When in the 1950s the electric bass guitar appeared on the market it did not a take long time until the double bass only played second violin in pop music. The e-bass simply offered a lot of convincing advantages: it can be transported more easily, can be amplified easily and guitar as well as double bass players can learn how to play it quickly. Nowadays the double bass plays a domineering role only in certain niches: e.g. in jazz, bluegrass, folk- or Volksmusic or rockabilly.
With the ‘unplugged’- fashion during recent years acoustic guitars become more and more popular. The interest in other acoustic instruments grew as well, so that you can see a double bass in music shops now and then. Since in the 1970s the piezoceramic pickups to amplify double basses became more and more popular, there has been something happening in the field of amplifying. Meanwhile three dozens of different pickups can be found on the market and some producers of amplifiers consider the special wishes of double bass players as well.
A lot of people who are interested in the purchase of a double bass are already playing an instrument, e.g. the guitar or the electric bass. In comparison with the prices paid for an electric bass manufactured in mass production, even a entry-level double bass is a lot more expensive. Whereas you can already get a quite sophisticated electric bass for about 500 €, most (new) double basses of this price range are only instruments for beginners (if at all). The setup prices and the prices for the additional equipment are also higher. So a set of good quality steel strings is about 120 € and more, and you won’t get a set of quality gut strings for less than 250 €.
The materials which are used are of a decisive importance for the quality of an instrument. Double basses can be divided into two categories according to the wood which is used to produce a double bass: carved basses and those made of laminated woods. With carved basses the arch of the top and back are carved out of the complete block of wood which applies a lot of work and material. Suitable wood to make instruments of has been air-dried for years or even decades until it is used. Strongly wavy-grained wood is the most sought-after.
So-called laminated double basses are made of veneered wood. Top and bottom are formed by means of presses. Besides the good prices it is the robustness which speaks in favor of the laminated basses. While carved basses is constantly threatened by cracks caused e.g. by careless transport or effects of the weather, the laminated wood which consists of several layers of wood glued together is more insensitive. But although there are laminated basses which are able to produce a pretty good sound, a certain ideal sound can only be obtained with a carved bass. Mostly the sound of a carved bass is richer of overtones whereas laminated basses sound more muffled. High quality basses are therefore carved ones. Between these two categories in regard to prices as well as quality you can find so called “hybrid” basses which actually have a carved top but whose bottom and ribs are made of veneered (laminated) wood. If well made, they may be prefereable over a poorly made fully carved bass.
First choice for fingerboards is ebony, preferably african. Because of economic reasons you can also find other kinds of wood, such as rosewood, maple or other hardwood. Sometimes they are stained black – providing the bass player with black fingers for some time. As an alternative to the expensive ebony fingerboards made of graphite materials are offered. But they have not been able to become popular yet.
Apart from the materials used there can also be differences in quality which are based on the mode of production. Besides the traditional production in small lutherie workshops you can also find an industrial series production of double basses. Whereas the top is elaborately carved by hand in the workshops, in factories they are routed by machines. There are also differences in varnishing. Whereas a traditional varnishing, based on natural resins solved in oil or spirit, is applied by hand in various layers, in series production nitrocellulosis or contemporary PU and DD varnishes are used. They dry more quickly and are more simply to work with.
A lot of bass players prefer an instrument which has been used for some decades to a new one. Collectors pay fortunes for old pedigree basses from master luthiers, expecially for 18./19. century instruments from Italy, France, Britain or Germany.
Most of the double basses need some years in order to develop their sound and thus sound really “open”. The special sound which is characteristic for each individual instrument only appears after some years. Simply speaking, the individual parts of a double bass have different resonances, which stand partly in each other’s way. After some time they adapt to each other.
Some people try to imitate and accelerate this proceeding, which an old instrument has experienced by being used for years, with the help of mechanical gadgets which apply vibrations to the instrument. This technique is called vibration dedampening and was developped by Prof. von Reumont (Germany) in the 1970ies.
If you are offered an older carved double bass, already existing cracks (in the top, back or rib) should not deter you from buying it. Almost every old double bass has got cracks and as long as its number is limited, they do not necessarily reduce its value – if they are repaired by an expert. As you can only repair a few cracks through the ƒ-holes, the top or the back has to be removed for the repair. If there is used hide glue (commonly used with string instruments), this can be done without greater problems for an experienced luthier.
If a double bass isn’t well setup or even unplayable the sound potential can only be judged insufficiently and in the case of a purchase some more money has to be spent. This is true for old as well as for new double basses. I the fingerboard is badly planed, clattering or buzzing of the strings can be heard. The fingerboard must then be planed down again by an experienced bass luthier. If it is of a poor quality or already too thin, it must be replaced by a new one. A new bridge is also necessary, if the old one is already sagging towards the fingerboard. Such a bridge is in danger to fall over under the pressure of the strings thus damaging the belly seriously.
Besides the quality of the material and the production it is certainly the sound which should play a major part when judging a double bass. A double bass should sound well-balanced on all strings and in all positions.
Besides a round, powerful tone also it’s ease of resonance and the sustain are important. As the tone is extending more towards to the front than to the top, the perception as player is a different one compared to the one the audience has being some steps away. That is why you should always listen to someone playing the double bass of one’s choice and compare the various impressions. The acoustics of a room also plays an considerable role. If you play into the corner of a room, a lot more is reflected to the bassist’s ears compared with standing in the middle of a room.
You should not hurry when buying a double bass. It’s always worth while going to a specialist be it only to get a survey of the available instruments and their prices. Normal music shops mostly have only single double basses in store if at all. Unfortunately a lot of music shops also offer the double basses as the have got them from the wholesaler: badly setup and equipped with cheap strings – what makes the bass more or less unplayable. After buying such a bass, you need to find a qualified luthier to do the setup for you.
Especially if you do not have any experience with the double bass you should not do without trying out various double basses. It is the only way to find out what is the most important for you and which size suits you. Very often you will find helpful and competent advisors in double bass teachers who will help you with looking for and choosing the right double bass for you.
See my Google map for a luthier in your area (new submissions appreciated).
Buying tips by Ron Carter:
- Don’t buy a bass that’s too big. Many students do. You’ve got to be able to play the whole bass in tune.
- How close is the sound to what you want? Will the instrument allow you to develop a sound you can be responsible for? You can’t manipulate sound that’s nor there.
- Don’t buy something too expensive. Buy something you can afford until you develop your ear.
- Make sure it has the original scroll and the neck isn’t nailed in.
- Don’t be impressed by the name – it may not be the right size or sound.