There are all kinds of ukuleles out there, but have you ever seen a ukulele bass, or ubass? I will never forget the first time I saw a ukulele bass being played – I was totally mesmerized! It was January of 2020, and I was sitting at home recovering from surgery and trying to not watch the news. My brother in law was at NAAM in California, sharing lots of videos of performances by some incredible musical artists, and he sent me a video of someone playing a ukulele bass on the show floor. Incredible!
I was less than a year into playing the ukulele, but I knew as soon as I saw that video and heard that soulful sound that I would get my hands on a ukulele bass before too long.
Where Did the Ukulele Bass Come From?
The ukulele bass is a kind of hybrid instrument, combining the sound of the bass with the size of a big baritone ukulele. As one of my teachers says, the ukulele bass is an instrument that by all rights “shouldn’t even exist,” so anything goes when it comes to tuning, holding, and playing this remarkable instrument.
Instrument maker Owen Holt of the company Road Toad first created the ukulele bass, and while it had great potential and was popular, the problem was that it was far too expensive for most musicians. Eventually, Owen teamed up with the Kala Ukulele company, and the U-Bass was born!
Read more: 10 Best Affordable Ukuleles
You can find both solid body and acoustic ukulele bass instruments, depending on what kind of sound you’re looking to create. Some artists say that the sound of the ukulele bass rivals that of a regular bass guitar.
Ukulele Bass Basics
Size: The ukulele bass has a scale length that’s equal to or slightly longer than a regular baritone ukulele. The body size may also be slightly bigger than a regular baritone ukulele, so it’s easily held and played.
The shape of the ukulele bass will either resemble a regular acoustic guitar or ukulele, or a (small) solid body bass guitar. Which shape you choose will depend on your personal preferences – there’s no wrong way to go on this one!
Strings: Unlike the baritone ukulele, the bass ukulele uses polyurethane strings that almost feel like a rubber band. These strings are denser than other ukulele strings to provide that characteristic bass sound, and so they can go much lower in pitch than any other type of ukulele.
If you want to go with strings that feel more like a regular bass guitar, there are string options out there that have a nylon or silk core and are wound with metal. Some artists feel that these kinds of strings are much better than the polyurethane strings, but the catch is that they are higher in price. If you’re willing to pay more for your ukulele bass strings to get that bass guitar feel and sound, go for it!
Another thing to remember about the strings of your ukulele bass is that they take longer to “settle” in and stretch than regular ukulele strings. In some cases, it might take two weeks or more for those strings to hold their tuning, so just be patient!
Pickup: If you’re looking for the perfect pickup for your new ukulele bass, be rest assured that both types of ukulele pickups – the active and piezo – will work just fine on your ukulele bass. When you’re choosing your ukulele bass with pickup, again, there’s no wrong answers. It all depends on what kind of sound you prefer. The great news is that they both sound good!
That said, you will want to make sure that you have a pickup on your ukulele bass so that the sound can be amplified. True bass ukuleles are few and far between, because they don’t have the same resonance as a regular acoustic ukulele.
Fretless vs. Fretted Ukulele Bass: I’ll be honest, this one had me confused until I found out that a lot of bass players actually play fretless instruments. As a lifelong violinist, I totally understand why a fretless instrument would sometimes be preferable – you get better intonation that allows you to play higher up the neck.
Another advantage of fretless bass ukuleles is that when the strings sometimes unexpectedly stretch in the middle of a gig, a fretless fingerboard would allow you to compensate quickly for that without stopping to tune your instrument.
But if you’re new to the ukulele bass, better stick with the fretted instrument for now until you get some more experience playing it.
How Is a U-Bass Tuned?
There are two different ways that I’ve seen a ukulele bass tuned: either like a very deep low-G or linear tuned ukulele (G-C-E-A), or like the top four strings of a guitar (E-A-D-G). Just like most other things about the ukulele bass, this is all a matter of personal choice. You can experiment with different ways to tune the ukulele bass until you find the one that sounds and feels the best to you.
How Do You Play a U-Bass?
Unlike a regular ukulele, the ukulele bass isn’t played by strumming. This instrument is designed to play a bass line by picking notes individually. People who love playing fingerstyle ukulele will probably love playing the ukulele bass, too!
When you’re playing the ukulele bass, you want to use all four fingers of your plucking (strumming) hand. Playing the ukulele bass neglects three very important things – your index, middle, and ring fingers! It’s much easier to move between strings when playing complex bass lines on the ukulele bass if you can use all of your fingers instead of just the thumb.
Why You Need a Ukulele Bass
Learning how to play the ukulele bass means you can bring that wonderfully rich, low-end sound to your ukulele jam or just to your own home recordings. Learning how to play the ukulele bass will definitely improve your ukulele fingerpicking technique, your hand-eye coordination, and let’s face it – learning how to play a new instrument is just plain fun!
Are you ready to take the leap and learn something new with the ukulele bass? Take a quick peek at the ukulele bass instruments available in the Terry Carter Music Store! Our experts are here to help answer any questions you might have about getting started with the ukulele bass and to help you pick the instrument that’s right for you.
I am brand new to ukuleles. I just learned my first couple of chords tonight. But when I finger pick a blues riff, I find the high G string awkward. A low G would feel more natural. So I plan to try one.
Perhaps that is because I played guitar and wash tub bass in the 1960’s.
I would love to try a U-bass except for the cost. After I learn to play the regular uke (blues & jazz styles), I might look into a U-bass in the future.
I also played a five-string banjo (which has a high top string) in the 60’s, but the Scruggs and flailing styles do not seem to carry over to the uke.
Any feedback for a uke newbie would be appreciated. At this stage, I am soaking up as much information and technique as I can find.