To Look (Out) For
When Buying A Double Bass
are an extremely intelligent and creative lot. Their creativity
also causes them to be a bit impulsive, especially when they
have decided they need a new axe. The double bass
can be a very trouble-prone instrument, due to its size and
the nature of the material of which it is made. So I have
put together several tips to make the purchasing of a new
or old bass a more positive experience. Hopefully this will
improve your level of confidence and help you avoid making
a potentially expensive and heartbreaking mistake. Please
try to be methodical when going through the bass-buying process.
A solid instrument that meets your needs will be the likely
Assess your needs.
kind of music will you be playing, and in what type of venue?
A Bluegrass plucker who plays mostly outdoor festivals and
wants a simple, boomy tone, would be wise to get a laminated
(plywood) bass. These basses are built from multiple bonded
layers of thin wood and are relatively impervious to weather
changes and rough handling. The same player who also plays
melodies with a bow may want to step up to a hybrid or carved
bass, which will generally produce a more pleasing arco sound.
But basses with solid wood tops (and/or backs and ribs) require
more care and are less impervious to weather changes and rough
classical player looking for a main instrument will probably
want as much carved bass as his money will buy, either new
or old. If he plays with a German bow, he will need to be
a bit careful about the size and shape of the c-bouts, as
bow clearance can be tricky, especially on a bass with violin
corners. (Now you know why most German basses have gamba corners.)
If he plays solo literature, a bass with accessible shoulders
is a must.
players seem to make great music with a variety of basses,
from old and new plywoods to ancient Italian masterpieces.
It is crucial that you seek out a bass that produces the type
of pizzicato tone that you want for your own sound. If you
are looking for a punchy, even sound, a shop-made carved bass
like a Juzek or Pfretschner could be the way to go. It works
for Ron Carter and Christian Macbride. If you want a bottomy,
simple tone, a plywood American bass could do the trick. If
you want a big, more complex sound for a budget price, consider
a hybrid. If you play arco solos, you will probably want a
bass with a carved top.
you be able to take good care of the bass you have in mind?
Carved basses are prone to problems which relate primarily
to the humidity in which they are used and stored. Because
of the wide top and back plates, and the fact that wood expands
and contracts primarily across its width, excessive dryness
can cause warping, seam opening and cracking. Conversely,
excessive humidity can cause swelling and failure of glue
joints. The best environment for a carved bass is a constant
state of humidity and temperature, say 70 degrees Fahrenheit
and 45% relative humidity. But we live and play in the real
world, and such conditions exist only in museums. So the bass
owner is advised to try to keep the bass reasonably humidified
in the winter, and to keep it out of the damp basement in
the summer. But be forewarned that even if you do your absolute
best, you should still expect an occasional problem. Hybrid
basses should essentially be treated like carved ones.
kind of handling and travel will your bass be subjected to?
If you are planning to do a lot of traveling with your instrument,
you may want to buy the least expensive bass that gets the
job done. Thats because the reality is that sooner or
later, that bass will be smashed, dropped, crushed or lost.
And you do not want to lose an irreplaceable masterpiece.
Also, do a realistic assessment of your own way with things.
Are you careful and meticulous, or a little scatter-brained
and careless? If you know honestly that you are likely to
beat your instrument up, get one that can take it.
you live in an area where there are several shops devoted
to the double bass. In reality, there are only a few metropolitan
areas in the U.S. and abroad where that is the case. In the
U.S., that would include New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles
and Chicago, and perhaps a few others. If you have access
to one of these areas, start looking around for a bass you
think could meet your needs. Also look at internet forums
such as Talkbass and Craigs List to see if there are
any instruments for sale in your general area. You can check
Bob Gollihurs directory for bass luthiers in your general
area; many of them sell basses. If you live in or near a college
town with one or more music schools, visit those schools and
check the bulletin boards. Take a look at whats on Ebay
but be very, very careful. The last thing you need is to get
emotionally involved in a bidding war for an instrument that
could turn into a can of worms.
get out and try some basses. If you are a relative newby,
bring along a bass-playing friend or even better, your teacher.
Speaking of teachers, a word of warning here; many teachers
have instruments for sale on a regular basis. Some teachers
are actually dealers who happen to give lessons, mainly to
provide themselves with a market of potential buyers. Some
others have kickback relationships with local
stores or luthiers. Most teachers, however, stay clear of
these ethical grey areas. If you find yourself coveting a
bass your teacher has for sale, do not skip over performing
your due diligence just because you feel you should trust
this person. Have the bass inspected by a professional.
violin shops sell basses, but expect the set-ups to be rudimentary,
as the bass is a very different animal than the violin. But
dont rule out this resource, especially if they are
flexible about set-up issues. In general, you are advised
to stay out of general music stores and guitar stores. The
basses they sell tend to be badly constructed, poorly set-up
overpriced junkers that we in the business playfully call
bass-shaped objects. Instruments of this quality
will have short, trouble-prone lives, sound mediocre at best,
and may possibly harm you.
are a few brands sold primarily over the internet, or by mail
order/word of mouth. If you are considering one of these,
do your research on-line, and try to find someone locally
who owns one and will let you try it out. Make certain there
is a return policy in the event that it does not work out
for you. Keep in mind that shipping is expensive and you could
end up paying for a round-trip.
Narrow your choice.
gone out and tried a bunch of basses and (hopefully) found
one or more you like. If you are buying a used bass from a
reputable dealer, ask him to put it up on a bench and show
you all of the previous repairs and problem areas, if any.
Solicit his opinion on the overall health of the bass, and
ask him to compare it with others he has sold in this price
range. If you are buying a used bass privately, first go through
the following very basic checklist before you move forward:
Any breaks? If so, how solid are the repairs? Is the neck
mounted straightly? Can you wiggle the neck in its joint?
and Back: Any cracks? If so, how good are the repairs? Is
there a crack at the soundpost, or along the bassbar? These
can be worrisome.
(sides): Any cracks? How are the repairs? Are the top and
back overhangs intact, or are there places where the ribs
bulge outwards? (Repairing this can be expensive.)
Is it ebony, or a cheaper substitute? Do the strings rattle?
Is the joint between the neck and fingerboard solid, and straight?
Is there excessive camber?
you are buying a new bass, do your on-line research, ask the
dealer about his experiences and problems with the brand,
and ask for a free check-up six to twelve months down the
road. Most reputable sellers will happily provide this service.
Part Two I will go into more detail on the subject of inspecting
a double bass for possible purchase, as well as potential
pitfalls. I will also point out several common problems found
in many older basses.
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