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How To Buy a String Bass
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.

Tone Quality

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 this subject.

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.

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