To Look (Out) For
When Buying A Double Bass
part one I discussed a methodical approach to finding a bass
that suits your needs. So now lets assume you have found
a bass that interests you, and you have performed a basic
inspection. Now you need to decide whether the bass has the
right stuff to be your partner for years to come. You must
answer two very important questions before you make your purchase:
1) Does this instrument work for me from a standpoint of tone,
response and projection? 2) Is this instrument in the type
of condition that allows me to feel comfortable owning it?
It also makes sense for you to do your research and make sure
you are paying a reasonable price. Though you may be in love
right now, there is always the chance that at some point in
the future you will want to upgrade your bass. If you paid
too much for it, you could have a rude awakening at trade-up
or selling time.
lets delve into the two major questions:
1) Does this instrument work for me from a standpoint of tone,
response and projection?
us define and talk about these terms, in a general sense.
is the quality of sound an instrument makes. Bassists tend
to define their instruments tone as bright,
dark, punchy or boomy.
One of the best ways to evaluate the tone of a bass is to
play it facing into a corner in a fairly dead room. To some
extent the tone color of a particular instrument is dependent
on the player. That is to say, a player who has big, meaty
fingers, and digs in, will make a different sound than a player
with small, bony fingers, who plays more on the surface. .
is the way an instrument puts out its sound in relation to
the energy the player puts into it. Some basses tend to respond
quickly and loudly with a minimum of effort; others tend to
require more muscle to pull out the sound. A player is wise
to evaluate his own playing style and match the instrument
to it. The response of a bass is hugely dependent on its set-up.
For example, a bass with a highly-cambered (scooped) fingerboard
will require much more effort to play, and will respond differently
than one with a moderately-cambered fingerboard. The soundpost
fit and position are also very important to the response (as
well as the tone and projection).
is the ability to be heard, or perceived loudness. It can
also be thought of as carrying power. It is imperative that
a bass be tried out under the actual conditions it will be
played. If you are playing bluegrass music with no amplifier,
you need to try the bass out in such a setting, preferably
in a large performance space. If you will be playing loud
amplified jazz with a bashing drummer, make sure the bass
works for you in that setting. If you will be playing in an
orchestra section, you want to be able to hear the bass under
your ear while playing with several other basses. Keep in
mind that a bass perceived volume is very different
from the players position, compared to that of the audience.
If at all possible, evaluate the tone and projection from
the audience position, while a friend or teacher (whose playing
style you know) plays the bass for you.
Is this instrument in the type of condition that allows me
to feel comfortable owning it?
part 1 of this article I mentioned several areas of the bass
to be checked out for physical problems. Basses can be very
expensive to repair, so it behooves the potential buyer to
make sure the instrument is in good enough condition. All
basses have had or will someday need repairs; it is the nature
of the beast, being so large and under so much tension. If
you are purchasing an older bass, expect imperfection. If
at all possible, have a qualified third party luthier give
the instrument a pre-purchase inspection. Expect to pay $50
to $100 or so for this service. The luthier will likely check
out the neck joint, fingerboard, body seams and alignment
of plates, internal blocks, bass bar, old crack repairs, scroll
and nut, saddle, and the instruments fittings. He/she
will also report on the set-up, look for new cracks or other
problems, and give the bass a short hearing. If the first
words out of the luthiers mouth are I have something
way better upstairs, you may want to go elsewhere. That
said, if the luthier finds significant problems with the bass,
and is able to clearly point them out to you, taking a look
at his wares cant hurt.
problems regarding Kay, American Standard and King basses:
American-made laminated basses were all built with blind dovetail
neck joints. The mechanical strength of this type of joint
is inferior to a classic neck mortise. Over time the angle
of the dovetail, torqued by the string tension, tends to loosen
or even destroy the neck joint. The neck joint on these basses
was designed to be cut by machine in a factory environment,
where highly-skilled labor was not feasible (due to financial
constraints). As an efficient, accurate means of securing
the neck to the body it was a success. But as a long-term
component of a good string bass it was not. In addition to
the structural problem with these neck joints, most of these
basses were made with neck projection (angle) suitable for
gut strings played about an inch (25.4mm) off the fingerboard.
When fitted with steel or hybrid strings played at reasonable
height, the bridge must be lowered to the point where bowing
becomes difficult or impossible. Also, the low bridge and
breakover angle (angle of the strings crossing the bridge)
can cause a lack of power and projection, as the downforce
on the body is not optimal. Some players find the thin Kay
neck uncomfortable; others love it. Unfortunately, it is common
for this thin neck to bend considerably under years of string
tension. The cure is a new ebony fingerboard installed after
heat-straightening and truing-up the neck. Many bass luthiers
also install carbon-fiber neck reinforcement strips into the
neck under the fingerboard.
problem with these basses, especially older ones, is that
the top tables tend to deform under the treble bridge foot.
Over time the pressure from the strings causes the laminated
wood to give way; the repair can be expensive and difficult.
A little bit of deformation is acceptable. Also, the bass
bars have a tendency to come loose, mainly at the ends. This
is an important area to be inspected.
you are considering purchasing a flat-backed bass you must
be even more careful in your assessment and inspection. Wood
is an organic material which includes a certain amount of
moisture. This inherent moisture varies with the relative
humidity and temperature of the environment in which the wood
is located. When the wood becomes more moist, it expands across
its width. When it becomes dryer, it contracts. This seasonal
movement is barely noticed in round-backed basses, because
the arched shape is more resilient, and the back usually does
not have cross-bars glued at right angles to the back table.
In a flat-backed bass with cross-bars, the back cannot move
freely with seasonal changes because it is restricted by the
crossbars. As a result, over time the back will either crack
or the crossbars will break loose. This is much more noticeable
on basses that spend their time in very change-able climate
zones, such as the Northeast U.S. Before the advent of central
heating, back cracks in flat-backed basses were less of a
problem. The bottom line then, is that if you are considering
a flat-backed bass, pay close attention to the back condition;
cracks, loose cross-bars, and seam bulges can be par for the
course. All of these conditions are repairable, but, you guessed
of luck with your purchase!
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