After a recent recording session with The Missing Persians, I was carrying my basses upstairs to where they live in my studio when something awful happened.
I’ve long been an advocate of what my dad calls “the lazy man’s load” whereby you pick up as much as you possibly can manage in each trip, then pick up one more thing before carrying the whole lot to your destination (in this case: from the van, up the stairs and into the studio) thereby saving yourself the indignity of carrying a safe and sensible amount each time and looking like a wuss. So I was carrying my bass guitar in one hand, and my upright “stick” bass in the other, with a bag of various bits and bobs in my third hand (obviously).
In this instance, I made it to the top of the stairs within sight of the destination, when I missed the last step and stumbled forward, just tapping the head of the upright bass on the landing wall. It didn’t feel like that hard a knock, but nevertheless, I knew something bad had happened. I unzipped the case and took a look:
Now, this bass was bought on a special deal from my local music shop, and didn’t cost a huge amount of money; I bought it mostly to see how I got on with the mechanics of playing an upright and to find out if it was worth me investing in a “proper” one. Seeing it in three pieces like that it was obvious that any professional repair was likely to cost more than the thing was worth. So I did what anyone else would do, I posted a picture on Facebook and went to bed.
Repairing the upright electric bass – a DIY approach
A couple of days later (and after a quick Google to see how expensive a replacement would be) I thought I’d see if I could glue the bass back together myself. All the bits were there and, who knows, it might even work afterwards!
So, I got some PVA wood glue, and carefully glued the three pieces together, taped it all up and then left it for a couple of days. I left the hardware in place to help everything line up properly:
Once I was sure it was dry, I took all the tape off. Although it seemed to have stuck together well I wasn’t convinced that the PVA was going to be strong enough to resist the tension of the strings, so I thought about ways of strengthening the structure without seriously messing the shape of the bass. Because the finish of the bass is a semi-matt black, I finally decided on some fibreglass resin, which I thought I could layer up and then sand and fill smooth before painting. I took off all the hardware and applied the fibreglass sheets and resin a little at a time over a period of several hours (and a couple of days) but for some reason didn’t remember to take any pictures of this step. Once I was happy that I’d put as much as I could on without making the headstock about three times the size, I started sanding, then filling using Polyfiller and sanding again:
Each time, I tried to get a little smoother without sanding all the fibreglass off – so I was trying to build up the profile using the Polyfilla around the imperfections of the fibreglass:
By this time I’d been working on this over a period of about a week (mostly just half an hour a day) and I reckoned I was getting close. It was time to see if I could get a finish on it and a quick rummage around in the garage found some satin black spray paint. I whacked a load of that on (in actual fact I applied several light coats over the next couple of days) then gave it a rub down with some rubbing compound I had left over from painting a motorbike a few years ago:
Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and with this picture you can see there are some pinprick holes left in the filler, but by this point I was getting close to fitting the strings, and I couldn’t help thinking that the moment I tightened them up the headstock was going to fly off and hit someone (probably me) in the face. If it worked I could always do a bit more finishing off later…
It was a tense moment as I tightened the strings; each twist of the tuning peg was done very slowly and with my face well away from the “danger zone” but after about ten minutes we were there:
Since then, I’ve done two gigs with the bass, and it’s shown no signs of any problems. No cracking or tuning issues (it still stays in tune between gigs making the old “it was in tune last time I used it” joke seem to contain more than a grain of truth). If I get a couple of days to spare I might take another look at the finish but it passes more than a casual glance, so maybe I’ll leave it.
After only a few weeks rehearsal, I had my first gig with The Missing Persians the other week at the Talbot Inn in Eynsham, and very good it was too! A couple of hours of playing with some really good musicians in a style I don’t really get anywhere else – I had a great time, and can’t wait for the next one. The upright bass got a rare outing, and let me show off some of the work I’ve been doing on my technique over the past few months.
I’m self-taught as a musician, and when I got the electric upright (double) bass I simply figured I’d apply the same concepts to this as I had to everything else I play; that is to dive in there and work it out as I go along. Well, although it’s technically possible to play upright bass like a fretless bass guitar which you hold upright (as the name might suggest), if you’re going to play for more than a few minutes at a time it really requires a completely different approach. The main difference to the way you play the thing isn’t really the fact that it’s fretless, or that it’s upright. It’s the fact that the strings feel fatter and heavier, and therefore require a lot more effort to push them down to create a note. As I’d already gone through a similar process with guitar and bass, I guessed that I just needed to keep working at it and eventually I’d gain more strength in my fingers and be able to play for longer.
Luckily, in a conversation at a gig with the drummer, I spoke about this and he recommended I went to see Tim Dawes in Oxford for some pointers. He took a look at my “technique” and told me that using the “one finger per fret” bass guitar method I was putting too much strain on my knuckles and could end up with arthritis. Not good for my hopes of playing long into old age. What was good was that he was able to quickly show me the “bassics” so that I was able to adapt my style when playing the upright bass.
In a nutshell, whereas with a bass guitar (or guitar) you tend to have a one finger per fret grip on the neck, with the upright bass you sort of add another finger to the string as the note you want to play gets higher, and treat the ring finger and little finger as one. This means only playing three notes before you need to shift the position of the hand.
While this is a bit of a tricky shift to get into for someone who’s been playing bass guitar for over 30 years, I’m already noticing that my left hand isn’t as tired as is was when I was trying to play it like an upright, fretless bass guitar and when people look at me playing they’ll think I’m an experienced double bassist! (At least that’s what Tim says)
You can see how accomplished you think my technique is at the next Missing Persians gig at the Famous Monday Blues tomorrow night! (http://www.famousmondayblues.co.uk/)