A Primer on Jazz Bass

Jason Heath | April 2019

    There is a great deal of confusion at the middle and high school level around jazz bass. Even the term “jazz bass” is misleading. What does in mean, exactly? Does it mean double bass? Electric bass? Some combination? In my role teaching double bass at DePaul University in Chicago, I worked with jazz bassists to cover technical facility, arco technique, and good physical habits on the instrument – fundamental technical skills that had been undeveloped during the high school years. Jumping from the relative safety of a high-school jazz ensemble into college orchestras, contemporary music ensembles, and wind ensembles was quite a shock to many of these students.

Jazz and Classical Bass: Similarities and Differences
Names of the Instrument
    Some of the most common names used when referring to the double bass are bass, contrabass, upright bass, acoustic bass, bass violin, stand-up bass, bull fiddle. They all refer to the same instrument and should be thought of as interchangeable. Electric bass has fewer names, although it is also called bass guitar and Fender bass in jazz band charts.

Technical Similarities and Differences
    Although they might seem quite different upon first glance, jazz and classical bass actually share a lot in common. Left-hand technique is identical for both jazz and classical bass playing. Both jazz and classical bassists use the bow for practicing and performing, even though most actual jazz bass playing tends to be pizzicato. Also, jazz and classical bassists typically start out learning through the same method books. Though bass players often specialize in either jazz or classical playing later in life, most bassists have some familiarity with both jazz and classical playing. 
    The pizzicato approach used by jazz bassists is quite different than that used by classical bassists. In classical bass playing, the finger typically approaches the string at a 90-degree angle, and the tip of the finger is used to pluck the string away from the fingerboard. This results in a dry, focused sound with a quick decay.
    Jazz bassists typically go for more of a sustained pizzicato sound. There is a great deal of variety in jazz bassists’ approach to the right hand (only index finger, only ring finger, index and ring finger together, alternating index and ring finger, using index, middle, and ring in alternating fashion), jazz players approach the string from a different angle. Also, jazz bassists pull the string across the fingerboard, landing against the adjacent string. This results in a woody, sustained sound with a good articulation. Jazz bassists refer to the sustain as growl, and having a good growl to the sound is one of the hallmarks of a distinctive jazz bass sound. Bassists in a jazz setting tend to use little or no vibrato in their playing, which is quite a contrast from the vibrato-heavy traditions of standard classical playing.

Setup Similarities and Differences
    Although a few setup details vary between a bass set up predominantly for jazz playing versus a bass set up predominantly for classical playing, in general a good setup is a good setup, regardless of the intended style of playing.
    Typically, jazz players prefer a flatter action than classical players. The need for sufficient clearance for the bow on each string and enough verticality in the setup to provide for forte bow strokes is much less of a concern for jazz bassists, who don’t use the bow as often. 
    Jazz players also want their strings to ring out and sustain more than classical players. Strings made primarily for bowed playing contain damping agents. These agents make it easier to switch directions with bowing, allowing for faster playing. They also keep the strings from ringing as long. Jazz players typically use strings with less damping, allowing for a rich, full, ringing sound.

Using Electric Bass in Jazz Band
    There is also the option of using electric bass in jazz band. In fact, most rock and funk tunes require the use of electric bass. Double bass players usually pick up the electric bass without too much difficulty. The tuning and fingerboard layout are identical, and double bassists can use their standard 1-2-4 left hand fingering technique on the electric bass easily.
    It is more of a challenge for electric bassists to learn the double bass. Electric bassists usually use a one finger per fret approach to their instrument, and this technique transfers poorly to the double bass. Without proper instruction, electric bassists often try to stretch out their left hand to reach the notes like they do on electric bass, which can lead to injury.
    It is possible to use electric bass in all jazz settings, including swing tunes. Although many jazz band directors prefer the sound of the upright bass in their ensemble, electric bassists can adapt their right hand technique and slightly mute the strings for a more upright-like sound.

Developing Jazz Bass Fingerboard Knowledge
    Bass is a challenging instrument in terms of fingerboard map development because players can only reach a whole step on a single string without having to shift. There are two approaches commonly used in contemporary bass pedagogy, and jazz bassists can benefit from the study of both of them.

Simandl Approach
    The New Method for String Bass by Franz Simandl has been a standard text for bass players for over a century. The Simandl system groups three half-steps into a single position, with the first, second, and fourth fingers landing on each half step. The Simandl Method progressively climbs up the fingerboard half step by half step, with exercises in each of these half-step positions. This approach is similar to a guitar player taking a pattern and working it sequentially up each fret and results in over a dozen positions up and down the bass neck.
    There are many benefits to studying the Simandl Method. It is great for developing music reading skills. From the beginning, the Simandl Method presents players with flats, sharps, and even double flats and double sharps. While this may seem daunting to beginning bassists, it is actually a great way to get the player accustomed to reading music and knowing exactly where each note is on the bass. It is also a great method for developing a solid 1-2-4 hand position and a strong sense of intonation.
    There are several drawbacks with focusing exclusively on this method. First of all, it is not possible to play diatonic scales and patterns across the string without shifting. This can lead to a somewhat fragmented or stilted understanding of patterns across the fingerboard. It also seems to limit a player’s imagination when it comes to inventing new fingerings. Because this approach requires a shift every few notes, a portion of the player’s attention is devoted to thinking about the next shift, which can make it challenging to zoom out and think about the broader picture.

Rabbath Approach
    Francois Rabbath revolutionized the double bass world in the 1960s with his self-taught and head-turning approach to the double bass. Over time, Rabbath’s concept of double bass technique, once considered radical, has been adopted as mainstream double bass pedagogy.
    The Rabbath approach divides the entire fingerboard into six positions, each one based around the first, second, and third harmonic partials. The positions, as shown on the G string, are:

    •  First position: open G to C (third harmonic partial)
    •  Second position: C to D (third to second harmonic partial)
    •  Third position: D to G (second to first harmonic partial)
    •  Fourth position: G to D (first to second harmonic partial)
    •  Fifth position: D to G (second to third harmonic partial)
    •  Sixth position: above G (everything above third harmonic partial)

    This system makes it possible to play diatonic scales across the string in any of these positions using a left hand pivot All major and minor keys fit comfortably within these positions, and this approach develops a deep knowledge of the fingerboard that is tremendously helpful for the jazz bassist. Basing the positions on the natural harmonics of the instrument opens up many creative possibilities as well. This encourages a more macroscopic approach, and it simplifies the transfer of ideas from one string or position to another.
    While there are numerous benefits to the Rabbath approach, transferring it over to an ensemble can be a challenge for beginning students. Most ensemble music is fingered with Simandl positions, and incorporating the Rabbath positions in ensemble music can take extra work from the teacher or a proactive approach from the student. Also, unless pivoting is taught correctly, the Rabbath approach can introduce intonation problems. It’s important to have a solid 1-2-4 hand position before introducing pivoting.

Combining Rabbath and Simandl Approaches
    Bassists switch fluidly between both systems as warranted by the technical demands of the music. In my experience, the Simandl ap­proach is helpful for developing reading ability, and the Rabbath approach is helpful for developing a deeper conception of the fingerboard.

Practicing with the Bow
    Although jazz bassists spend the majority of their time playing pizzicato, most jazz bassists practice regularly with the bow. The bow acts as an intonation magnifying glass, making any pitch problems more obvious. Also, having a solid bow technique opens the door to bowed bass solos, which can be a great way to change up the tonal palette on a gig. Bassists have been taking bowed bass solos since the early days of jazz, and it is a great way to play more singing and connected lines and cut through the band. Finally, good bow technique opens up the player to a broader range of gigs, including symphonic work, recording sessions, and theatrical work. Landing a gig playing a musical can be a great source of steady income for a jazz bassist, and having this as an option greatly enhances employability.

Walking a Bass Line
    Learning to walk a bass line is one of the most fundamental skills for jazz bassists In a big band, many bass parts have a walking line written out for the player. However, most combo settings and quite a few big band charts only have chord changes, with no written bass part. Knowing how to construct a bass line is key for all developing jazz bassists.
    For walking bass beginners, playing nothing but roots is a good start. This gives the student an outline of the basic harmonic structure of the tune and practice locating all the chord roots on the bass. A good next step in developing a walking bass line is to have the student play the root, third, and fifth of each chord. This is more difficult than it seems.
    At the bottom of this page is an example beginner walking bass line over the jazz classic All of Me by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons. This demonstrates a good way to approach a beginning walking bass line. Each chord change alternates root-third-fifth-third for full bars of the same chord. Half bars only use the root and third.

All of Me by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons

Exercises for Developing Jazz Facility
    There are countless resources available to the developing jazz bassist. I have found the following exercises to be most beneficial in developing the skills to navigate the fingerboard as a jazz bassist.

Diatonic Seventh Chords
    Practicing diatonic sevenths chords is a great way to get acquainted with the language of jazz bass. The following exercise in F can be transposed into any key and is an excellent way to begin visualizing chord structures on the bass.

Lower Position Chromatic Scale
    Chromatic scales go hand in hand with diatonic seventh chords in the language of jazz bass playing. It is generally more advantageous to shift on the first finger when ascending in pitch and on the 4th finger when descending. The following exercise is a great exercise for developing this technique.

Ascending G String Chromatic Scale
    Ascending the G string chromatically with a 1-2-4 finger pattern is a great way to learn how to navigate into the upper positions. The pattern below should be practiced with a long, ringing tone for each note and smooth shifts.

Resources for Jazz Bassists
    Jazz pedagogy has come a long way in the past several decades, but it is still young compared to the pedagogy of many classical instruments, some of which stretch back hundreds of years. Bass pedagogy is also in a state of genesis. The bass teaching world has changed radically in the past 20 years. Fortunately, there are numerous re­sources for jazz bassists available. Here are some popular options from a wide array of sources. Links to all of these can be found at doublebassblog.org/jazz.

Books for Developing Walking Bass Lines
    The Low Down: A Guide to Creating Supportive Jazz Bass Lines by Danny Ziemann.
    The Low Down Book 2: A Supplemental Resource of Jazz Bass Lines by Danny Ziemann.
    Killer Walking Bass: Melodic Lines for the Advanced Jazz Bassist by Teymur Phell.
    Building Walking Bass Lines by Ed Friedland.

Books for General Jazz Bass Knowledge
    The Jazz Bass Book by John Goldsby.
    The Evolving Bassist by Rufus Reid.
    Topics in Jazz Bass by Danny Ziemann.
    Patterns in Jazz by Jerry Coker (not bass-specific).

Online Video Resources
    Chris Fitzgerald’s YouTube channel.

Notable Jazz Bassists
    Christian McBride, John Clayton, Kristin Korb, Larry Grenadier, Es­pe­ran­za Spalding, Eddie Gomez, Linda Oh, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, John Goldsby, Dave Holland, and Chuck Israels.

Resources for Developing Fingerboard Knowledge
    New Method for Bass by Franz Simandl.
    Progressive Repertoire by George Vance.