Issue 2

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

Part Two

In part one I discussed a methodical approach to finding a bass that suits your needs. So now let’s 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.

Now let’s delve into the two major questions:
1) Does this instrument work for me from a standpoint of tone, response and projection?

Let us define and talk about these terms, in a general sense.

Tone is the quality of sound an instrument makes. Bassists tend to define their instrument’s 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. .

Response 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).

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 player’s 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.

2) Is this instrument in the type of condition that allows me to feel comfortable owning it?

In 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 instrument’s 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 luthier’s 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 can’t hurt.

Specific problems regarding Kay, American Standard and King basses:

These 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.

Another 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.

Watch Your Back:

If 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 it, expensive.

Best of luck with your purchase!

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