This instrument must surely take the prize for having the most names, some
accurate, some not- some just plain silly: bass, bass viol, contrabass, string bass,
double bass, bass violin, upright bass, bass fiddle, and my personal least favorite,
bull fiddle - ignoring entirely the electric bass and its several variations. And of
all those, it seems that bass violin may be the least accurate of these names, for
the bass is not a member of the violin family at all, but rather, the last remaining
member of the viol family in the conventional orchestra. The violin, viola and cello
all have a very important characteristic in common. They are tuned in fifths. The
bass is tuned in fourths like its viol family forebears. Its most common shape has
sloped, rather than rounded, shoulders, gamba-style corners and often a flat back –
all common characteristics of the viols rather than the violins.
There was a time, of course, when the viols and violins, cellos (sometimes
considered the basses of the day), gambas of several voices and basses were
present in the orchestra at the same time. One wonders if this was a very
peaceable kingdom. But perhaps this was a result of available personnel and
instruments rather than a composer’s express intent.
Perhaps the present arrangement of violin, viola, cello and bass viol is the result of
this earlier juxtaposition in the orchestra. Today, the bass is a member of the tonal
foundation of several types of ensembles. It is essential as the ground floor of the
string section in both the string orchestra and the full orchestra. But it appears in
the string chamber ensemble, the jazz big band, the small jazz ensemble and even
the concert band. Perhaps it needs all of those names to cover all of its functions.
Choosing one is very dependent on the use for which it is intended.
In choosing a string bass, there are many options. There is no one type of bass
for all purposes, so the task is first to consider what is the most important
characteristic you are seeking. Let’s consider the choices from this point first.
Usually the least expensive instrument will be of laminated construction.
Fingerboards and tailpiece will, in most likelihood, be of hardwood rather than
ebony. Strings may be of an unknown origin. Shop adjustment may be of a minimal
sort and may be “cookie-cutter” style- that is to say the work is performed in
a repetitive manner from instrument to instrument rather than the work being
individualized to optimize the playability of each instrument.
Again, the choice is laminated construction, but if there is more to spend in terms
of upgrading components, this type of bass can be made more appealing with
high quality strings and components. While genuine inlaid purfling will enhance
the durability of a solid or carved instrument, it does not seem to have the same
effect on a laminated one. In fact, some feel that purfling a laminated instrument is
detrimental because it isolates this edge portion of the top laminate layer, making
it easier to break this edge from the purfling out to the edge. Watch out for the
corners. Violin-style corners are beautiful but require more careful handling than the
gamba-style corners as they are longer and can be somewhat more easily broken.
How about that extra piece under the edges and over the ribs running all around
the bass? Called a reinforced edge, rim or cornice, this fitting multiplies the gluing
area at the edges and can really help to keep seams closed and ribs straight.
Fully carved basses are durable in the sense that they can give long years of
service. But generally there is much more maintenance and repair to anticipate
with a carved bass. Certainly, cracks in the top and back plates are common and
quality repair work is not cheap. If they are in an environment of even mildly rough
usage, edge abrasion and shredding are to be expected. Genuine inlaid purfling is
a must in the carved bass to help prevent edge abrasions from continuing into the
body plates of the instrument and becoming cracks.
If tone is the only qualifier, then the fully carved bass is the ultimate answer. There
are other characteristics of string bass choices that are also worth considering.
These include fingerboard shape, bridge styles, string choices, corner and body
shape, size and adjustment style.
The fingerboard shape actually has some considerable influence on tonal
characteristic. The classical concave shape (lengthwise) results in a more
traditional, focused tone. A “growl” can be introduced into the tone by a flatter
fingerboard. The string literally slaps the fingerboard under the stop. Bridges can
be made with a traditional crown for more string plane separation for classical
playing or a flatter crown for jazz, putting the strings on closer planes to facilitate
fast pizzicato playing and easy action.
Adjusting wheels can be built into the bridge legs to allow changes in string
clearance to accommodate climate changes and even playing styles. These
wheels can be made of brass, aluminum or several types of wood. If they are of
any type of metal, it is recommended that they be milled from one piece so the
wheel and the shaft do not separate. Finally, electric pickups are made that fit into
the bridge, under the bridge feet or in contact with the instrument in other ways.
String choices are nearly endless and each will
contribute its own unique sound and
response to a given instrument. Some
experimentation is in order (although
expensive), and the advice of professional
bass players and teachers is invaluable on
Compromise is a Good Thing
In selecting a string bass, compromise often
leads to satisfying results. In the same sense
that many of us will be budgeted to have one
vehicle, but sometimes wish for the utility
of a pickup, the terrain-handling capability of
an SUV, the handling of a roadster and the
comfort of a limousine, we need to prioritize the
characteristics we’re looking for and create a
package that most nearly meets all of our needs.
It is possible, for instance, to create a bass with
laminated construction for durability and fit it
with a good quality bridge and have it carefully
shop-adjusted, resulting in a satisfactory
tone production as well. It is possible to
find a fully carved bass for the sake
of tone quality but choose a model
with a flat back that is much more
economical to produce than one
with a fully carved round back.
It is possible to choose one
with laminated back and
sides for economy and
durability but with a carved
top (called a “hybrid”) to
improve tone production.
Just as making good
choices in selecting
material for the foundation
of a building results in
determining the height and
breadth and longevity
of that building, making
good choices in specifying
a string bass can
greatly influence the
characteristics of the
ensemble it underlies.