|Kathy Mark wrote:
> Hi Bill,
I have been entertaining the idea of building a flattop bass. (I am not sure what to call
this: Tim Olsen (GAL) proposed this name but everyone on the 'net is calling it an
I play in a guitar ensemble. Sometimes I am assigned the "bass" part where I
just use a D tuning on the 6th string. I was thinking that an acoustic bass may add more
to the ensemble.
I am interested in knowing your opinion about this instrument. Have you ever built one?
The opinions expressed on the 'net seem to be that physics won't allow for a good acoustic
bass. One person stated that the body of the guitar is not large enough to contain an
adequate amount of air for the bass to create a nice tone. (
What do you feel would be the elements of a good acoustic bass? I am also concerned that
the darn thing will be too big for me to play (I'm 5' 5" tall and the span from my
shoulder to fingertips is 24"). Am I better off playing an electric bass with my
group? (Portability is also an issue since a lot of
times I will have to bring my 6 string as well as the bass.) In some ways I am a purist
and am concerned about the electric bass' effect on an acoustic ensemble.
Thank you for your help.
Martin B-1 photo courtesy CF Martin & Co.
Describing a large acoustic guitar with a bass scale as an "Acoustic Bass" is
confusing, because an upright bass fiddle can also be called an Acoustic Bass.
"Acoustic Bass Guitar" is a more accurate term for the hybrid beast you
describe. But I still don't like it completely, because it lends an air of legitimacy to a
hybrid form which is really quite useless. Useless? Well, it's useless outside of playing
one in your living room accompanying friends -- and even THEN it's useless if your
friends are playing big dreadnaughts with heavy strings and thick picks and if someone
else is playing a banjo. It really cannot hold its own when pitted against all those
"real" instruments. If you're playing outdoors, on stage or recording, you will
then need to install a pickup in it or it won't be heard at all. Then, its kinda dumb to
call it an "acoustic bass guitar" isn't it? If unvarnished truth is your goal,
it should righfully be called a "hollow-body electric bass guitar." (I can
already read the mail: "but acoustic guitars with pickups are STILL acoustic
guitars!!" Okay, okay have it your way...)
The other reason that Acoustic Bass Guitar is an inappropriate term is because, for my
money anyway, it refers to an instrument OTHER than the only REAL acoustic bass guitar
(one that you DON'T need to amplify, one that you can play out on the street or on stage
and be heard just fine, like an upright bass fiddle): the Mexican
Guitarron. The Guitarron is not a hybrid at all but a full fledged instrument form
which developed in an unbroken line of descent from the sixteenth-century Spanish Bajo de
So then, why don't you go out and find yourself a Mexican Guitarron and forget about this
silly hybrid which is really a non-acoustic acoustic guitar with a bass scale? Well,
trying to play a Mexican guitarron is something like trying to play a small bathtub.
Physically you have to look like a WWF wrestler to hold the huge thing all night long, and
if you're lucky, have a belly big enough to rest it on and hands as big as baseball mitts
to play those telephone-cable strings that are usually about half an inch off the
You should have deduced by now that the reason the guitarron works so well IS because it's
really big. Period. So I think the concept of a guitar-sized "acoustic bass
guitar" is really kind of a hustle.
But, if a Fender Electric Bass is going to look silly in your earthy-crunchy folky string
band or a washtub bass in your authentic bluegrass group looks too geeky, I can't think of
any solution better than one of those so-called "Acoustic Bass Guitars" I've
just disparaged. With the right pickup in it, it sounds pretty good on stage. In fact, it
sounds almost (but not quite) as good and is easier to play and to carry than an upright
string bass...and costs a fraction of the price of a good one.
Since an "acoustic bass guitar" is not acoustic (you've got to plug it in to
hear it), and really not a guitar, and it doesn't really work very effectively as a bass,
maybe we should call it a Fred. Or, okay, a "flat-top bass" if you prefer.
So, you want to build one of these Hollow-Body Electric Bass Guitars: then build a
jumbo guitar with 5" deep sides, make the top and back a full 1/8 thick, and the
sides as thick as you can bend them without breaking them. Dome all the back braces about
twice as much as you would ordinarily. On the top, you can leave the x only a bit beefier
than the ordinary ones. Increase the upper transversal by 50% in cross section, and make
your bridge patch half again as thick and half again as large. This is for a four
string. For a five or six string, you're on your own.
Get a 34-inch scale "bass guitar" fingerboard (Martin sells them already slotted
and radiused, don't kill yourself trying to make one). So things don't collide
disastrously on your actual project, do a full-sized layout drawing on a large piece of
paper, like I describe in my book. In order to
have the bridge land about where it does on an ordinary guitar (about at the widest part
of the face) the fret that first touches the body will end up an oddball, like the
seventeenth or eighteenth (depending on the length of your soundbox). But that doesn't
The first complaint from bass players is that it's going to be neck-heavy. Well, that's no
surprise: this thing has a large solid neck is on one side, and a hollow, thin-walled box
is on the other. The only way you can get it to balance properly is to get the strap to
attach about at the midpoint of the entire length of the instrument. But there is no
soundbox there to attach it to. Too bad! Sorrrry.... (The Guitarron balances perfectly
because it has a tiny short neck--enough for seven or eight frets-- and a huge soundbox).
SO the only recourse for comfortable playing is to use a strap that attaches at the butt
on one end, and behind the nut at the neck end. That's still not good enough, because most
good players hate to put their strap there, and it shoves the soundbox over to the right,
and you have to be readjusting the instrument constantly. But hey, we're talking hybrid
So, that's why when you see death metal and thrash bands displaying their
"sensitive" sides on MTV Unplugged (unplugged? HA!), the guy with the nose rings
playing the Fred is sitting down! Oh, and his Fred usually has a pretty tight waist, so it
won't slide off his knee.