I have often been asked by students about buying a double bass. Purchasing an instrument can be a very important and significant event.
The double bass has a particularly rich history in regards to it's development. The history is deep enough in fact that entire books are devoted to it (Paul Brun's A New History of the Double Bass). Throughout history the double bass has existed in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from three to five (and now six or more) strings. This leads to a wide range of designs in basses today each with their own set of pros and cons depending on the player and what they want to do with the bass.
What type of bass is right for you?
With so many variations of double bass out there, it is difficult when searching for a double bass to know what to look for. It is important to consider a few different aspects: construction (carved or ply wood), shape/design, age, and size.
Today basses are made primarily out of carved solid wood or plywood. Solid wood basses tend to have more favorable sonic characteristics (and they are lighter too) when compared to plywood basses. The primary drawback to solid wood basses is that they require a bit more care and maintenance - you need to make sure they are stored in adequate humidity. Historically plywood basses are considerably cheaper, however today there are quite a few foreign makers producing surprisingly good carved instruments at very reasonable prices. I cannot recommend buying a plywood instrument (unless perhaps you are seeking that old-Kay sound that some jazz and folk/bluegrass players like.)
Shape and Design
Basses, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. There are some variances in shape and design that have little effect on sound. For example, violin corners (pointy corners around the C bout) vs gamba corners (rounded corners).
One of the most common differences that you may find in double bass designs is flat-backed vs. round-backed. In theory flat-backed basses will provide a more articulate sound as the sound hits the back of the instrument and is reflected directly back out. A round back on the other hand allows the sound to resonate inside the body of the instrument more creating a warmer sound. In practice however there are so many factors at play that influence the sound of an instrument that to make a blanket statement would be to sell some instruments short.
Another aspect of shape and design to consider is the shape of the shoulders of a bass. Basses with steeply sloping shoulders (such as Quenoil shaped basses) may offer greater ease in playability while a larger bass with broader shoulders may be more resonant with a rounder sound.
The age of a bass can be a significant consideration when purchasing an instrument. It is often thought that string instruments grow better with age. The idea is two parted, some believe that historically better wood was available and not all modern wood is equal in quality to that of 100 years ago. Another idea is that over time wood 'opens up' and instruments become more resonant.
While there is not any scientifically proven evidence that older instruments sound better, many professional players; particularly in the classical realm, seem to favor older instruments. That being said there are many fine instruments being built today. Thanks to advances in technology modern instruments are often built better than their older counterparts. Furthermore older instruments often demand a higher price for no reason other than their age.
An amusing (and perhaps true) explanation for the preference in older instruments can be found on the Liutaio Mottola Lutherie Information Website:
One thing that might explain why older instruments are perceived to sound better is natural selection. In the case of instruments this means that only the instruments which sounded good in the first place ever made it to old age. The lesser instruments were given to students, stored in the hot attic or the wet cellar or otherwise abused. A lot of them were eventually destroyed. So the instruments that survived to be old today were the ones which were always good and now there are few if any of their bad sounding contemporaries left. This is such a strong possible explanation for at least part of why older instruments are considered to sound better than newer ones that it could be the worthy subject of experimentation in its own right.
Size is another aspect that you should strongly consider. Basses being as varied as they are don't make it easy to rule out instruments of a certain size. For example, you may find an instrument that has a very large body but a short scale length. This instrument may be easier for some to play than an instrument that looks longer but has a longer scale. The dimensions you will want to familiarize yourself with are the scale length (the distance from the nut to the bridge), the thickness of the neck, and the widths of the upper and lower boughs and the depth of the ribs.
Depending on the style of music you play and your own preference for tone you may prefer certain dimensions in your bass. If you are a smaller person but you want a large orchestral sound there are bass makers making basses that have 3/4 (standard) size upper boughs and 7/8 lower boughs. Other makers make basses with particularly deep ribs to achieve the same type of large, deep tone.
What will you use your bass for?
It is important to know what you want out of a new bass. Very few basses (if any) can be expected to sound and feel great for all types of playing in all types of music. Many professional bassist will own multiple basses, each one suited for a different type of playing. Therefore it is important to know the sound qualities and important attributes of an instrument best suited for the types of playing you will be doing.
Orchestral players general like big, old basses. Playing in the orchestra you need an instrument that has a big deep sound and responds quickly to the bow. Although there are some contemporary bass makers making very fine orchestral instruments, it seems that many orchestral players prefer older instruments.
In regards to action - orchestral basses are usually set up with higher action and more string tension. This allows the strings to respond quicker and the bass to produce greater volume more easily.
Another thing to consider for an orchestral bass is a C extension. Although not necessarily a requirement, most professional orchestral players have a bass with a C extension. Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to buy a bass with an extension, they can be added after the fact. However, you want to make sure that a bass has a strong enough low-end that the notes on the extension will sound as powerful as the rest of the bass.
In comparison to orchestral basses, people tend to migrate towards smaller instruments for solo and chamber work. You still want an instrument that responds quickly to the bow but when compared to an orchestral bass a bright tone that can cut through an orchestra is often preferred over a deep rich tone.
Solo bases are often smaller in stature than their orchestral counterparts. The purpose of this is to facilitate ease of movement for more virtuosic playing. This can be achieved either by an instrument with a slightly smaller body or one with smaller shoulders. Depending on your body size and shape, an instrument that is easy for one person to 'get around' may not be as easy for someone else.
The type of basses that jazz players use covers nearly the entire range of basses available. The bass Stanley Clarke recorded on with Return to Forever was a old, small 5/8th size bass, while other jazz players love the classic Kay 7/8th size basses. With jazz basses it really comes down to sound preference. If you are looking for a modern sound with lots of sustain you probably want to look for a flat-backed bass, with low action that is easy to get around. If you want a big-round 'old school' sound, you probably want a larger round-backed instrument with slightly higher action.
Bluegrass and folk players tend to like basses that are somewhat different from the above instruments. Many bluegrass bass players prefer larger basses with high action. The sound bluegrass players look for is often a loud, round sound lacking the jazz 'mwah'. Bluegrass players also tend to like lower tension strings, even going to the extent of using nylon 'weed whacker' strings instead of steel or synthetic, metal-wrapped strings.
Finding a bass
There may be more places than you would expect to find a double bass. I would start by checking out local shops and local individual sellers (Check Craigslist). If you are like me, there are probably not many basses for sale in your area.
I have included links to some bass makers and dealers below. There are many more makers and dealers out there and there is always the possibility of finding a local seller.
I would also strongly suggest that, if possible you attend the International Society of Bassists Bi-Annual Conference. Even if you are not a member you can buy a day pass. Nearly every bass dealer and many makers in the US will have basses there. If nothing more you can play 100's of basses and figure out what it is that you like in a bass.
Trying out a bass
OK, so you have an idea of the type of music you want to play, you know the general size and style of instrument you are looking for and you have found some instruments to check out. Then the question becomes how do I tell if a bass is 'the' bass? Here are some tips to keep in mind when trying out potential basses.
- Take your time.
- Basses are expensive. You want to make that you find the best fit for you within your budget.
- Play the bass in a variety of rooms
- Instrument dealers often have very nice sounding rooms that will showcase the sound qualities of instruments. This is great! You will be able to hear the finest details of every instrument. However, you won't always have the luxury of playing in such a nice room.
- Ask a seller if they have another room you can try.
- See if you can borrow the instrument and test it out in your home practice room or at rehearsals.
- Try a variety of basses
- Try every bass you can possibly get your hands on. It may even be beneficial to try instruments above and below your price range.
- You may find a low cost instrument that sounds and plays just as good for your use cases as one that is twice it's cost.
- If your budget is lower, it can also be useful to know what a really nice bass should feel and sound like, so that you can find the next-best-thing.
- Try every bass you can possibly get your hands on. It may even be beneficial to try instruments above and below your price range.
- Bring your old bass
- It is incredibly important to bring the bass you will be 'upgrading' from. You need to compare how a new instrument feels and sounds compared to what you are familiar to.
- If you are not able to bring a potential instrument home to try it is exceedingly important to bring your old bass with you. You must hear what it sounds like in the same room as a potential new instrument to compare the quality of sound.
- Play music you are VERY familiar with
- Don't immediately pull out your most difficult bebop licks or the hottest new solo piece you have been working on. Every bass responds differently to the bow and fingers, not to mention that playing on a different instrument can be very difficult to play in tune until you are familiar with it. Play something simple, something you know without focusing on playing.
- Scales are really good for this, you need to hear the sound of the bass without technique getting in the way.
- After you have narrowed down your selection of basses and spent a solid amount of time playing simple things, then move on to your favorite bass-features. You want to see how the bass responds to technically challenging passages, does it feel easier to play than your old bass?
- Bring a friend
- It is really difficult to get an accurate idea of what your bass sounds like to an audience when you are playing it from the other side.
- If you are able to take the bass on trial, play it for many people, both bassists and non-bassists.
Getting the bass
Once you have found a bass the next big issue can be getting it home. The simplest way to transport a bass in by car. Beyond that the only advice I can offer is based on my own experience buying a bass form outside Philadelphia while living in Nebraska.
Southwest Airlines is your friend as a bassist. With the bass packed in a flight case the additional cost of checking the double bass as luggage was only $75. There are supposed to be new regulations going into effect to make flying with instruments simpler on other airlines. However, when I flew SouthWest was really the only bass-friendly airline. As for a flight case - don't skimp on this. Some people may suggest rigid bass-shipping containers or home-made flight cases. You need a real case. Ask around, if there are instrument shops or professional bassist in your area someone may have one they will lend or rent for a small fee. Alternatively some of the bigger shops will rent cases relatively cheaply. When purchasing my Grunert bass I rented a case from David Gage They shipped it down to an airport near where I was trying the bass out and once I had the bass safely back to Nebraska, I shipped it back Gage in NY.
Hopefully this has given you some information that will help you decide on what to look for in a bass. If you have any other questions please feel free to contact me.
Bass makers and dealers below are not listed in any sort of ranking.
- Nick Lloyd - Cincinnati, OH
- Seth Kimmel - Eugene, OR
- Anton Krutz - Merriam, KS
- Aaron Reiley - Grand Rapids, MI
- Arnold Schnitzer - Brewster, NY
- A440 Violin Shop - Chicago, IL
- Cincinnati Bass Cellar - Cincinnati, OH
- Guarnieri House - Grand Rapids, MI
- David Gage - New York, NY
- Nahrmann Bass Shop - Billerica, MA
- KC Strings - Merriam, KS
- Ken Smith - Perkasie, PA
- Kolstein's - Baldwin, NY
- Quantum Bass - Houston, TX
- Robertson & Sons Violin Shop - Albuquerque, NM
- String Emporium - Chandler, AZ
- Upton Bass - Mystic, CT