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Rockabilly Bass

The overwhelming upright bass of choice for Rockabilly bass players by far is a good, plywood bass. We offer the new Thompson plywood bass. While our set ups have always been geared towards low action (our G strings hover around 4-5mm!) with the use of our Delrin bridge adjusters, upright Rockabilly bass players can easily raise their action as high as they want in order to make slapping the bass easier.  We think as players, the more accessible and versatile you can make your upright bass, the more you will play it in more diverse situations and in the long run, the more you will enjoy the bass.

What kinds of basses for Rockabilly?  Again, usually a simple brown plywood bass will suffice, though blonde colored basses were and still are linked to Rockabilly bass playing.  Why?  Because originally a blonde finished bass was the cheapest way to finish a bass and therefore easier for the young rockabilly, or newbie player to afford.  Soon after, the blonde finish became "hip" fashion as it remains today.  Brown basses tend to offer a wider range of situations that the bass will "fit" into because of the identification of blondes with Rock or even Bluegrass music.  Want to play jazz or folk music, (I'd rather have a brown bass!)  We never see too many blonde basses in an orchestral type setting and in general, brown tends to be a more sellable (used) bass in the long run.

While plywood basses are mainstream Rockabilly basses, it was mostly for economic than musical reasons.  You can play the same music on any bass whether it is fully carved, ply or hybrid.  Rockabilly players play and gig a lot and plywood basses also stand up more to being thrown into a station wagon or trailer.  Also, for showmanship reasons only (not musical), people will stand on their bass, twirl it and slide it across the stage floor!  Our Thompson Plywood RM-100 model basses are virtually indestructible in that way whereas with a carved bass, your foot would go right through the bass!

Type of strings used.  Because Rockabilly styles of playing bass involve slapping the strings against the fingerboard and also by "popping" upwards and releasing them against the board, the strings have to be loose and lower in tension.  Doing this with any kind of steel strings are for the most part, next to impossible.  They're too tight and will usually break quickly (as they weren't meant for that kind of use.)

Most professional Rockabilly players will swear by their gut strings.  Upright bass gut strings are more expensive, but surprising last a pretty long time if installed correctly and maintained.  We sell Lenzner gut strings because they are good quality, reliably so, last longer because of it and just play great.  The E strings are usually wound (gut core with silver round wound wiring around it), the A is either pure gut with no winding or wound similarly to the E, and the A and D strings are almost always pure gut.  The sound, the weight of the strings and the looseness of the strings give an immediate quickness with the right hand and surprisingly they are still thinner than the next choice brand used, Innovation strings.  Gut strings are probably the thinnest strings (for slap) and the easiest

If you are new to gut strings, make sure you read or installation suggestions before you throw them on your bass.  They require a slightly wider groove in the nut (near scroll tuners) and slightly wider notches in the bridge than ordinary steel strings usually require.  (Always make sure that your gut strings can slide through the nut and grooves and do not bind or are hard to travel through.  This will cause premature wear and breakage. (See Gut bass strings.)

The Innovation strings company is really geared towards slap style of bass playing.  Keep in mind that not only Rockabilly players 'slap', but you will see some Bluegrass players incorporating this style (similarly) into their playing as well.  Nothing will steal a show or performance quicker than a meek, humble bass player coming into the limelight to slap the hell out of his bass (solo)!

Innovation makes good, affordable strings.  They too are loose strings, but to many players' surprise, they can be a little hard on the right hand.  Innovation Strings are made usually with a synthetic cord (not metal or gut) but even with the loose tensions cause stress because of the nylon winding.  All the strings are wound (while guts can have no winding at all on them).   So if you only play on weekends, think hard about the Innovations. If you play a lot more, your right hand fingers will have some nice calluses to save you from too much discomfort.

Lastly, the absolute last string choice some Rockabilly players will use are "Weedwacker" strings.  I guess the thinking behind them is at least their something that won't break and vibrates.  As players here, we just never liked them enough to bother selling them. 

How to amplify a Rockabilly upright bass or those that do some slapping?  Part of the unique equation of the slapping sound technique is how a fingerboard serves as the percussive part of the groove, but on most upright bass pickups, very few will really capture that thump and pop off the board.  In fact, that's really what makes slapping so cool and fun to hear and watch.  The rhythmic interplay of slapping against the board and the actual notes being played.  Otherwise super popular pickups like the Fishman Full Circle or Realist won't "pick up" the exciting percussive part. 

K&K Sound specializes in pickups for Rockabilly players.  The combination (two pickup) system that is most popular is their Master Rockabilly bass pickup.  It has the regular piezo style pickup for the wing part of the bass bridge that tends to sound more like other popular pickups and the 2nd pickup used is their special fingerboard pickup.  Both pickups are blended to a mixer/preamp module that is strapped onto the bass.  With this pickup you can capture both ends of the bass' spectrum: The loud percussiveness from the fingerboard and the acoustical tone for the actual notes being played on the bass.

Other Rockabilly bass links on our site:

Joe Fick, a great Rockabilly player! Also check out his playing on our bass videos page.

Got a question about any of our rockabilly bass set ups? Give us a call (800-600-2689) or email Steve.