The Appeal of Upright Basses, With Linda May Han Oh

Photos by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

Linda May Han Oh. Photo by Shervin Lainez.
Linda May Han Oh. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

It was an Oscar Peterson album that did it. Linda May Han Oh recalls the moment many years ago when she fell in love with the sound of the upright bass. Night Train was playing, and there at the heart of it all was Ray Brown.

“I was in awe of what he could do on the instrument,” she says, “just the hump of the beat, how round and full it was.” That then guided her further into the jazz greats—Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, Dave Holland, Larry Grenadier, Christian McBride, and more. She was hooked.

She’d dabbled with electric bass in high school, where she tried to play pretty much everything she could get her hands on, and that included a borrowed upright or two. “But I really didn’t know what I was doing, and it wasn’t until college—the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, Australia, where I grew up—that I had people telling me how you actually hold the bass, the fingering, those sorts of things.”

Based these days in New York City, she’s since recorded with Pat Metheny, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, Florian Weber, Dave Douglas, Geri Allen, and more, along with several solo outings, including a new album coming in June with her Glass Hours project. Linda is an Associate Professor at the Berklee College of Music and also is affiliated to Berklee’s Institute Of Jazz And Gender Justice. She featured as the bassist of the fictional jazz quartet in the 2020 animated movie Soul and received a Grammy this year for her work on Terri Lyne Carrington’s album New Standards Vol.1. “It’s a really nuts time,” she confirms. “In a good way.”

Linda May Han Oh performs “The Imperative” in April 2022 for the Chamber Music America Consortium Livestream.

Linda plays both electric and upright bass, but we’re going to concentrate here on the upright. Hands-up any electric bass players who’ve wondered about trying the upright bass. I thought so. So, both are called basses. But even with a cursory glance, it’s impossible to overlook the difference in size or the way you hold the thing. Linda is going to give us some advice.

“One big thing is the difference in right-hand technique,” she says. “Sometimes electric players try to approach the upright like an electric bass, and more often than not, in my opinion, that doesn’t yield the best results.”

First, though, there’s an important caveat: she would never tell anyone they should play a certain way. And as we’re about to start with some thoughts on right-hand technique, bear in mind this assumes a right-handed player, with their left hand on the neck.

On upright bass, she says, you’ll want the thumb of your right hand behind the fingerboard, and relaxed. “On an electric, you wouldn’t really want to have your thumb behind, say, the E-string—or the B-string if you’re on a five-string. On an upright, though, you do want your thumb loosely behind the fingerboard.”

On an electric, you can just use your fingers to pluck the strings. “But for me, to get a good full sound on an upright, I have a sort of relaxed forearm movement,” Linda says. “Not a big gesture, but your elbow is likely going to just ‘bounce’ a little bit. When I play a walking line, say, I like to have a bouncing, flowing dance with the right hand, as opposed to just using your fingers. I think of it almost as a bow-and-arrow, like if you were to pull the string and let it go. With that, using your arm momentum, it will give you a full sound without hitting or plucking the strings. That’s really important for electric bass players to know.”

There are also differences for the left hand (assuming this is the hand you have on the neck). Different schools of thought provide fingering options, but there is a very common approach that Linda outlines for us. “Half position is the lowest position you can be in with your left hand—the lowest in register but highest in location on the fingerboard. When you’re there, you’ll generally play with the fingering of 1, 2, and 4, in other words without the third finger. There are fingerings that use the third, but the very standard approach is the 1, 2, 4.”

Another approach, using what’s called the Rabbath method, introduces the idea of pivoting, where your fingers stay in the same arrangement but shift, or pivot, either side of your thumb. Personally, Linda likes to mix the 1, 2, 4 approach with some pivoting, which makes it easier to move up the fingerboard without necessarily moving position.

How does she find it, personally, changing between upright and electric? “If you’ve been playing upright using that 1,2,4 fingering, and you go back to electric, your third finger will be a little weaker—and it’s not your strongest finger to begin with. So I work on making sure that it’s strong, doing hammer-ons on the 3 and 4, that kind of thing. Then there’s right-hand touch. It’s very easy to get heavy handed when you play upright and then go to electric, because you’ve spent so much time using more power on the upright.”

Linda May Han Oh performs “Circles” in April 2022 for the Chamber Music America Consortium Livestream.

Linda’s upright is a Pfretzschner, a carved German bass. Uprights are generally referred to either as carved, meaning they’re made of solid woods, or as ply, made of laminated wood. “It’s a beautiful bass,” she says, “and it’s been all around the world with me. When I toured with Pat Metheny, I’d bring that bass. It has a dark quality, but there’s still clarity to it, and the size is just perfect for me.”

It’s not five-eighths size, which is smaller than a three-quarter bass. “But it’s a three-quarter more on the smaller side of things,” she explains, “and that’s easy for me to get around. However, I don’t often get the luxury of playing my own instrument on the road, so I have to be quick to adjust. Sometimes you’ll get a full-size bass, even though you’ve asked for a three-quarter in the rider, and you have to adjust.”

Carved or ply? They each have their own qualities. And there are hybrids made with some solid and some ply materials. “A lot of it is down to the purpose for which you’re using that bass. Ply is maybe associated more with bluegrass, or rockabilly, and more of an old-school thump. Also, many of the jazz greats used ply basses back in the day. However, if that’s not what you’re looking for, a carved bass may have more resonance. But none of these are hard and fast rules! With any instrument you’re interested in, you really should go and try it out.”

Once you have your bass, the type of strings you use will affect its feel and sound, and it’s worth checking out what your fave players choose. The options center on the material used for the string’s core and for the wrap around that core. Linda has settled on a combination of types. “Usually for the D and G I use Pirastro Oliv strings, which are pure gut on the core, wrapped with steel. For the lower strings I useD’Addario Zyex, with a synthetic core and steel wound.”

Some strings require quite an investment of cash, so it can be important to consider how long they’re going to last. Gut strings, for example, can be a lot more sensitive—to changes in the weather, for example. “When I started touring with Pat Metheny, I had the neck of my bass removed so I could travel with it and then re-attach the neck when I got to each location. But when you do that, sometimes it will affect the strings. So it can get quite costly if you’re replacing the strings a lot.”

Mention amplification to an upright bass player and you might want to take cover. “That’s a huge one,” is how Linda puts it, accompanied by a nervous laugh. “Your sound is so much in the fingers, and I truly believe that.” I sense a but coming. “But—ultimately you may play in a concert hall, you may play in a club, wherever it might be, and then you’ve got to figure out how to be heard. Back in the day, maybe they just put a mic in front of you and that was enough.” Things have changed.

For her live performances, she prefers a David Gage Realist LifeLine or Realist Regular pickup. “On my rider, I request either of those two, or a Fishman Full Circle—though I won’t say I always get them. It’s just such a shame—you work so hard on your sound and your instrument, and then sometimes you’ll arrive at a gig, get a beautiful instrument, you’re ready to go, and then you look at the pickup and it’s—.” She pauses to consider a polite description. “Let’s just say maybe not a good pickup for the instrument.”

Her amplifier of choice is an Aguilar head and at least one 4x10 cabinet. She also likes Acoustic Image amps, and wouldn’t say no if a decent Ampeg Ampeg or Gallien-Krueger turns up. “The sound through the amp is only for my on-stage monitoring. The front-of-house sound person will probably take a line out either from there or direct from my pickup, and I always ask them to use that sparingly. What I prefer for the front-of-house is my DPA 4099 mic, which is becoming a standard for many upright bass players.” This is a gooseneck mic that Linda likes to mount between the bridge and the belly of the bass, directly in front.

“For me,” she concludes, “a good sounding upright tone is just delicious, and so rich, you know? It can really make you move. You feel it in the body, in the floor, if you’re standing next to an upright bass. And there’s a natural attack and decay that I’ve always been drawn to. So yes, the upright bass makes me want to move. It moves me.”

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Paul McCartney: Bassmaster and The Bass Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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