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Beginner's Guide to buying a Double Bass

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Things to keep in mind while searching for your first double bass.

Patience: Buying an instrument like a bass takes time. If you are too anxious to make your purchase, you are more likely to end up making a purchase you later regret. Set aside time to shop and don't hurry.

Price range: Double basses are relatively expensive and your budget will determine the types of basses you should be considering. The minimum budget for a new instrument, properly set up by a luthier, is approximately 1500 USD. Although more expensive does not always mean better, more money spent in this price bracket often means a better-sounding (and looking) instrument. See the "Student Basses" below for suggestions on brands and dealers.

Personal needs: What kind of music would you like to play on your new bass? A community orchestra player will have different needs than aspiring jazzer or a bluegrass thumper. After playing many instruments, you will develop a better idea of the kind of "sound and feel" you're seeking. A teacher can also help you develop this idea by demonstrating instruments for you and giving his/her opinion.

Professional setup: A good setup will make the difference between a joyful music-making experience and a pain in your butt. Get a good setup from a professional luthier who knows how to work on basses. If you are buying your first bass, then inquire to see if the instrument will be delivered with a "basic setup" or with a "professional setup." Sometimes when you buy a bass from a reputable shop you'll still need additional setup work. This also gives you the opportunity to establish a relationship with your local luthier.

'Brands' and 'Models' Don't Matter As Much: Shopping for a particular make and model of car, beverage or guitar gives you a pretty good clue about what you will receive. Shopping for a double bass is different. There are several reasons this tends to be true. First, much of the experience when someone steps up to play your new bass is about how the instrument is set-up. Two basses of the same brand and model, even if set up with the same string-height, may feel and sound quite different based on what kind of strings each has, how the sound-posts are set and how the fingerboards are planed. Second, quality control among many DB brands has varied over the years, so your '03 Ford Explorer Bass might tend to be much better built than your '01. Finally, we use that 'tends to' phrase because, as with all musical instruments, there are many subjective factors involved. The watchword in musical retailing is that everybody leaves the shop believing that he or she has found "The One" -- and each of them is correct, at least for a while.

Taking someone with you: If this is your first bass purchase make sure to take your teacher or a trusted bassist with you so he or she can play the instrument and you can hear how it sounds. Another set of ears and eyes make a huge difference when it comes to buying a bass. Even if you need to compensate your local bassists (offer the going rate for a lesson) it will be money well spent. If considering an instrument from a private seller, have it evaluated by a good double bass luthier before handing over the $$$. Very important if you want to avoid costly repairs you won't know about until it's too late... Similar to buying a used car in this regard.




Student Basses

Search any of the names below to find more info.

Entry level, about $1500 USD

Shen SB80, Christopher 100 series, Eastman Model 80, Thompson RM-100, and for a little cheaper Engelhardt ES1, EM1, EG1. These are plywood basses, and considered by most the minimum of acceptable quality for a student bassist. In addition, older German ply basses can be very good values, but should be gone over by a qualified DB luthier to assess condition before purchase, as should old American plys. Aside from Englehardt the only USA plywood bass being built today is the Upton Standard, built in Mystic, CT.

Hybrids, starting around $2300 USD

Shen SB150, Christopher 200 series, Eastman Model Model 90, Thompson RM-200 and others. These basses have solid wood tops, and generally have better sound than plywood basses, especially when played with a bow.

Entry level carved basses

Shen Willow, Christopher 400 series, Eastman Model VB200, Calin Wultur, Wan Bernadel, and others. These brands have a reputation for quality including well seasoned wood. Be careful with Asian made basses of unknown provenance as many have been known to crack, have difficult to remove tops, etc. Even though they may sound good and look good initially, expensive repair problems can crop up. The extreme climates of the USA midwest and northeast can also be hard on these instruments. Buying a bass that has been "living" in its current location for a few years can be a good idea, as the instrument will have acclimated to its environment and either had problems and been repaired, or is problem free, a sign of a quality build.




Buying a used bass

Double basses can be bought used, in fact, many players have basses of some vintage. The reasons for that tend not to be as applicable to entry level basses. Good basses tend to appreciate, rather than depreciate. You might not save money by buying a 25 year old Paesold (for example) in good condition over a similar new model. The used bass could be equal or actually more expensive because it’s had time to open up and it’s settled in and been through several cycles of setup and repair (hopefully).

With student basses, you may catch a good used deal from someone upgrading, but you’ve got to know what you’re doing. If it wasn’t a good bass to begin with, the age will not have helped it. A good quality student bass (see above for examples) that has been cared for should be a small discount from a new one of the same model. Depending on the market, a $1,500 bass might show up for $1,000 – 1,200. A proper neck repair can reduce the value, but not the quality of an instrument. If you know what you’re doing, are patient and can verify these points, you might save a little dough. If you take 5 years to save $700 that’s 5 years you could have been learning to play. You’ll wish you had that time back, guaranteed.

You should always have any used purchase checked out by a luthier before you lay down the money, to make sure there's nothing that's going to bite you after you get it home. Some big things to look out for and ask your luthier about:

  • Old repairs of any kind. Done right they are no problem, done wrong and it might be worse than broken.
  • Issues with the neck or neck joint.
  • Top cracks, especially near the bass bar, sound post, or saddle (where the tailpiece wire crosses). Back cracks, too.
  • Top sunken in near f-hole
  • Setup work that might need to be done (bridge or fingerboard work to adjust string heights or get rid of buzzes).

Also, see really cheap basses below for what to avoid at all costs.




Plywood versus Carved

When a bass is played arco or pizzicato (bowed or plucked), the body of the instrument vibrates. The body has a top, sides, and a back that are fitted and glued together. The material these parts are made of affects the sound produced by the instrument. Any one of these parts may be a solid piece of carved wood or separate layers (plys) laminated together. A bass body can be made of all carved pieces, all ply, or a mix of the two.


Fully carved: Top, sides, and back are carved

Hybrid: Top is carved and the back and sides are ply

Plywood or Laminate: Top, sides, and back are ply.


Each construction method has its own advantages. In general, carved basses produce a more focused or "complex" tone but are more expensive and are more likely to crack, requiring repair. Plywood basses are less expensive and are more stable in varying weather conditions. Players looking for a "carved" sound at a lower price often choose a hybrid bass as the construction of the top has the most impact on tone.

The sound of a carved bass may become necessary for a classical student as he or she reaches the intermediate level. For all others, it is a matter of preference.

But don't be fooled by the myth that a carved top doesn't matter for pizzicato and/or jazz playing. It certainly does and most of the players who are household names prefer and use double basses with carved tops.

Some warnings about "carved" basses:

There are a lot of terms, like "carved", "fully carved", "solid wood", "solid top" that bass manufacturers like to use. These terms may be misleading:

  • There are some entry-level "fully carved" basses that are substantially poorer instruments than some very well made laminated basses. Think of ply, hybrid, and fully carved basses as representing three overlapping distributions of quality: the average of which is lowest for ply, intermediate for hybrid, and highest for fully-carved.
  • Some "solid top" basses are pressed into shape rather than being carved into shape. It is obviously cheaper to do so and can ensure a more consistent finish if you are producing a run of a model of like basses.
  • To add even more confusion, some manufacturers claim that a bass has a spruce top when what they have done is use a spruce veneer as the exterior layer of a ply top.
  • In the words of the great Inigo Montoya "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Our guidance for selecting an instrument is the same regardless, but understand that there is some inconsistency in how these instruments are discussed or even advertised.




Renting versus buying

Renting a bass is a great way to get your hands on a double bass without spending $1,500 - $2,000 before you know if it is your thing. Most shops will usually rent a bass in the range of $40-$100 a month and varies depending on the terms of your contract. The plus is that for little money down you get a bass, bow, rosin, and bag to get started.

Another great reason to rent is most places will credit a part of your rental payments to a purchase of an instrument. This changes from shop to shop so make sure you are clear on the upgrading process.

Through a rental program, you will most likely get a student model laminate bass that the shop carries. This is usually a good starter bass at first, but is something you will eventually grow out of as your playing develops. These are not "fancy" basses at all and are usually built to withstand the wear and tear of school programs.

I would caution though when renting from a general music store. They will have basses but do your homework to see the basses they have and make sure they have been professionally set-up.




3/4 size is normal?

Looking for a "full sized bass"? This can be a little confusing. There are not hard standards of measurement for double basses. If you would like to see some numbers, look at Gollihur's page on bass sizes.


3/4 is the "standard" size for a bass. Most basses not intended for children would be considered 3/4 size. If you are an adult anywhere near average size looking for your first double bass, this is the size you want. You can stop reading now.


Basses larger and smaller: basses a bit larger than 3/4 are often called 7/8 size, and basses a bit smaller than 3/4 are often called 5/8 size. Much larger and the bass might be called 4/4. Because sizes aren't standard, these sizes might be noticeably different than a 3/4 bass, or they might not. These sizes are all a matter of personal preference. For example, some players who need portability have 5/8 size instruments, and some players who need the biggest sound possible find it in 7/8 or 4/4 instruments. Large bodied basses may be more difficult to play for smaller players, shorter arm lengths, etc. Keep in mind, bass size is not necessarily determined by the size of the player and bigger does not automatically mean better.


Mensure, or string length, is important! The playable length of the string from nut to bridge on a normal 3/4 size bass should be roughly between 40.5 inches and 42 inches. Longer string length means more stretching for your hand, and can make the bass harder to play or increase the chance of injury. Older 3/4 size instruments (such as some Juzek, American Standard, King Mortone, for example) may have mensures over 42 inches, so make sure to measure the mensure (ba-dum-tish!). Also, don't fret (pun intended) about switching among instruments of slightly different mensures. An experienced player can adjust in a matter of minutes, and eventually you will be one of those players....



1/2 and 1/4 sized basses: These are intended for children learning to play. There are a lot of 1/2 size basses on the used market (because they are harder to sell), so you might be tempted as an adult to pick one up. If you're serious about learning the instrument properly, don't do it.

If you're buying or renting an instrument for a young child learning to play for the school orchestra, these are the sizes that you're looking for. Consult a music teacher or bass shop to get the right size for your child.




Electric upright basses

An electric upright bass is what it sounds like: an instrument resembling an upright bass which doesn't have any (or very little) acoustic sound and is meant to be played amplified. Examples include the NS design basses or the Yamaha silent bass, and many others. Some interested in learning upright bass consider purchasing an electric upright bass as a starter instrument, especially experienced bass guitarists who see it as an instrument that might better help the "transition" to the upright.

The authors of this wiki offer the following advice: electric upright bass is essentially a different instrument, so play/rent/purchase the instrument you want to learn. If you want to learn to play electric upright, go for it. If you plan on using electric upright to develop skills on the acoustic upright bass, don't bother, just go get an normal upright bass. One particular danger is the tendency to adapt bass guitar technique to electric upright (due to its easy playability); these techniques will be pretty much useless on an acoustic upright.




Really cheap and fixer upper basses

If you are careful and either get really educated first or get help from someone who can assess them for you, there are sometimes great local deals on Kays, Shens, Englehardts, etc. Occasionally someone picks up something through his or her local craigslist for $500. Almost without question, there will be some additional setup, string, accessory costs. It's not impossible to get a playable bass in this range, it's just difficult and requires patience and knowledge.

If you are interested in doing repair or setup work on a bass yourself, check out the Setup and Repair Forum to get a sense for the complexity involved in this work and then make your own decision based on your skill set. Things like repairing cracks, planing fingerboards, etc. require special tools and skills and are not suitable for the average weekend warrior. If you are in it for the experience of fixing up a bass, you might enjoy yourself, and talkbass is all about enjoying the process of learning with and from others, but don't expect to save money. Also, it is always a good idea to have a professional evaluate the project before you start throwing money and time at it.



EBay Basses

Double basses can be found for around 500 USD on ebay and other places online. Before being tempted to buy one of these, consider the total cost. Approximately 200 USD shipping + 150 USD for good strings + 350 USD or more for additional setup brings the total (very conservatively) to about 1200 USD. You now have a bass of unknown, but, most likely, poor quality. "Saving money" by buying one of these instruments generally amounts to false economy. One way or the other, you're probably going to spend about $1500 for a new, properly set up double bass. If you go the eBay route, you're likely to spend that and more and end up with an instrument that, at best, is of poor quality and, at worst, will implode. The best advice we can offer is that you buy a double bass from a shop that specializes in double basses and that is staffed by a reputable luthier. Similar advice applies to buying from mass market music stores.



Other resources for beginners

Master luthier Arnold Schnitzer's excellent articles:


David's Corner, from David Gage, famous New York luthier.

  • Includes articles on setup, dealing with heat and humidity, strings, injuring prevention, warm-up, and other topics.


Bob Gollihur's website is full of good resources, including:


Andy Anderson teaches the double bass (10 youtube videos)

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10




Miscellaneous

Accessories

If you're thinking about buying a double bass, you might want to think about buying:

  • A decent bag with at least 20mm - 3/4" padding. Even if you are extremely careful handling your new bass, the person in back of you might not be. Contemplate the 'smack' of your bass being closed in a door . . . or buy a decent bag instead. Used bags are often fine (if cleaned).
  • A bow. No matter what kind of music you play, most players find that bowing allows them to hear their pitch more precisely than plucking. That means practicing with a bow allows you to hone your intonation more precisely, which is "good." Even a cheap student bow can be a help. If you get a bow you'll need a cake of rosin.

This should get you started. Other accessories such as a pickup, new strings, wheel, mute(s), and tuner/books are not needed immediately for the beginner, but can be added as you progress with the double bass studies. These other accessories also are better purchased after you have spent time with your new double bass and know what sound you want from your bass.

Do I need a bow?

Yes. Even if you aren't aspiring to play in your local orchestra, practice with a bow improves your intonation and left hand technique in ways that pizzicato playing cannot. A budget of 200 to 400 USD should get you a bow that will help you improve your technique. You will also need to buy rosin. Usually Pops, Carlssons, or Nyman should be a good place to start.

Care of your instrument

Excess dryness is your bass' enemy. This is especially true for hybrid and fully carved instruments living in cold weather parts of the country where home heating systems dry out the air. Your bass needs 35-40% humidity in the dry months. If necessary, a room humidifier should be used and a hygrometer should accompany it to give you an accurate humidity reading. This is very important for all basses and particularly for new instruments in these climates. It may take a few years for your new bass to acclimate to it's environment.

It is also important to check your soundpost's fit when winter heating goes on, as tops shrink and the soundpost may then be too long. This, in turn, can cause cracks, a very expensive repair that may also devalue your instrument. Many bassists playing hybrid and carved instruments have shorter "winter" soundposts made and installed at this time.

Whether you purchase a ply, hybrid, or carved bass, if it is cared for properly, you will not have to visit your repairman often!

Transportation

Your new bass should fit in just about any car (minus the Smart cars). Yes, you can take your new bass on the bus, subway, light rail, or other modes. You'll be shocked once you get use to hauling it around how easy it becomes. A good padded bag and a wheel also make all the difference.

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