In defense of ABGs

ABG, or acoustic bass guitar is a bass instrument with a hollow body, similar to an acoustic guitar. It’s the acoustic version of the electric bass guitar, and should not to be confused with the double bass (also known as upright bass). An ABG might be called a transverse bass to avoid confusion with the double bass, since both instruments are acoustic but ABGs are played horizontally.

Because it can sometimes be difficult to hear an acoustic bass guitar without an amplifier, most acoustic basses have pickups. And this has given the instrument a bad reputation online, with most people calling it useless. Most people just leave it at that, but others add more cons to the instrument. And as an owner of an ABG it’s sad to see people turning newcomers away from the instrument.

Reasons to get an ABG

First, let’s take a look at why you might want to get an acoustic bass guitar in the first place, then we can take a look at why you might want to avoid it. The main reason is the sound, and frankly that’s why most people pick any instrument over another.

It sounds different than an electric bass guitar, and it sounds different than an upright bass. While most people using ABGs like its own tone, it’s a really versatile instrument. If you use roundwound strings you can get close to an electric with EQs and effects. And with flatwound or tapewound strings you can get close to an upright bass, especially if you’re using a fretless ABG.

The second reason is that it requires no gear to practice at home, unlike an electric bass guitar. It’s easier to pick it up and practice whenever you feel like playing something. You could also leave an electric bass ready for practice, but it’s much less practical and you still need to own all the gear.

The third reason is how it looks. If you’re going for an all-acoustic look, it’s a perfect match without the impracticality of upright basses. It’s not something I’d take into consideration when choosing an instrument, but I know it’s important for some people.

Common criticisms

No instrument is perfect and it’s important to know the limitations they all have, but it’s also important to know where the criticism is coming from. Electric bass and upright bass players have different opinions about ABGs, with most of the bad reputation coming from electric bass players. Let’s take a look at what people are saying about it.

It’s too quiet/not loud enough

This is by far the most common criticism and some people will go out of their way to contest anyone who says otherwise. As I said, it’s important to know the limitations of an instrument. So if you want to play an unplugged ABG live most of the time, you’ll be very disappointed. And forget about campfires...

An ABG is loud enough for practice, and if you live in a small apartment it’s also loud enough to bother your neighbors. It’s loud enough to overpower smaller stringed instruments like the ukulele, and it works well with acoustic guitars (especially nylon), recorders, ocarinas, and other small wind instruments.

Playing in a medium to large room or outdoors? Or playing with a steel-string guitar being strummed very loudly with a pick? Thinking of adding drums or other loud/amplified instruments? Well, now it’s not that loud anymore. You need to use amplification if you want to hear yourself or be heard.

Built, size, string choice, and how you play will absolutely change how loud the instrument is, but what I’ve said is still true. No instrument will be loud enough in all situations. Even instruments that are considered naturally loud need amplification sometimes. And there are instruments that are amplified most of the time, yet no one calls them useless.

In fact, the reason the upright bass fell out of popularity in the 50s was precisely because it was too quiet to compete with louder instruments and increasingly larger venues. If you go back to the 20s and 30s, you’d see jazz bassists using slap style to play the bass. This cuts through the band’s sound better than just plucking the strings.

On top of that, the upright bass was difficult to amplify because it’s prone to feedback, and it was impractical for transportation. It’s easy to see how it couldn’t compete with the electric bass at the time. It has always struggled with volume, and the only reason people still played it outside of a classical setting is because they like its sound. Nowadays it’s played amplified most of the time, and nobody is calling it useless.

It’s an acoustically challenged instrument

This is a variation of the It’s not loud enough criticism, usually followed by And that’s why upright basses are huge. Except this is always coming from someone who is just parroting what they read online and doesn’t understand anything about acoustics.

They fail to realize that most upright basses are a 3/4 size, not a 4/4 (full) size. And to add insult to injury even a 4/4 size bass isn’t acoustically correct. The whole violin family should be larger than it is to be acoustically correct, especially the viola. Acoustic guitars are also not acoustically correct to handle the lower strings.

In fact, most string instruments are just a compromise of being practical and easy to play with a nice sound. Acoustically correct is never a factor people take into consideration when choosing an instrument, but people love to throw this around as an excuse to call ABGs useless.

Might as well get an electric or upright

Sometimes a criticism of its sound, since it’s different from an upright or electric bass and it might be hard to fit its sound with what’s being played. But this is usually another variation of the It’s not loud enough criticism. It almost always comes in the form of If you need to amplify it all the time, might as well get an electric or upright.

If it’s a criticism of its sound, then there’s not much I can argue here. That’s personal preference and if you don’t like the sound of ABGs, then by all means feel free to skip them. You’re doing yourself a favor. I’ve already talked about the not loud enough thing and I won’t repeat myself.

One thing I’ll add about getting an electric is that electric upright basses exist, but most people strongly recommend avoiding them. They’re easier to amplify, easier to transport, and are more durable than acoustic instruments. But despite being better than upright basses in all aspects, people simply don’t like how they sounds. Get an electric and solve your problems is not exactly a good argument, huh?

It’s prone to feedback

Yes, it’s hard to amplify, but guess what else has feedback problems? The upright bass? Yes, the upright bass is just a massive microphone, and some people will even use a spare upright as an amp. How about acoustic guitars? Yes. Any instrument with a large enough chamber? Yes, all of them. It’s something to be aware of and dealt with, not an excuse to call an instrument bad.

It’s hard to play

This can be due to different reasons. People used to short scale basses will think ABGs are too long. People used to electric basses will think the action is too high and there’s too much tension. And some people will find the larger body to be uncomfortable to play for a variety of reasons.

For people used to shorter basses there are plenty of options. ABGs can have a scale length as short as 563mm, and that’s excluding ukulele basses. It’s disingenuous to say it’s hard to play because of its scale length given the wide variety of instruments available.

The action being too high or the strings having too much tension can be due to a poorly made/set up instrument. A properly set up ABG will still have higher tension than an electric bass, but it’s still butter smooth when compared to an upright. In fact, if you’re used to playing electric and don’t adapt your technique you’ll absolutely think it’s too quiet. It needs much more strength to project well.

There’s not much advice I can give when it comes to its large body, other than to experiment with your playing posture and/or to play standing with a strap. Sitting the instrument on top of the right leg can be uncomfortable for the right arm after a while, but playing it like a classical guitar can be uncomfortable for the left hand. Getting a shorter scale ABG is a valid solution if nothing works.

Other criticisms

With the common criticisms out of the way, let’s take a look at other criticisms that I’ve seen thrown around.

While you can get a decent electric bass for not that much money, a decent ABG will be more expensive. Cheap instruments have a poor sound, have cheap components, and are poorly set up. This leads to people complaining about how they don’t like the sound, how it sounds different when plugged in, how it’s hard to play because there’s too much tension, how it doesn’t stay in tune or has poor intonation, how the tuner sucks, etc...

As with any other instrument, you get what you pay for. I’ve talked about the action/tension in the section above, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself. But even with a properly set up instrument, ABGs need more strength to play and this can be tiresome to play if you’re used to electric basses. Their bulky size doesn’t help.

Even with a decent instrument, an ABG will sound different when plugged-in. Upright basses sound different when plugged-in, acoustic guitars sound different when pluggen-in, and the same is true for all instruments. That’s just how amplification works, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can get close to an unplugged sound, but it’s never 100% the same.

The only criticism left is how they’re not easy to make quick set up adjustments. That’s the case for acoustic guitars, or pretty much any other acoustic instrument (including the upright bass). That’s never an issue and I’m not sure why people throw this around other than to show how much spoiled they are by their electric basses.

Closing thoughts

As I said before, it’s important to know the limitations of an instrument, but It’s not loud enough, therefore it’s useless is not a good argument against ABGs. I’ve never heard this being said about any other quiet instrument. The ukulele is pretty much never played live without being mic’d or amplified on anything larger than a small room, and no one goes around saying how useless it is. People just deal with it and move on.

While other criticisms are more than welcome, most of them are really disingenuous. A cheap ABG has cheap instrument problems, yet people conflate them with ABG problems. People avoid electric upright basses despite its advantages because of their sound. But ABGs should be avoided despite of their sound because of its shortcomings... This makes no sense.

I think it’s a massive disservice to the community to keep perpetuating this myth that they’re bad instruments. If you like its sound, go ahead and buy it. That’s reason enough to play an instrument. If you don’t like it or don’t even own one, please let people make their own decisions. What’s important is the music.