Give it a Rest!

Much has been made of the thumb rest on the Alien. It’s an interesting feature, seen on instruments ranging from vintage Fenders to Godins, but never universally adopted as essential. The most obvious reason for this is that most electric basses already have a rest, in the form of the pickup(s). From here you can maintain eveness of tone as you spider across the strings, grind away on that low B/E with authority, and anchor your hand position as you prowl the stage/throw those crazy rock’n’roll shapes. But what happens when you want to play away from this position? Sometimes the sweet spot isn’t bang over the pickups, or you want to introduce some variety of tone into your playing. You’ve just entered the hand position twilight zone.

Understandably many players never go there. Why suffer the anxiety and indignity of your hand flopping effeminately about the lower strings like a regency dandy, when you can just weld your thumb to the pick up and give it some? This is where the thumb rest comes into its own, and with the right height and spacing from the strings, it can free your fingers to leap about the strings like a young mountain goat.

I’ve yearned for a thumb rest on many of my previous basses for precisely these reasons. So when I finally got my Alien I was particularly looking forward to this aspect of it. In reality however, it has turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the plus side it works beautifully in giving you a strong anchor point to play a wide range of positions, especially important with an ABG where there’s no knob for the volume or pan pot for the tone control, it’s all coming from your fingers. The downside is a problem that keeps rearing its head in different forms – the sheer acoustic liveliness of this bass. If you play rest stroke on an electric, the finger thuds to an inaudible stop against the thumb rest. When you play the same on an ABG the whack of your finger into the rest is clearly audible, like an additional percussion track tapping away on top. This can be a cool effect to incorporate into your playing but it’s not suitable for everything, and leaves you back where you started. You’re changing technique to play the lowest string. 

Having played the Alien for a couple of months now I’m tending to feel that an ABG doesn’t really need a thumb rest. In the seated position your arm has to come over the depth of the body and, unlike an electric, this gives plenty of support and enough strength to anchor your hand without needing a rest. An important fringe benefit of this seated position is that now my practice position and my performance position are exactly the same. (With the electric, unless I go all 80’s and wear my bass like a medallion my performance position is markedly different). I guess if I needed to stand up then it would begin to earn its keep, but the Alien doesn’t come with an upper strap button so there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon. Besides, after years of twitching about on stage I’m kind of getting into this whole sitting down lark. It’s a good feeling bringing all of your attention onto the music instead of posturing. Give my thumb a rest? Maybe I’ll just park my mojo for a while instead.

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Loving the Alien

My first impressions of the Alien were overwhelmingly positive. It looked beautiful. It felt great in my hands and balanced nicely on my lap – the neck dives a little on its own like most ABGs but in normal playing position with your arm over the body it’s perfectly supported. The tone was great. Really nice and woody, with the singing quality around the 12th fret that I had so admired in the Breedlove, combined with good bass extension down to the low E. Naturally it didn’t have the volume and weight of an upright, but the bass felt true. There was a satisfying hint of the famous Warwick ‘growl’, no doubt due to the wenge fingerboard and ovangkol back and sides. It was also supremely playable, with a slimmish neck and only slightly higher action than it’s electric counterparts. Playing in the kitchen, with its warm tones blooming in the natural reverb, was a revelation and within minutes I was completely hooked.

However it wasn’t all roses. I soon found a slight dead spot around the D on the tenth fret. I hadn’t anticipated the amount of mechanical noise generated playing the ABG. Every time I fretted there was a clank as the string hit the frets. Every position shift brought a squeak from the bright phosphor strings. A mysterious intermittent rattling noise nearly drove me to distraction until I worked out that on certain notes the energy from plucking was vibrating the string on both sides of the fretted note. ABGs, I realized, are far more alive than their electric counterparts and the tiny handling sounds you normally never notice are amplified for all the world to hear.

The plugged in sound was a disappointment too. The Alien uses the highly regarded Fishman Prefix Plus preamp with a piezo pickup system. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work for me. The sound seems squashed and ‘pingy’, a far remove from the openness of its natural unamplified sound. In fairness I suspect this is down to the nature of piezos rather than being a fault of the Fishman. Again I realized that if I was to record the instrument as it really sounds, I’d have to treat it more like a percussion instrument and mike it up.

So quirks, imperfections, limitations… but aren’t these always the greatest drivers for creativity? Although the low D was a little weak, the same notes on other strings were way more vibrant than on my electrics so I found myself playing in positions that would normally have been unuseable. The excessive handling noises meant I had to cultivate far cleaner fingering and muting technique, and shed some lazy habits I’d slid into over the years. The anomalies and imperfections spurred me to really explore and unlock the range of tones on the instrument. In short I was learning and actively engaged with the instrument in a way that I hadn’t been for years. And most important of all, I was really enjoying the process, the sound coming from my fingers and the music that was beginning to take shape.

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Dear Santa (Part 3)

The challenge was to find a good ABG second hand. New was not an option. I loved the idea of going acoustic and knew I was going to get into it – but I’d had exactly the same conviction about my MIDI wind controller, Hang drum, Chapman Stick, didgeridoo, walking stick flute, etc etc, all of which had turned out to be intense but brief flings. At least with second hand instruments you can sell them on without being kicked in the financial norks when the romance turns sour.

I tried eBay first, without success. There were plenty of cheap to mid-range basses available but no one was letting go of their high end stuff. I took that as a sign that my early instincts about bass quality had been correct. I started hanging around bass forums putting out some feelers. Tacomas seemed non-existent outside the US, and as a long-time Warwick player it was almost a no-brainer that I’d go for the Alien. Initially I was adamant that the only Alien I wanted was one of the early solid spruce top models, but after discovering that these were rarer than a funny Far Side cartoon and sometimes changed hands for many thousands of dollars, I had a rethink. The new Aliens were easier to source, and even though the laminated spruce top had an adverse affect on sound projection, it also made it tougher and more roadworthy. The guys on the Warwick forum were really helpful and someone sent me a link he had come across. This turned out to be a post on a German forum which, somewhere amidst the hilarious babelfish translation, seemed to suggest that he was selling an Alien. I dug into my schoolboy German and, once I’d finished asking him what colour his pen was, found out that he was indeed selling and was happy to post to the UK.

The next challenge was logistical. There was no doubt in my mind that the seller was genuine – his eBay feedback was great and he came across in correspondence as a nice guy – but it was a huge leap of faith to send such a large sum of money to someone you’ve never met, and equally risky for him to just send me the bass. Even if we both stuck to our sides of the bargain the potential for mistakes/misunderstandings/things getting lost in the post was just too great. There was the possibility of doing a private sale via eBay but it seemed unfair having to pay the fees. In the end we opted to use escrow.com. They are affiliated with eBay and act as a neutral third party in blind transactions like ours. The buyer makes a payment to escrow, the seller sends the goods, the buyer confirms the goods are as he expected, escrow release the funds to the seller and charge a small commission. I only mention it here as I was a little wary about using escrow, having never done it before, and spent some time researching how people had got on with it. The concensus was good, and I can add my own voice to that now – the service worked really well, I recommend it.

So the deal was struck, I’d paid a huge sum of money into cyberspace for an instrument I’d never played from a man I’d never met. It was nerve wracking but exciting. A week passed. I went on holiday for a week. I got back and still nothing. The tension was unbearable. But then, a couple of days later, it arrived. I was on my way out of the door for a weekend residency of mixing so just had time to rip the paper off, salivate a little and have a twang. It looked, sounded and played exactly as I had hoped.

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Dear Santa (Part 2)

Years passed. Occasionally I’d think about ABGs, but, remembering the previous disappointment, abandon the thought. That continued for a long time until one day, killing time on Denmark St in London, I wandered into Hank’s Guitar Shop. They specialize in acoustic instruments and sure enough, had a small but reasonable selection of ABGs there. I tried a few and found them, once again, underwhelming. Ready to leave, I idly picked up a Breedlove fretless and had a strum. An hour later I was still on it. It was a revelation. The best tone I had heard from an ABG, beautifully setup and an absolute joy to play. The knowledgeable (and extremely patient) assistant there told me that Breedlove is a well known and highly regarded manufacturer of acoustic guitars, who also happen to make good ABGs. I’d never heard of them before but I was sold. This bass was exactly what I had been looking for.

Well, almost. There was one small problem. Everything from the 12th fret up was golden. It was a soloist’s dream. But when you moved down and started digging into those bass notes, things fell apart. It was all still there, that lovely tone and playability, but just… weak. It was gutting. Over the next couple of weeks I slipped into Hank’s regularly, trying to convince myself that it was ok. I’d be using an amp on gigs anyway so I could just eq the bass up, I reasoned. It was churlish to complain about the bottom end when the top end was so damn good, I whined. You can’t have everything, I lied. I’d fallen in love with this instrument and was completely trying to talk myself into it. I was like that guy out of ‘The Crying Game’, minus the homophobic self-disgust.

Finally sense prevailed and I let it go (although to this day I sometimes wonder about what could’ve been…) But a door had been opened and I’d seen how good an ABG could potentially be. I began my search again but this time on the net, canvassing opinions and dropping questions on forums. I found a small but useful vein of ABG clips on YouTube which were incredibly helpful. These ranged from performance videos to guys noodling in their bedrooms, and were great for giving an idea of the sound. After a little research 2 clear contenders emerged. They were the Tacoma Thunderchief and the Warwick Alien. Both had great reviews and were consistently cited as the best ABGs in terms of quality and unamplified bass volume. They were very similar in body styling, build quality and price point, and having seen and heard them on Youtube, I was convinced that either of them would do what I needed.

The only problem remaining was how to get hold of one.

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Dear Santa (Part 1)

The idea of playing ABG has been smouldering in my subconscious for many years now, probably first sparked by hearing Jonas Helborg’s album ‘The Silent Life’, but that’s another story. This story is about how I finally got off my bony behind and did something about it.

I had tried many ABGs in bass shops over the years and always been left disappointed. This was for a number of reasons. The first was volume. I had a half-baked idea that somehow, miraculously, clever luthiers had found a loophole in the laws of physics that would enable an ABG to be as loud as a double bass. I see now this was foolish. Jonas didn’t call that first album ‘Silent’ for nothing. Strong bass involves shifting a lot of air, and most ABGs just don’t. More on this in a later article.

The second reason was the instruments themselves. Across the whole price range I struggled to find a bass that spoke to me. At entry level a lot of ABGs feel very much like a cheap 6 string on steroids, the only difference being that you get to pay twice as much for the same level of grimness. Clearly economies of scale are at work here – the demand for ABGs is far lower so the price is higher – but no wonder many players dismiss ABGs when their first experience of them is these indifferent clunkers. (Please note this article isn’t intended as a dis against cheap instruments. We all start somewhere and I still have fond memories of my first bass – 3/4 scale, no truss rod with weird pickups that acted like microphones…) 

The mid-range instruments looked a little more promising. Reasonable feel, good construction and the beginnings of decent bass tone, but even so, it all felt a bit rough and clanky. I could see why many bassies buy these simply to improve their hand strength and twang on while watching the telly.

At the higher end the situation improved considerably. The basses there were beginning to sing. First-class craftsmanship meant basses that felt good in your hands, had strong unamplified bass production and an all round good tone. Surely, I thought, there would be something here to suit me. But after months of rooting through all the music shops in London, I emerged empty handed. Good as these instruments were, nothing was really calling out to me, and when you’re paying out this much money, it’s got to be love.

I heaved a wistful sigh, put my terrified credit card back into the safety of its wallet, and gave up on the whole thing.

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Intro

Welcome to my acoustic bass guitar (ABG) blog. I am a long-time electric bass player who, after years of flirting with the idea, has finally dived headfirst into the world of ABG. Initially I had no intention of writing a blog about it. Having read my teen diaries through splayed fingers, cringing with embarrassment all the way, I already knew that some things are best left unwritten. However after a month of being into it, a blog seems like a useful and natural thing to do. There are two main reasons for this:

1. Information. When I started to research buying a good ABG there was little available. I found fragments – a videoclip here, a forum comment there – but nothing cohesive that answered the questions I had or gave first-hand insight into what I should look for.

2. Community/Inspiration. No one seems to be talking about it! When I first started playing bass I was obsessed by it, practicing for hours every day and constantly pushing myself to improve. At some point along the way that just stopped. For years I’ve been cruising – playing good music, learning a lot of other things but my bass skills have been locked in amber. Moving onto ABG has turned all that around. I’ve turned into a kid again, hurrying home to play on it, making myself late for appointments with ‘one last riff’. It’s great to have refound my passion, and I’d like to share that feeling in this blog, along with any tips and resources I can find.

So let’s see where this thing leads. Please feel welcome to leave constructive comments here. My biggest hope is that rather than being a load of narcissistic flannel, this blog can grow into a useful resource for all ABG afficianados out there. I look forward to being inspired by your questions, expertise and enthusiasm, and warmly invite you to be a part of the beginnings of a proper online ABG community.

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