upright" antique.
Now, with access to more musical options than ever before, musicians and producers are looking at the bass violin and its electric incarnations. They have realized that the bass guitar is not a replacement for the long scale string bass. Anyone who has ever played a bass guitar and a bass violin can tell you that this is an "apples and oranges" comparison.
Let's revisit the evolution of the electric double bass. Here is a partial list of names given to the bass violin:
1. DOUBLE BASS - the cello is the single bass, has to do with octaves and vocal ranges. 2. CONTRA BASS 3. BASS VIOL - technically, the bass as evolved from the viol family without pointed violin corners the name often used generically. 4. STRING BASS - used by arrangers to avoid confusion with brass bass (tuba, trombone or other wind basses). 5. UPRIGHT BASS 6. DOGHOUSE BASS 7. BASS FIDDLE 8. BULL FIDDLE 9. STANDUP BASS 10. CONCERT BASS 11. BASSO PROFUNDO 12. SLAPSTICK BASS 13. THE CELLAR 14. THE BASEMENT 15. THE TREE (in Australia, bassists are asked to bring "THE PLANK", bass guitar, and "THE TREE", double bass to the gig.)
The development of electric double basses spans nearly three quarters of this century. The lofty goal of myself and my predecessors: to create an electric bass which sings with the bow as well as pizzicato, allows the player to express their total range of musical energy, provides a solid foundation in ensembles of any size, sounds as good as a fine acoustic double bass, and features audibility advantages of electric instruments.
A photo of an electric upright bass designed by Lloyd Loar appears in a book, "The Gibson Story" by Julius Bellson. The Lloyd Loar bass is allegedly dated 1924 and is possibly the first electric double bass. The year 1924 however, has been disputed by Gibson's official historian Walter Carter.* For various reasons, Gibson did not see fit to put this bass into production. The bass used an electro-static pickup with sound problems common to such primitive pickups, like popping and scratching noises. Amplification of bass frequencies was as yet undeveloped, so there was no practical way of hearing the instrument anyway.
The rapid development of electric instruments in the 1930's was ongoing among competitive companies. Rickenbacker, Regal, Vega, Gibson, and others were working on electric string instruments of all kinds.
Sometime during the first half of the '30's, Seattle guitarist and luthier Paul Tutmarc built a solid, cello-like electric upright, with a magnetic pickup and probably clipped-off piano strings. Tutmarc later also built electric fretted bass guitars (circa 1935-56) that preceded Fender's Precision Bass by 15 years.*
In 1936, George Beauchamp designed the Rickenbacker basses. These basses used gut strings with metal or other magnetically permeable material applied to the string near the magnetic pickup. The fundamental principle of operation on most bass guitars of today but with gut strings! Musicians sometimes referred to these Rickenbacker basses as the "Bedpost Bass". An ingenious endpin mechanically and electrically linked the bass with the amplifier, enabling the amp to double as the floor stand.
Electric double bass scholar and historian Mikael Jansson has amassed an archive of catalog illustrations including '30's Rickenbacker, Vega and Regal electric double basses. These instruments were all fabricated using stock traditional bass violin necks joined to minimal body structures. Gibson custom-built two guitar-shaped electric uprights in 1939 or 1940. They were supposed to be played upright and had 42" scale, but flat fingerboards, fretted but with the frets flushed like a "lined fretless" bass guitar! *
In Tampere, Finland, the two jazz playing brothers Valter and Gunnar Strommer built a few solid electric uprights in the late '40's. Gunnar Strommer claimed that the two did not know of the American '30's electric basses mentioned above. Their basses look strikingly modern, with a traditional bass neck, and a small solid body mounted on a tripod stand. They built their own pickups from scrapped speaker magnets! *
World War II diverted interest in electric bass development until 1951 when Leo Fender introduced the Fender Bass. Because of its economy, elegance of design and easy playin', this short scale fretted bass guitar was to become the predominant bass instrument in pop music by the early sixties.
In the spite of the convenience and economy of the Fender Bass, many bassists and music lovers recognized that the sound was very different from the double bass. It could not produce long tones. The bowed parts in music for movies, TV, and popular songs still required real double basses and trained bassists. Many pop and rock songs continued to use acoustic bass tracks to lay down the full deep pulse, while the new bass guitar played higher parts (often with a plectrum and muted strings). The "click bass" accompanied by acoustic bass was a mainstay through the fifties and into the sixties.
The techniques for playing the Fender-style bass only vaguely resembled traditional bass techniques, and an entirely new field of playing resulted from its introduction. Ironically, many of today's bassists, who started our on bass guitars, have expanded their horizons to include traditional double bass.
Efforts to modernize the double bass continued through the '50's and by the late 1950's, Rudy and Ed Dopera introduced the Zorko Bass. It featured a hollow fiberglass body, a slightly scaled-down head and fingerboard. "First electric nylon or gut string bass fiddle", trumpeted the 1958 Zorko sales brochure. The use of gut strings was made possible by a mechanically coupled bridge pickup system. A unique double bridge pickup system used one bridge to reduce downbearing force on a second bridge that included a magnet. A stationary coil placed next to the magnet, picked up vibration of the magnet when the strings were played. The Zorko fiberglass hollow body, with its bolt-on maple neck was later modified and became the Ampeg Baby Bass.
The Ampeg Baby Bass was widely marketed in the USA during the '60's. It featured an improved aluminum bridge pickup system compatible with non-ferrous or traditional gut strings. Like the Zorko pickup system, the Ampeg used a bridge inductively coupled to magnetic pickup devices. The Ampeg bridge feet rested upon two spring steel diaphragms that acted like magnet assemblies. The vibration of each diaphragm generated signals in the coils. Though weak, and plagued by phase distortion problems, the Ampeg pickup was a considerable improvement over the Zorko pickup. The Ampeg's heavier body was made of a thermo-plastic called UVEX. This plastic is unstable as its melting temperature is very low. The Ampegs give off a somewhat foul odor due to continual out-gassing by the UVEX material. Many Ampeg basses show warping of the body due to exposure to heat inside parked cars on hot days.
Both the Ampeg and the Zorko instruments produced a percussive tonal quality with little sustain and minimal overtones. However, the hollow fiberglass body of the Zorko produced more overtones than the filled and dampened Ampeg. The Ampeg bass is still heard today in Afro-Cuban music where a percussive drum-like tone is preferred. Hundreds of Ampegs were produced in the '60's. Steve Azola is now producing a bass called the Azola baby bass. This bass draws on the Ampeg and Zorko tradition and is somewhere in between the two in construction. It features up-to-date pickups and electronics. Azola makes a reissue of the Ampeg Baby Bass for the St. Louis Music Company.
During the 50's and 60's, several European instrument makers were also building electric string basses. The Framus Corporation of Germany marketed a solid body bass. This sleek delta shaped instrument employed solid wooden construction with a glued neck joint, a total departure from the hollow construction of the Dopera designs. Such amenities as individual string-height adjusters for each string and custom finishes including a "Les Paul Gold Top" paint job with cream binding made these instruments a visual sensation. A chrome plated magnetic pickup integrated into a heavily chromed bridge cover assembly was closely allied with the electric guitar styles of the day. Like the Rickenbacker, the magnetic pickup was inductively coupled to the strings, and unlike the Dopera approach, in which a mechanically active bridge pickup precluded the use of non-steel strings and was not responsive to bowing. The Framus was difficult to hold while playing, and had a distinct bass guitar-like tone. Even so, many recent electric upright basses are derivatives of the Framus concept.
In Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Grazioso company built an electric double bass similar to the Framus in the late '50's-early '60's. It was sold under several names: Grazioso, Arco, and Futurama. Eberhard Weber started his career as and electric double bassist on a modified Arco bass. In the UK, the Jennings Co., which also made Vox amplifiers, built a handful of Jennings electric uprights around 1956. *
By the late '60's, the bass guitar had established itself as the most economical and convenient bass instrument. However, players of the acoustic bass viol were still in need of a satisfactory portable electric double bass. A few makers were still toying with the concept of melding the bass guitar and the upright bass. Among these were the mid '60's Mini-Bass shown in the "Burns Book" by Paul Day, 1974. This "Mod" instrument resembled an Ampeg Baby Bass with long sloping shoulders. Open "F" holes of rakish
pattern adorned the lower bout of the white body. It employed bass guitar design features common in the mid sixties. Among these features were two magnetic pickups inductively coupled to the strings, and a steel plate bridge with adjustable saddles. The obligatory knobs and switches are prominently mounted on the front, curving along the left upper bout. This bass would have been right at home in a Vox equipped combo with Beatle haircuts. The Mini Bass and a later (1968) version bearing the Ormstown label, was shaped like a "low priced import" electric guitar.
In Japan, the Guyatone Co. built a sharkfin-shaped bass with a built-in reverb spring, and a few designs appeared in Italy as well, for example, a foldable electric double bass designed by luthier Wandre Pioli and marketed by the Davoli Co. Ernesto Castellan was another Italian maker of electric double basses. *
In the 1970's, the Blitz Bass, designed by John Dawson of California, appeared. Built in an emergency for an upcoming tour, he told me at a NAMM show. Very few of these instruments were built. Even though several jazz artists recorded and toured with Blitz basses, the bass was not put into production.
In the '60's implementation of magnetic pickups on violin family instruments, and equally dismal implementation of piezo devices, it appeared doubtful that any musically serious electric double bass could be built. From most manufacturers viewpoint, the bass guitar was an easy bet, well entrenched in the music industry. By the late '70's, a new awareness was emerging. Fretless bass guitars had been available for a few years and prominent rock and pop artists such as Jack Bruce and Jaco Pastorius were using them before large audiences.
In Holland around 1978, Henk Van Zalinge constructed a slim shoulderless bass with an acoustic hollow body and a piezo electric bridge pickup. This bass received much public attention, even appearing in Playboy magazine's Christmas wish list. The "Z" bass became a familiar sight on tour with Sting of the Police. Van Zalinge opened a factory for production of his Z bass. According to Mr. Van Zalinge, approximately 265 "Z" basses were made.
In the early '80's, several companies and individuals were producing full-scale length electric double basses. Among the notable entries were various Clevinger basses, Bill Merchant's Vertical Bass, the Oregon Bass, the Gunn Bass from Canada, the Dobro, the Hofner JB-59, the Nobby Meidel reissue of the Framus, the Amazing Bass, and limited run basses such as the Di Sola laminated bass, a bass by luthier Will Boulet (built for bass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky)*, and many others too numerous to name.
To avoid confusion when shopping for an electric double bass, ask yourself some questions regarding this major investment: Is this bass responsive to vigorous, as well as light plucking and bowing? Is the instrument light and easy to carry? For travel, does it rely on disassembly and loosening the strings, damaging the very costly strings? Is it too small and light for stability? Can you bow it without changing control settings? Is its design forming bad habits or incompatible with proper double bass technique? Make sure you are dealing with a reputable company which offers body extensions and stand options.
There are widely divergent opinions on the subject of playing position. Any electric double bass may be mounted on a stationary stand to avoid the issue of proper balance and traditional freedom of movement. Be sure you have the freedom to choose between free movement and fixed-stand body extensions. If you want to hear the wood in your instrument vibrate, be sure your pickup system is able to produce this sound in a musically pleasing fashion with bowing and pizzicato techniques. Notice how the stand or body extensions impede or enhance the natural vibration of the bass.
Patented technologies issued to myself have enabled production of a truly bowable electric double bass. Dynamic expression and response from pianissimo to triple forte have now been achieved. Sustain and swell characteristics in pizzicato, along with full dynamic arco, match the stringent standards set by acoustic basses. Before you buy, compare sound playability and price of as many electric double basses as possible to determine which is right for you.
Many touring bassists are adding portable double basses to their equipment and are often seen on world tours. TV show orchestras had discontinued use of the traditional string bass for many years because of sound and miking difficulties. Now, broadcast audio technicians can simply take a direct line signal from the modern electric double bass for majestic Basso Profundo!
* From Mikael Jansson 1999