acoustic bass

Why Play an Acoustic Bass Guitar?

Why would anyone want an acoustic bass guitar? I suspect its going to be one of the following: you want something care free, electric free, that you can just use at the camp fire without a care for complication.  You might want a stringy warm acoustic sound that will go with a particular musical style, or better still you might want to be in a mariachi band.

Whilst acoustic bass guitars have some ardent fans, generally speaking they have not caught on in the music community.  They suffer from a few issues, most significantly they do not project any volume when played acoustically. 

If you approach the instrument thinking that it is going to be a bass version of a acoustic guitar you are going to run into a few problems. It is therefore really unfair to compare any idea you might have of an acoustic guitar with that of an acoustic bass guitar. 

For this reason instead of just dismissing these instruments straight away I’ve broken the discussion down a bit more to try and give the instrument a chance and let the reader decide. 

Playing Action

If you are not used to the feel of an acoustic bass guitar or if you are a new player, you might find the instrument a bit on bulky side.

For a start, you will find the body to be a little deeper and the neck is a bit wider side on some models. There is some variation for sure between manufacturers designs, some makers have tried to reduce the bulk of the instrument making it more akin to a regular guitar body but in doing so the instruments further detracts from the point of it being an ‘acoustic bass’ with a less ‘bass’ sounding instrument.  

The acoustically needed bulky body is designed as such in an attempt to project the bass sound. It is just a necessity if the instrument, if it is going to project any volume.  But again doesn’t quite manage the job other than be good a quick bass practice sat on the living room sofa.

Another complaint for new players is the lack of a thumb rest and additionally that the strings are thicker, bigger, and more rigid than those on an electric bass which again leads to a less enjoyable experience whilst still learning.

These niggles pass however and you will develop the strength and stamina over time, after all, all instruments have a learning curve.  You will also need to adjust your technique somewhat to be able to help project the sound when it comes to plucking and slapping if the bass whilst it is in its acoustic mode to get any decent volume.

Regardless of any effort it is simply not going to be audible above a group of musicians gathered around the camp fire.

All of this leads the player to eventually plug the instrument into an amp thereby somewhat contradicting the point of the instrument being called ‘acoustic.’

With an Amp You have a Gigging Instrument

Once the instrument is plugged in you have something that can be heard and finally a gigging instrument. 

The conversation then changes to what the sound merits of the electrified acoustic instrument and why should you have one.  The answer is purely down to a matter of personal taste in terms of how the instrument sounds and looks.  As we know there is a whole list of variables which come into play over the instrument make, set-up and amplification in terms of its sound. So it is somewhat hard to be too exact with its sound, however most musicians at this point are hoping for a more stringy – double bass sound.

Perhaps the main selling point for these instruments is that they can certainly aesthetically look good on stage and if you want to project that more ‘unplugged’ image they are perfect and will draw interest. 

Audience’s do also have a tendency to ‘hear’ with their eyes, the image on stage helps reinforce that ‘unplugged’ folk theme.  An acoustic bass through an amp can have a sound closer to that of a double bass, giving a nice stringy warm sound. I would also argue that if visuals were not a matter of concern, a fretless electric bass would also give a similar resulting sound. 

Some Great ‘Acoustic’ Bass

Cue the fantastic ‘acoustic’ bass line in this chilli peppers song played on an amplified acoustic bass

  Consider Nathan East’s playing on Clapton’s ‘Unplugged’ album. 

I am not sure why Nathan did not use a double bass for Clapton’s unplugged tour and album, that would have certainly worked. However this is an example of where an acoustic bass guitar is the best alternative.

Bass Instruments Can be Loud Acoustically

After complaining about the lack of volume from an acoustic bass guitar (unplugged) I think it is worth stating that acoustic bass instruments can be loud. I play a ¾ double bass, and it is loud.  Loud enough to be heard over other acoustic instruments.  A double bass doesn’t even need to be a full-sized double bass to punch through the background sound. 

I’ve got a post here which covers buying a double bass and why you do not need a full double bass for sound volume.  Unfortunately as we now know, a regular acoustic bass guitar is simply not going to shift enough air to be loud enough, regardless of the debate around playing style or type of strings that can be added, its acoustic chamber is not big enough. 

If your motivation is to find an instrument which sounds like a double bass and is loud, you need to buy a double bass. Your acoustic dilemma has been solved.  Plus, there are not as many double bassists around which will make you a bit more unique. 

If your budget won’t stretch to a new instrument I’ve got a guide here about picking up a second hand instrument

If you feel a bit overwhelmed by the stature of a double bass you could consider a bass ukulele? Again with the bass uke you will need to put it through a bass amp.  At least however, you will with the right set up get that more stringy sound without the bulk of the double bass or the bass guitar if that is a concern.  It is worth experimenting. 

Mexican Guitarron Bass

There is an exception which I should mention at some point in this debate, that is the Mexican guitarron bass (as seen in the Mariachi bands.) This traditional instrument makes no apology for being big and bulky, its traditional craftsmanship has less of an identity crisis than that of the more recent acoustic basses that we see on the market today. This instrument also being steeped in its own playing tradition has been better designed to be played acoustically.

An instrument which has held my interest recently is the Guitarron, If I were to buy an acoustic bass guitar I’d be tempted to consider one of these out of curiosity and sound. 

Guitarron

Gypsey Kings Acoustic Bass Amplified

Why Would you Play an acoustic Bass Guitar (Amplified) – Conclusion

The acoustic bass guitar is really suffering from an identity crisis, it doesn’t really quite understand how to market itself.  The player has to determine themselves as to why they need one and perhaps carefully try one out in a store, fully knowing the drawbacks.

Some players who are fans will claim that the sound has a greater warmth, depth and harmonic quality.  The reasons for playing one therefore are very individual and somewhat selective.

17 thoughts on “Why Play an Acoustic Bass Guitar?”

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