It’s always a cool thing to watch. I’ll play a theatre production, and as we’re playing the exit music, I’ll watch as people peek their heads over the rail, look over at me and then at their friends with a shocked expression. What usually follows is either “Where’s the upright bass?” or something to that effect, followed by disbelief as I explain that it’s just been me and the electric bass and give them a quick example. Welcome to the wonderful world of palm muting, a very simple technique that can vastly improve your versatility.
DISCLAIMER: You will NEVER completely emulate an upright bass on electric. Sorry, never. However, the following will help you to approximate the sound to the point where the audience won’t know (or frankly, care) and the person that hired you will be happy with your versatility. And that’s more important.
This technique is two-fold: mechanics and feel. The first part, mechanics, is pretty straight forward. What you want to do is rest your right hand on your strings (I usually keep my hand between the bridge pickup and the bridge), so the meaty part of your palm is muting the tone and killing the sustain of the strings. In this position, you want to use the thumb to pluck the strings, much like a jazz bassist uses the sides of his fingers to pluck the upright strings. This combination should give you an attack that is similar to an upright. And before you start to argue, please re-read the disclaimer.
- Steve Swallow – Real Book (again, he swings. so. hard.)
- Oscar Peterson – We Get Requests (Ray Brown is an URB player, but set the bar)
- Jaco Pastorius – Jaco (Donna Lee is a PRIME EXAMPLE of feel)
The way you attack the strings, the note choice, the ghost notes put between notes to add some texture and rhythm are going to make you sound more like an upright bassist over straight technique. It has to go hand in hand to sound convincing. Otherwise, it may not sound right, clear, or even worse, may not fit the song or feel.
Making your electric bass sound like an upright bass is an excellent technique to have in your toolbox for jazz gigs, theatre performances or any other time when having that sound would be advantageous, but carrying the upright bass is not. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to make the audience wonder where you put the upright bass. For those that have used a technique similar to this, what other applications have you found it useful for?