Issue 1

What To Look (Out) For
When Buying A Double Bass

Part One

Musicians 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 result.

First: Assess your needs.

What 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 handling.

A 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.

Jazz 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.

Will 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.

What 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. That’s 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.

Second: Go Shopping.

Hopefully 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 Craig’s List to see if there are any instruments for sale in your general area. You can check Bob Gollihur’s 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 what’s 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.

Now 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.

Some violin shops sell basses, but expect the set-ups to be rudimentary, as the bass is a very different animal than the violin. But don’t 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.

There 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.

Third: Narrow your choice.

You’ve 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:

Neck: Any breaks? If so, how solid are the repairs? Is the neck mounted straightly? Can you wiggle the neck in its joint?

Top 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.

Ribs (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.)

Fingerboard: 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?

If 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.

In 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.



© 2002-2012, AES Fine Instruments. All rights reserved.