We all love the sound of a double bass. The deep and earthy tone can be both thunderous and soothing, playful yet menacing. The invention of the electric bass guitar took the double bass and made it more portable, louder, and faster; not to mention giving musicians a whole new array of sounds to play with. But, has the electric upright bass made the same strides for bass players?
Bass guitar players occasionally yearn for that meaty double bass tone. Not only the woody, deep tones, but that buzz as your fingers slide up and down a fretless fingerboard. Sometimes the fretless sound is just what the groove doctor ordered.
Could you imagine songs like Every time You Go Away (Paul Young) without the masterful fretless bass work of Pino Palladino or even the music of Weather Report by the grandmaster Jaco Pastorius?
The electric upright (or standup) bass steps up to fulfill multiple needs of a bass player today. It provides the fretless fingerboard for those much-needed glissandos and as close to an acoustic sound as possible, with the portability and ease of playing that you get from a bass guitar. For many players, the electric upright bass is just what they need. And, it looks so cool too.
Decades ago, electric standup basses were not that easy to come by. However, today there are many brands out there catering to the bass-playing market. There is an instrument to suit a wide range of budgets, not to mention design options.
Let’s take a look at how electric upright basses have developed alongside their guitar-sized cousins, who plays them, and what’s out there on the market.
History of the electric upright bass
The development of the electric upright bass and the bass guitar go hand in hand. Popular music was getting louder as the years rolled on and bassists needed to be heard, by the band and the audience both.
As far back as the 1930s, inventors and designers looked at ways to give the bass a boost. The task at hand: build an instrument that was easy to carry around but produce enough sound to carry the low-end of the band. Instruments like the Mandobass, based on a mandolin, tried their luck but couldn’t cut it with weak resonance and uncomfortable playability.
The light at the end of the tunnel came from the amplification revolution. Technological development with transistors and vacuum tube rectifiers opened the gates for electric instruments, including the electric guitar and the electric upright bass.
The first wave of EUBs
The first contenders to electrify the double bass created solid-bodied instruments with magnetic pickups. Among the first companies were Vega, Regal, Rickenbacker, and Gibson. Interestingly enough, Gibson began work on an electric upright bass prototype back in 1924.
Bass designer Lloyd Loar made one of the first with the earliest form of the electro-static pickups. Due to the limits on amplification technology at the time, the instrument never went into production.
Returning to the early 1930s, Vega launched their Electric Bass Viol. However, it was Regal’s Electrified Double Bass and Rickenbacker’s Electro Bass-Viol, launched in 1936, that showcased better-equipped instruments. The solid centerpiece design with the top headstock and long floor peg became the design standard which has not changed even in today’s market.
Over in Europe, Finnish jazz musicians and inventor-brothers Valter and Gunnar Strommer attempted to build their version of an electric upright bass. They completed a prototype in the late 1940s. It consisted of a traditional bass neck and a small body with two magnetic pickups attached that was mounted on top of a tripod stand.
The electric upright bass in the 1950s
The development of the electric upright bass took a back seat during the 1950s when musical tastes began to change. American country music, rhythm and blues, and the burgeoning style of rock and roll required even louder, raunchier music.
So, instruments needed to keep up. It was around this time that the great Leo Fender patented his 1951 Precision bass, which has become the bass guitar standard and has influenced popular music ever since.
However, Ampeg and Zorko continued to refine the electric upright bass during the 1960s and 1970s. Even in 1958, Zorko released their Zorko Bass with a hollow fiberglass body and slightly shortened fingerboard. Ampeg went further in the 1960s by designing electric stand-up basses with aluminum inductively coupled bridges connected to magnetic pickups. Though still weak, they were an improvement on the Zorko bass design.
Back in Europe, German company Framus and Czech company Grazioso released their own electric upright bass models. Both companies experimented with different body and pickup designs, attempting to capture the double bass tone with varying degrees of success.
The Arco, by Grazioso, is a famous example of the time. However, it was bought out by the Selmer Musical Instrumental Company and rebranded as the Futurama Bass. The basses by Framus maintained a “bass guitar like” tone, which many of today’s electric upright bass models emulate.
Modern day EUBs
Fast forward to the 21st century, companies such as Yamaha, NS (Ned Steinberger), and BSX have refined the electronics and tonal possibilities of the electric upright bass. Newer generations of pickup technology and body materials give current-day bassists new possibilities to explore sounds with upright basses in their music.
Electric upright bass pros and cons
After delving into the history of the electric upright bass, you might be thinking, what are the pros and cons of owning one? Like all instruments, it comes down to personal preference, style of music, and creative goals. Let’s have a look at some pros and cons:
- Portability: Probably one of the best attributes of electric stand-up basses is that they are far easier to carry around and travel with from gig to gig or on an airplane compared to double basses.
- Amplification: electric uprights can play at louder volumes compared to acoustic double basses and don’t suffer the feedback issues associated with amplifying or adding pick-ups to double basses.
- Tonal control: As they are electric, electric upright basses come with several tonal options like bass guitars. Players can adjust their tone to suit their preferences.
- Silent Practise: Having an electric upright bass gives players the possibility to practice silently, which comes in handy when traveling or living in an apartment.
- Price: Though some are expensive, the range of prices for electric upright basses starts at a more reasonable level when compared to owning a decent traditional double bass.
- It’s a tone thing: When it comes to tone, electric upright basses are just a bit short of the earthy, airy tone one gets from a double bass. The sound vibrating inside a hollow body is hard to capture with electronics.
- Not the same as a double bass: Some bass guitar players see the electric upright as similar to the double bass but in truth, they are quite different. Double basses have a higher action and take a lot of effort to produce a decent tone compared to electric uprights. This creates a unique and special sound that EUBs can’t easily recreate.
- Some are unable to bow: Some electric upright basses have flat fingerboards, which make bowing difficult. If you have to play with a bow, get an electric upright with a curved fingerboard.
Best Electric Upright Basses on the Market
In today’s market, there are some notable brands players can consider if they wish to explore the fretless experience. Depending on what your wallet can handle, there’s probably an electric upright to suit your budget and needs. Here are the top electric upright bass brands in no particular order:
Yamaha – SLB300SK Silent Electric Upright Bass
The Yamaha Silent Bass was a game-changer when it first launched back in 1993. This bass comes close to emulating a double bass with a traditional style fingerboard and technology that tries to capture the resonance of the double bass.
The SLB300SK comes with a 2-band EQ, 3 microphone blend controls, a maple neck, and a rosewood fingerboard. It also has a specialized protective case making it a dream for traveling bass players.
NS – WAV, EU, CRT, NXTa series.
Ned Steinberger produces some of the best electric upright basses on the market, used by legendary players such as Tony Levin and Les Claypool. The company has many different models, each having a range of features to appeal to different players.
Each model has Low impedance EMG magnetic pickups, 4-band EQ, Richlite fingerboards, and a range of finishes. Some models are also available in 5 string versions.
The company BSX has been making electric uprights for well over 25 years and is endorsed by top bassists including Brain Bromberg, Mike Pope, and David Santos.
BSX basses consist of quality spruce or pine with ebony fingerboards. Bartolini electronics provides the pickups and EQ, and models can be either 4 or 5-string versions.
Notable bassists who use electric upright bass guitars
His resume reads like the history of popular music from the 1980s onwards. And, with well over 2000 recordings to his name, Nathen East is one of the top session bassists in music today.
He has been a Yamaha-endorsed artist since the early 1980s. East plays the Yamaha Silent Bass on many live shows and studio recordings.
From King Crimson to Peter Gabriel to Liquid Tension Experiment, Tony Levin is one of the world’s most formidable bassists. Since the 1970s, Levin has worked with legendary artists like David Bowie, John Lennon, Gary Burton, and Seal.
Levin plays the NS CR5M series electric upright bass and has been a populariser of the unique Chapman Stick – a 12-string electric instrument.
Legendary bassist and singer Les Claypool is one of the founding members of funk metal band Primus, as well as a member of Frog Brigade and Fancy Band. Since the 1980s, Claypool has been one of the leading bassists in the metal and experimental scene
Claypool has produced a slew of albums, including his own solo work. He’s an endorsed NS artist who plays a CR5M electric upright bass.
Electric upright bass: Final thoughts
In a world where musicians are spoiled with choice, the electric upright bass gives bassists a tool to improve their musical output…and their fun. Whether they need something easier for traveling or a sound to fit their musical ideas, electric upright basses give bassists the feel of the double bass, with the portability and tonal control of a bass guitar.
It’s tricky to match the deep tone and percussive slap of a double bass, but electric upright basses give us the next best thing when either cost, size, stamina, or all three are factors to consider.
With several brands on the market, including the basses covered here, there is an instrument to suit any budget and performance needs. Who knows, it might be your go-to ax in the future. Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried an EUB or if one is a fixture in your lineup.