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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Fretless Bass...

...is not the kind of bass that I have. But I got to play one last night at the music store. 3 of my kids take music lessons at the Brass Bell, a wonderful little store here in Milwaukee. I managed to get them to have lessons all at the same time, which is just slightly harder than lining up all the planets at once. So while they're getting their lessons, I have almost an hour to tool around the store and try out instruments. Which is a very dangerous thing for someone like me. I still don't know why my wife hasn't stepped in to stop the insanity.
I've tried all the acoustic guitars, and I think that's one reason they recently decided to wall-off the guitar room. My guitar playing has noticeably improved. It's still not much, but it's fun to have a 9 year old come up to you and say, "Mister, you're gooood..."
Recently I've moved over to the bass guitars, much to the annoyance of the staff there, since a bass has to be plugged in and can get pretty loud. I've been asking for a fretless bass for the past year, but they've been slow to comply, I suspect, because they know I have no intention of actually buying one.
But recently, they got a contract with Fender and MusicMan, and last week a 5-string fretless MusicMan arrived. They watched in trepidation as I spotted the beast hanging on the wall, and got up on my tip-toes to try to get it down. Finally they pushed me out of the way and got it for me.
This instrument is quite different from what I've been playing. Since 1985 I've played a Quest Manhattan, which I bought for $350 at Manny's on 48th street, just before my first studio recording session. Quest has since gone out of business, and as far as I can tell, has left no trace of its existence. The bass has a great sound and feel, and is great in the studio too, as long as I face north by northwest. Otherwise it buzzes. But studio engineers have literally yanked Fender Precisions out of my hand and told me to go back to playing "that other one" because it sounds so good. It's been dubbed "the big white guitar" by girls at NCSY conventions, as in "tell that guy with the big white guitar that he's too loud." So I've been pretty happy with the thing, even though it's not too prestigious (just like I've been happy driving my Geo).
But this Fretless thing is something else. First of all, it's got 5 strings, so I'm disoriented right off the bat. I'm used to the top string being a low E, and now it's a B. Since I'm a visual player, I have to translate the positions. Then, the strings are closer together, so I flub more notes (but I've been going back and forth from bass to guitar anyway, so no big deal). Last, but certainly not least, is the lack of frets.
Guitars have frets so that when you press in the general vicinity of a note, the string still shortens to a precise length, and you get an in-tune note. Without the frets, you have to put you're finger in the exact location to get the right note, and that location is actually different than where it would be on a fretted instrument. So again there's that learning curve. You also rely more on your ears to tell you if you're in tune, which is tough with a bass. Of course you have to play a fretless with you're fingers, not a pick, because playing a fretless bass with a pick would be just plain wrong. Which leaves me at yet another disadvantage, since I'm a much better picker than plucker. Don't even talk to me about popping.
So with all that going on, you'd figure I'd hate the thing. But here's the rub. I loved it. Playing one note on a fretless sounds better than a whole riff on my Quest. I found myself playing little solos up on the neck, sliding in and out of notes, something I generally don't get into. It sounds like there's a bunch of processing on the instrument, but actually that's the natural sound. I was able to teach myself the new positioning within a few minutes, and I was playing along with the very loud guitar player next to me very quickly. Even the store employees didn't seem that annoyed with me. They could appreciate that the instrument seems to play itself.
Time flew by until my kids came up to me to drag me out of the store. Reluctantly, I unplugged it and set it down on a nearby music stand. Before leaving, I turned over the price tag hanging from the head stock.
Now, where did I park my Geo?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

oh yeah? wrong to who specifically?