Your Bass Playing The Way You'd Like
Part 1: Fingerboard
modifications to the playability of a string bass fall under
the category of Set- Up. Set-Up details are as varied as players
of the instrument. Some bass players will need a set-up that
allows them to get their fingers all the way under the strings
for slap techniques, and others will want the strings as low
as possible for silky, effortless playing into the upper registers.
Some like to bow or pluck gently and allow the bass to resonate
in a relaxed, tension-free manner, while others prefer to
muscle the strings, and require a lot of resistance from the
instrument. There are bass players who rely on amplification
in all venues; and there are those who would not use an amplifier
if there were a dozen drummers on the gig. And then there
are orchestral bassists who need to be able to pull every
possible bowed tone from their bass; from a whisper to a roar.
good set-up begins with the fingerboard. The arch (side-to-side
curvature) and camber (scoop, or relief) need to be just right
for the type of playing the bass will be subject to. Once
the fingerboard is correctly adjusted, then the other set-up
details such as bridge, nut, etc., can be worked out to match
of the first things I do when meeting with a set-up client
is to inspect the fingerboard. Here are the questions I am
Is it well-attached?
Is it substantial enough? Old double bass fingerboards
which have been dressed (planed and smoothed) several
times may be too thin to function properly.
it good quality wood? Ebony is preferable because of its
stiffness and durability. Straight grain is most desirable.
the joint between the neck and fingerboard straight? Or
is it bending in one direction or the other? (This can
indicate neck warpage.)
the strings made grooves in the board?
the camber specs close to ideal?
the arch well-suited to the type of playing?
will also have the owner play the instrument for me and show
me any areas he/she is finding problematic. (Problems with
fingerboards usually manifest as buzzes and rattles, but can
include dead areas, and a feeling of tightness
that comes with excessive camber. The arch of the fingerboard
might also need to be optimized, as facile jazz players will
often prefer a flatter arch than strong arco players, who
need more curvature for clean bow crossings.) I will place
a long straightedge on the fingerboard to assess the camber
adjacent to all of the strings. I will often check the arch
at both ends with templates I made for that purpose; but this
is best done with the strings off. I will also check the fingerboard
for high and low areas with different length rulers.
an assessment is made of the fingerboard, and I have taken
some notes, I discuss with the player what can be done to
correct or improve the bass playability via fingerboard
corrections. If the existing fingerboard is tightly attached
and viable, the correction may be a simple dressing. This
consists of planing the fingerboard to remove high and low
areas, setting the proper camber and arch, smoothing and then
sealing the board. The planing must be done with a razor-sharp
block plane with a small throat opening, otherwise the wood
of the fingerboard is likely to tear out in little chunks.
After planing, the small facets which the plane has made need
to be rounded with scraper blades, then the surface sanded
baby-bottom smooth with sanding blocks and progressively finer
abrasives. After wetting the fingerboard to raise the grain,
it is burnished with the finest steel or synthetic wool, then
sealed with a light coat of drying oil. This oil can be Danish
oil (such as Watco), Tung oil, Walnut oil, or Linseed oil.
Some luthiers use wax, but I personally dont like the
feel of it.
the nut height and spacing is an important part of any fingerboard
job. If the fingerboard has been properly set-up, with no
drop-off at the nut end, then the nut grooves can be set nearly
down to the level of the fingerboard. Special files which
are close to the diameter of the individual strings should
be used for this task. I like to be able to just slide a business
card under each string at the nut, when the bass is at full
tension. Some players who like more tension may prefer the
nut left a tad higher.
the fingerboard camber: Under tension, the bass fingerboard
should have just a bit more camber under the low strings than
the high ones. About 1.5 to 2.5mm under the E, to about 1
to 2mm under the G. The lowest spot (Nadir) should be just
about at the octave, or slightly lower.
my next installment, I will discuss the set-up of the nut,
bridge and soundpost.
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