This is a post about bass instruments in ukulele groups.

A good bass player is an asset in a ukulele group. It’s not essential to have a bass player, but it’s an x-factor in the overall sound and rhythmic drive of the group.

My Saturday afternoon ukulele group, the Strumbles, didn’t have a bass player when we started. That all changed when I brought home a double bass (also called an upright bass) for my husband Matthew on his birthday. I hired the bass for the first year, and the following birthday we bought it outright.

Having a bass made a huge difference to our group sound. Everyone could hear the rhythm much better.

Matthew is a skilled guitarist who’s played many instruments, including bass guitar. He’d never played an upright bass before. But he had a lot of fun learning how to play it.

Matthew also plays bass for the Waikato Ukulele Jam, the all-comers community ukulele group we belong to.

Waikato Uke Jam

Above: Waikato Ukulele Jam with Matthew on bass at the back right. It was just a couple of weeks after he’d got the bass.

What does the bass do?

A bass anchors the rhythm of the music and fills out the acoustic spectrum. Ukuleles on occupy the higher sound frequencies. That’s what creates the characteristic ukulele jangle.

In a rock band, the bass player and drummer play together as the rhythm section.

But in ukulele groups the bass player will be usually be supplying the rhythm on their own.

A bass player can make or break a band.

Here’s my post about bass players in rock bands, All Abut the Bass.

One bass per group

The ukulele principle of “the more the merrier” doesn’t apply to bass players.

You only need one good bass player per group. More bass players are not better for a ukulele group. In fact, it will be worse. The sound will be messy and there won’t be a clear rhythm for the other musicians to follow.

ukulele group with double bass

Waikato Uke Jam: Many ukuleles, one bass player. Photo taken by Miriana Wetere-Ryder

Unsung bass heroes

Playing bass is a position of huge but understated responsibility in any music group. A bass player needs to be rhythmic, consistent and super-reliable.

Bass isn’t an instrument for people who love the spotlight (with a few exceptions). Don’t expect people to notice your bass playing, unless you screw up. The drummer will attract more attention than the bass player usually.

I’ve known excellent bass players who were so self-effacing, they would stand behind the bass amplifier on stage!

Some musicians can switch easily from another instrument to bass. I know cello players, keyboard players and guitarists who have made a successful transition to bass.  I played fiddle before picking up bass (although I’d played other instruments as well).

I played bass guitar for more than 10 years before returning to my first love, the ukulele. I don’t regret it!

The Weather at La Commune

Above: me (at right) playing bass with The Weather, quite a long time ago. Photo taken by Petra Jane.

Bass is a state of mind

Not every skilled musician makes a good bass player. Some people notice bass lines; others don’t.

You don’t have to read music to play bass. A lot of bass players I know (including me) play by ear. I can read music, but I didn’t use that in my bass playing.

Although, many skilled bass players read music, and many also have classical music training.

I think bass playing is an attitude, a state of mind. There’s a knack to it. You have to be able to feel the rhythm.

How to find a bass player – not just anyone

Ideally you will find a bass player who’s already an experienced musician.

Australian ukulele teachers Mark Jackson and Jane Jelbart say in The Ukestration Manual: “Don’t try to train anyone up or bring in a poor bass player, as they can have quite a deleterious effect on the resulting sound.”

Random, out of time bass playing can make things very difficult and confusing for the other musicians.

Mark and Jane say they often play bass themselves, as well as leading the Ukestra. (Ukestra  is a ukulele “orchestra”. Read more about Jane and Mark’s very cool work here.)

How to start playing bass

You don’t play chords on a bass, just single notes. Pick one or two songs and build from there. Start by playing the root notes and fifth notes of each chord in a song. Playing rhythmically is important for a bass player. Simple is usually best.

Pay close attention to what bass players are doing, in live performances and recordings. Play along with recordings. (But don’t start with the Beatles. Paul McCartney’s bass lines are far too complex for a beginner!)

Ask for kind but honest feedback from experienced musicians.

It may be helpful to get some lessons, or some coaching or mentoring from a skilled bass player.

Scott’s Bass is an online specialist bass resource. I haven’t used it personally, but my son Albert, who is a very hot bass player, highly recommends it.

Playing with a group

If you’re keen to try your hand at playing bass with a ukulele group, be diplomatic. Check with the leaders before you turn up with your bass at an event.

If the group already has a bass player, don’t expect to plug in your amp and play. It may be okay to play along with your bass un-amplified. But it’s best to check.

And please don’t be offended if the leaders say “no thanks”. Take your ukulele as a backup, so you can still join in.

Three kinds of bass

I’ve seen three main types of bass used with ukulele groups.

1. An upright bass, also called a double bass.

This kind of bass can’t be beaten for sheer visual charisma. It makes a great sound in an acoustic setting. An upright bass may be played acoustically or with an amplifier, depending on the space, the group, and the style of the player.

However, there are a lot of problematic factors with a double bass/ upright bass.

  1. It’s huge. You’ll need a station wagon or van to transport a double bass.
  2. It’s a relatively fragile instrument, compared with a guitar or ukulele. If you leave a double bass in a hot car or in direct sunlight, the glue holding the instrument together will melt. And the repairs will almost certainly be expensive, as with any instrument of the violin family.
  3. The size of an upright bass makes playing hard work for fingers, arms and shoulders. I know people who’ve had chronic shoulder pain from playing a double bass. With a double bass, playing technique is important.

I find it too hard on my fingers, to play an upright bass myself. I’m glad I don’t have to!

An electric bass guitar or a U-Bass both take much less physical strength to play, than an upright bass.

purple ukulele bass

This is what a ukulele bass looks like: Hamilton ukulele player Jacq Bell-Walsh with her purple ukulele bass.

2. Ukulele bass, also called a U-Bass.

A U-Bass is (essentially) a small electric bass guitar. The U-Bass was developed by Kala in about 2009. There are now other companies also making ukulele basses.

It’s smaller and lighter and easier on the fingers than a standard bass guitar. It has polyurethane strings specially developed to get a good bass sound with a small instrument.

A ukulele bass needs to be plugged into an amplifier to make enough sound for a ukulele group.

NB You will also need a special bass amplifier. Don’t use a regular guitar amplifier for a ukulele bass, or regular bass guitar, unless it specifies that it’s okay for bass. The bass frequencies may blow the speakers of a guitar amplifier. (Trust me, I’ve done this!)

A bass ukulele is tuned the same as a double bass and a bass guitar. The strings are (from top as you hold the bass in playing position): E A D G. This is the same notes, one octave lower, than the bottom four strings of a standard guitar.

3. A regular bass guitar

Bass guitars are much more common than double basses and U-Basses. A bass guitar will do the job in a ukulele group. But, people may ask you why you’re not playing a ukulele. (It happens!)

Two options if you don’t have a bass player

If you don’t have a ukulele-friendly bass player, here are a couple of other ways to add some bass to a group.

  1. Include a guitarist in your ukulele group. But only one guitarist, or it will no longer be a ukulele group! The guitar will add rhythm, and also fill out the sound spectrum without losing the ukulele jangle.
  2. One or two players in the group can put a bass G string on their ukulele. But make sure only the most skilled strummers have bass G strings, or the sound may just get louder and messier.

Want to read more?

My post about bass guitars: All About the Bass

How to start a ukulele group

How to practice a song

Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach in-person classes.

Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $NZ195 for six half-hour lessons.

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