Uke Fest NJ 2015 – Ukulele Bass 101

Okay guys, It’s Sunday afternoon and I have a million chores to do. As fun as concert/festival season can be here in NJ, a month straight of Saturday events has left my house looking more like the aftermath of hurricane season than concert season.  And, as fun as all of these events have been, I’m actually looking forward to a weekend where all I have to do is iron the laundry, clean things, and imitate the sleep schedule of a 15 yr old.

For now, though, I’m ignoring my allergies and my chores to talk about Uke Fest NJ (brought to us by Folk Project) while all the information is still fresh in mind.   The festival takes place in the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship building. It does technically run from Friday to Sunday, but like with the Steampunk Faire, I really can only attend on Saturday. That’s when most of the action happens anyway.

The full weekend starts with concerts on Friday night. Saturday is workshops in the morning and afternoon, followed by concerts at night. There are open mics during the day to fill the space between the two.  There are a handful of vendors, so if you want to buy a new ukulele (and it seems ukulele players are ALWAYS game for a new ukulele. I imagine all musicians would be the same if you could get decent instruments at such a reasonable price, really.), or a case, or some nice educational books, CDs by the performers…there is a little bit of browsing to be done. Not enough to swallow up an afternoon, but there are some things to look at.

So, the festival is about a 45 minute or so drive for me, which is roughly what I drive to work, and making that drive at 8 am on a Saturday means there’s almost no one else on the road.  I knew the first workshop would start at 9:30, so I had planned to arrive at 9, scope the place out, find the bathrooms and where the different rooms were. Well, as usual my gluten-free food prep and figuring out how to minimize ‘crap I need to carry’ took a bit longer than planned. I ended up arriving at about 9:10, and still had plenty of time to do all that. It’s a small enough festival that parking was no problem (on site “lot” – basically grass parking), there were two workshop rooms in addition to a main auditorium, one upstairs, one downstairs.

From there, I headed right into my first workshop:  Bass Ukulele 101 presented by Steve Boisen.

To save time, I'll take photos from the schedule rather than typing up who the performers are.
To save time, I’ll take photos from the schedule rather than typing up who the performers are.

I wasn’t sure if this was going to be productive for me, really, since I don’t own a U-bass, but I knew that the other workshop at the same time (Ukulele 101 for Absolute Beginners) would probably not be quite right for me. I’m definitely a beginner, but reading the description it said things like “if you’ve never picked up a ukulele before, this is the class for you.”  I had a feeling for me that would be a lot of repetition, and while that’s not bad in and of itself, I wanted to get the most new information I could out of the event. Since I’m learning both ukulele and bass, this seemed like there might be enough overlap for me to get something out of, even if some of it might be over my head.

I didn’t have to worry, really. It was more seminar than workshop, “because the only people I know who enjoy hearing a room full of basses playing together are whales”, Steve said (it was something like that. I may be slightly misquoting).

Actually, it seems bassists tend to do well at Ukulele. Here’s some commentary on that from an Ukulele Yes! Interview:

UY!: You play bass as well as ukulele.  There are many notable uke players who are also bassists; I’m thinking of Lyle Ritz, Byron Yasui, Chalmers Doane, Aaron Keim, and others.  Why do you think bassists make good uke players?

SB: Jim Beloff and I actually had this discussion once. He suggested that bass players have a highly developed ability to internalize the root motion of a chord progression, which makes navigating the ukulele come easily. I think someone who plays double bass may find the ukulele appealing because it’s also somewhat of a specialists instrument, but one that offers a completely different experience in terms of size, register and the ability to play chords and melodies. I play the uke and bass so much that a six-string guitar feels like a harp to me.

Full interview here.

So, he talked a little about the history of the U-bass, about how it would be used in an ensemble, and about where to start learning. He also talked about the difference between fretted and fretless Ukulele basses, so even if you’re not that into the ukulele (and you should be, because it’s amazingly fun to play), I think this post may prove interesting to the bassists.

Basically, you’ve got two types of people who want to play a ukulele bass, really.

  1. Ukulele players who want a new toy.
  2. Bass players who want the portability of an ukulele-sized bass.

We had both in the room.  I guess you could technically add a 3rd type of ‘rookies who just want to learn everything’ but I’m pretty sure that i’m on my own there. 🙂

So, he started off with a little of Ukulele Bass history, which started with the Ashbory Bass(wiki link will open in new window).  He said the silicone strings were sticky, so people who owned this bass would have to carry around talc with them for their hands.

And, bear with me, but I absorbed so much info that the finer details are a bit fuzzy. I believe he then said the first official Ukulele Bass was made by Road Toad. This bass later became the Kala U-Bass. If you look at the Kala headstock, you can see a toad on it.  This bass uses a different sort of string that is very rubbery and stretchy called a pahoehoe string (which I think he said translates as ‘lava’).

Since these strings are so stretchy, you have to put them on by basically stretching them as far as they go, to minimize how many wraps they take around the tuners. You don’t want the strings to overlap, which can break the tuners, and if you don’t stretch them far enough when putting them on, you can very easily break them.

Also as a side effect of the rubbery, stretchy texture, you can not re-use the strings once you take them off, because they will shrink, and you will be unable to get them on again. As far as how long they last, he says “nobody knows, they don’t wear out.”

You have a few other string options, including Aquila’s Thundergut strings, which are white, but he says are a bit stickier, though they do tune up faster.  He doesn’t care for them because of the stickiness, but admits that this may be related to the humidity in Florida, where he lives.

You can also get metal strings for the U-Bass. These you can pop and slap (you can NOT pop and slap pahoehoe strings due to how stretchy they are.) He says the metal strings have more treble, but the U-bass may require a setup to use them as they require lower action.

If you want a U-Bass that’s a bit larger than the Kala, Goldtone and Ohana also make them. Luna makes an ukulele bass, but it is tuned an octave higher, so will only act as a bass when played with ukuleles. The tuning is the same as the 4 low strings on the guitar, so when played with guitars, it will not function as a bass. In addition to Luna, Oscar Schmidt and Komoa make u-basses with this tuning.

Regarding amps, he says a ukulele bass does not require a special amp, but he finds using a bass amp you need to boost the bass and turn down the highs. His preferences: the fender rumble amps work well. The roland cube is popular, but it breaks up and just doesn’t sound good. Another guy in the workshop had a similar experience. Cheaper amps sounded better than the cube, and he also has a fender rumble amp for it.

Now, should you buy a fretted or fretless U-bass? He does not recommend a fretless U-bass only because on an ukulele sized bass there isn’t a significant sound difference. The appeal of a fretless instrument is about sound – to replicate the sound of a double bass. I think he referred to it as a “wah” sound? (am I remembering that right? I’m not sure. I hope that means something to you more experienced bassists.)  The U-bass doesn’t produce that sound whether it’s fretless or not, so while he has both fretted and fretless, he doesn’t generally recommend fretless u-basses as there’s really no advantage to them and the sound difference is pretty insignificant on this size instrument.

Now, here’s where we shift from equipment to learning. This is the list of what he thinks someone just starting out on bass should learn:

  1. Names of the notes on the bass, particularly on the first five frets. He claims in Ukulele groups you will mostly be providing root notes, and will spend very little time outside of the first five frets, so while learning the entire fretboard is important, learning the first 5 frets is the best place to start.
  2. Roots and Fifths. In Ukulele clubs you will mostly be playing roots and fifths.  He says learn to play them “below and above”…though I admit I now forget what that actually means. I wrote it down, so clearly I thought it was something worth keeping track of.
  3. Learn the Major scale – once you learn it in one position, it is moveable all over the neck due to the symmetrical bass tuning.
  4. After all that, learn major & minor arpeggios.

He spent a bit of time talking about how to pluck the strings, for those in the group with no bass experience, and talked a bit about muting strings that aren’t being played. He talked about the rest stroke – allowing the string above the one you’re playing to stop your finger, and discussed letting your fretting hand fingers rest on the strings not being used and using your thumb to mute the higher string, that the thumb is something really only used to pluck strings when palm muting, because there’s just not much facility to use it most of the time; it slows you down. Those are concepts I was familiar with, though concept and execution are not always the same.

He also talked about the difference in where you pluck on the bass. He said closer to the neck produces a deeper tone, and closer to the bridge is punchier. He mentioned that some bassists use pedals and effects, while others just make those changes based on where they choose to pluck the strings. That I’d never heard of before, but I think I’m going to have to crack out my bass and test it to see if I hear a difference.

5.  Learn signature bass lines  (like under the boardwalk, dock of the bay, I saw her standing there) – Ukulele clubs love to play these songs.

6. Learn to transpose – ukulele clubs like to change the key of songs, and if you are playing with uke players, you will need to be able to change keys on the fly.  Guitar favors E and A. Ukulele favors C, F, & G.

7. Learn to read music.

8. Learn melodies of songs; this will help you to solo over them.

The book he finds he’s always suggesting for method is Bass Basics by Dale Titus. He does not know the author, nor is he affiliated with him in any way, but finds that while there are some things about it that he doesn’t quite like, it is still a very good starter and he recommends it often.  So, I will probably be tossing that one on my list for the holidays. I’ve been struggling to think of things that are relatively inexpensive to ask for when all I really want is musical toys, so I’ll hold off on that one, since I’ve still got the bass for dummies books I’ve barely cracked into.

I took a lot of notes in this workshop, so this turned out to be a pretty long post. I think I’ll cut the post here, to prevent it from being any more wall-of-texty, and will split things up.

I can’t find much turning up under his name on youtube, but if you look up the father daughter duo he’s part of – The Barnkickers, you can find a few videos of him playing double bass.

I still have a lot to talk about, and a lot to process, but I figured I’d go into some detail on this one for the bassists. I may combine the rest of the workshops into one post, but there will be at least two more posts on this festival. The head-heavy stuff was in the morning. The afternoon focused more on practical applications for me, so by nature of the beast there will be less to say about those workshops.

Until Next Time, still have a lot to chew on, but no need to hit you with all of it at once.

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