'The upright bass is the most organic instrument you could get your hands on," said Cecil Bowman at Guitar Trader on El Cajon Boulevard. This was three years ago.
"You'll have fun," he continued, taking my down payment for a used instrument priced at $900. It was white and somewhat scratched and dented (in a good, "vintage" way). I figured it would take me four months to pay it off.
My girlfriend at the time wasn't keen on the purchase. "Don't you have enough guitars and stuff?" she said.
"I can never have enough."
"There's no room at home."
"Not in our last apartment, no, but in the new one..."
She rolled her eyes and groaned. "It's a beast. I'll name it 'Beastie.' "
"I'm serious about this instrument," I said. And I was, so much so that when a big check came in six weeks later I immediately went to Guitar Trader to make a full payment.
"We accidentally sold it," I was told. "It was never moved to the back or marked as sold, and someone bought it."
I think I cursed.
"Tell you what," said Cecil Bowman, "I have one here, it's new, it's about $75 more than the other one. You can take that...."
This bass was dark brown and in better shape than the white one. I agreed. Bowman said he needed fifteen minutes to set it up -- adjusting the bridge, tightening the strings. "How do you like your action?" he asked. "Do you play jazz, or are you one of those rockabilly guys and like to pluck your strings and slap the fingerboard?"
"I'm not sure," I said.
"I've played the electric bass for 15 years."
"I'll make it somewhere in between."
My girlfriend showed up in her truck, and we put my new purchase in the back. The wooden bridge and strings collapsed. I thought it was defective. I took the bridge back into the store and asked one of the salesmen, "Do I need glue to keep it in place?"
He laughed. "You don't want to glue it down, buddy. Never do that. Cecil didn't tighten the strings hard enough." Cecil had left for lunch, and I didn't feel like waiting for him.
It took me three hours that night to adjust the bridge and deal with the strings, which refused to stay in tune. It wasn't until they became tight and stable that they would remain tuned for long. For half a year I practiced and discovered that on any given day the bass would sound different -- depending on the weather outside, the temperature in the apartment, and how much ambient sound was in the neighborhood.
I didn't think it was loud, but my girlfriend assured me she could hear the thump-thump-thumpa as she pulled into the driveway. Occasionally the instrument would make odd creaking sounds on its own. One night the sound was like a moan and the tail pin broke, releasing all the strings and the bridge.
I got another tail pin online. The strings took another week to get in reasonable tune. When one of the strings later snapped (nearly hitting my right eye), the other three strings again went out of tune. When I changed the strings from steel to nylon (easier on the fingers), the wooden bridge broke in half. I learned that there was no uniform bridge -- each bass had to have its own, individually adjusted. I took the instrument back to Guitar Trader for them to sand down a bridge that was right for me; $59 for the wood, $30 for the labor.
Lugging my upright to jam sessions, studio work, and auditions proved to be a pain in the ass, and I would need at least 20 minutes to deal with the bridge, the strings, the tuning, and the way the bass sounded in the current environment.
Chris Klich, of the Chris Klich Jazz Quintet, nodded when I told him about all this. "I wish I could remember the last name of the bass player who played with Earl Thomas when we all went up to Slim's in San Francisco to play a gig. His name is Chris, too, but for the life of me, I can't remember his last name. Anyway, while we were driving up, the weather started getting colder, and I remember we had to pull over on the side of the freeway so he could go up and loosen the strings so that they wouldn't cause the neck of his bass to break. It was strapped to the top of the van."
I talked to a few local upright bass players, Ben Wanicur, Steven Wilson, and Larry Kent, about their instrument of choice.
WHAT BAND DO YOU PLAY IN?
Ben: "I have been freelancing on the jazz scene since I moved to San Diego eight years ago. Freelancing means that you don't really play in any one band. I have worked with Joe Marillo, Gilbert Castellanos, Hollis Gentry, Mikan Zlatkovich..."
Steven: "A psychobilly group called Found in Translation. Zombies, death, hell, booze, and women -- all the usual subjects in the genre."
Larry: "I mostly do studio work, no gigging, and it's usually bluegrass and the occasional classical thing."
WHAT BRAND IS YOUR UPRIGHT, AND WHAT KIND OF STRINGS DO YOU USE?
Ben: "I've been told that my bass was probably made in the 1940s or 1950s. It was probably made in Germany or the Czech Republic. Honestly, I really have no idea. It sounds great, though. I usually use Spirocore bass strings."
Steven: "I have a hot firebird red-and-white one from King Doublebass. Cost me, like, $2800 with a chrome tailpiece and worth every penny. This creature rocks something hard. For a backup I have some piece of junk I got in a pawn shop for, like, $350. Haven't had to use it in any kind of emergency yet, but it's always good to know that it is there. I use green Weed Whacker strings -- really, these strings are made from that same tough nylon used for trimming lawn grass, though thicker. I have no idea who makes them. I got a couple sets off eBay."
Larry: "I have several basses here at home, from a Pölmann ($13,000) to a very beat-up 1950s Kay bass ($1100) to one I had especially made for me by wishbass.com ($1800). I generally use LaBella gut strings. They're reliable."
TRICKIEST PROBLEM TRAVELING WITH YOUR UPRIGHT?
Larry: "No problem, as I don't. I have a good home recording studio so the other musicians come here."
Steven: "The chicks at clubs pay more attention to my axe than me. So, yeah, my bass gets more action."
Ben: "It is a real nightmare, unless you have a flight case, which usually costs several thousand dollars. Even then, there is no guarantee that it won't be damaged...for example, if it got dropped off a plane when being unloaded. I once had to fly with my upright. I bought an extra seat for it but, upon boarding, realized that the bass would not fit into the seat by any configuration. We tried everything -- upside down, on its side, at an angle. Nothing would work. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of holding up the plane, we decided to lock it into one of the bathrooms and seal it off. The passengers were fairly nonplussed after waiting this long. To top things off, the pilot gets on the speaker to apologize for our late takeoff and to assure everyone that I had bought a seat for my instrument. As I walked back I heard grumblings under people's breath such as, 'Why don't you just bring your whole house next time?' "