AN ABG MANIFESTO: CHAPTER ONE
The trouble with the acoustic bass guitar (ABG):
- Can’t project at same level as acoustic guitar—needs amplification. This is why bass amps and the upright bass are so big—it takes a lot of air to push low frequencies.
- Most piezo systems seem to accentuate the negative sound qualities of the instrument: tinniness, clacking.
- Under-bridge piezo pickup tends to send a weak low-E signal because of the string pressure on the bridge—requires adjustment.
- Bridge isn’t adjustable and seems to require seasonal or annual adjustment, which is tedious.
- Big-time feedback issues. Have to fill sound hole and/or EQ.
I’m not exactly sure why I bought an ABG, but I went out and got one within a couple months of starting on bass. This was back in 1999 after playing trumpet for about a decade. If I had to guess, it probably seemed closer to upright bass (which it’s not (which I still haven’t transitioned to twenty years later)). I think there’s just a certain something to the sound and feel. Even when going through a magnetic pickup. The instrument you play becomes your voice—it’s the way you want to sound—or else we’d just sing. When you start to get into the nebulous—ethereal—whathaveyou of the way you want to sound, you just go with your gut. It’s primordial, don’t think about it, just go with it.
I WANT MY MTV
Whenever I mention the acoustic bass guitar many people (at least of a certain age) immediately go to MTV Unplugged. Although I didn’t have cable in the early 90s, Unplugged was just one of those things in the zeitgeist and it would be naive to think it didn’t have an impact on me. At the very least it caused every guitar store to carry a few ABGs along with their wide variety of P-Basses. Whatever the original impulse was, I’ve played some version of a fretless acoustic bass live as my main axe for the last seven years and have had one around for practicing since I started.
"I prefer to be sub-cultural rather than mass-cultural. I’m not interested in hitting the vein of the mainstream.” —Jim Jarmusch
SO WHY NOW?
Since it seems I don’t have a good reason as to why I originally picked up the ABG, perhaps I should explain why I like it in the present day. This will sound nearly idiotic, but I will say it anyways: I think it sounds bass-ier. It exists (sonically) somewhere between the upright and the slab electric bass. You could think of it as a missing link. Really it seems like a more logical step from the upright bass than the Fender Precision. From poking around the history books it does seem that prototypical ABGs were out there before the Precision Bass, but the first bass guitar was by all accounts the Fender P-Bass (at least in a way that impacted the culture). Or you could think of it as the offspring of an electric bass guitar and an upright bass. In this regard it’s capable of mimicking both making it pretty versatile.
I’d say there is a breathiness to the ABG, making it to the electric bass what the flugelhorn is to the trumpet. A long time ago, if I remember correctly I was reading an article on Brian Setzer describing why he plays hollow body guitars. He said that it’s like a living thing, you can feel it vibrate, push and pull against you (I think I have that right). If he said that or not, I like that idea.
Other than that, I like the thickness of it and I like how lightweight it is. Given my contrary nature I also like that it’s not played by that many people.
ON THE ROAD
ABGs have their fair share of issues, especially when you play in a loud band, in bars, with varying qualities of sound systems, sound engineers or lack thereof. Now I can’t say I’m an old road dog, but I have played more in these last seven years than any other moment in my life. In that time I’ve played three basses out. The Fender T-Bucket only made it to one gig. So really it’s been two basses: Flattop (2013-2016, officially retired 5/13/18) and Brenda (2016-present).
In 2010 I bought the bass I always wanted, but didn’t want anymore—a semi-hollow Eastwood Classic 4 (short scale, 30 1/2”). I got fixated on the fretless bass. I was playing in what I would call the fourth iteration of The Dynamo Theorem (college band). I started playing in a band called Curio.
Curio will forever be a marker in my life. Amongst many major life changes it was also a new chapter in my playing. For the first time I was the bass player. Not the guy playing bass, trumpet and singing while trying for some sweet air. I started learning the fretless and officially ditched the pick. It was also the moment that I got the bass building bug (prior to that I was mainly just messing with finishes).
In the first couple years of Curio we played a handful of shows spread out through the year. In 2013 I finished building the Flattop and it was about then that Curio started playing more frequently. We recorded and I played Flattop on all but one of the tracks. By 2015 we were playing just about weekly.
If you were inclined to you could go back to May 2013 and follow the Flattop. I never really stopped fussing with it. I seem to recall cutting several new bridges for it and eventually this was the cause of the it’s retirement.
Flattop is a big boy, with the body measuring 16 1/4” x 20”h and is 34” scale. It began as a Carlo Robelli ABG that I bought at Sam Ash in 1999. I stripped all the lacquer then chopped and channeled it, making it 3 1/2” thick. He has a walnut top and a maple back which are about a 1/4” thick—so thicker than a typical acoustic guitar. The body is divided into three large chambers which I modeled after Kay bass construction making it somewhere between a semi-hollow and an acoustic. For most of it’s life it had the Carlo Robelli piezo electronics and I typically had it strung with LaBella black nylon tape wounds. When building the Flattop I was spending a lot of time looking at Rob Allen’s basses.
Check out Flattop on Curio's Twisted Roots.
I was never too keen on bringing a “backup” bass with me, but I was starting to. Although the Flattop worked at home it was cutting out on me at shows. The problem was the bridge. With all my irritation on cutting new bridges when the weather changed, I just made a really tall one, but this would bend and pinch the under-saddle piezo pickup making no sound. I decided that I hated acoustic guitar bridges and under-saddle piezo pickups were too sensitive. I needed a workhorse, something dependable…