double bass on stage

Advice on Buying a Used Double Bass

You might be considering buying a double bass second hand or  used, and have seen such a bass for sale, but you are not that sure whether it is going to be a good buy. 

Advice for buying second hand basses is a bit lacking online so I have put together what I would look for when assessing a new purchase. 

Should I Consider Buying a Used Double Bass?

Yes absolutely, many musicians prefer a used bass, and if you are unsure whether a double bass is ‘your’ instrument for life it might be more advisable to go for a used bass. 

The great advantage of going down this route is that generally, the instruments appreciate in monetary value and musical value with age. The bass ‘loosens up’ due to the bass frequencies traveling through the body of the instrument.  The more it is played the better it will sound.

Checks to Make When Buying a Pre-Owned Double Bass

Before meeting the seller ask some questions directly to them regarding the bass.  These pre-checks will enable you to do a little background checking. 

  • A little about the seller, are they a musician; if so check out whether they are known to be a bass player.  Have they been pictured with the bass in question.
  • Why are they selling the instrument.
  • What strings have they got on the instrument, what is the brand, how much did they pay for them, when were they fitted to the bass.  Strings are not something that break that often so it is possible if the bass is not that old that they will not have changed the strings.  If you are given the brand of the strings you can do a quick internet search to find out the cost of the strings. You can tell if the player values the bass enough to put a good set of strings on the bass. Cheaper student strings are likely to be on a cheap bass.   
  • What repairs have been done on the bass.  The purpose of this pre-visit question is to ascertain specifically who undertook these repairs and what roughly has been done.

Look up the repairer and seek to contact them to verify that they have indeed repaired this bass.  This is very important.  Hopefully, this repairer will have a website where you can understand a little more about their professionalism (trade associations) or portfolio of work on display. If you feel uncomfortable with this conversation you can start by asking questions about the repair services on offer, as if you were intending to use them in the future for bass repair work.  Then you are in the position to say that you are looking at this bass, you believe they have worked on it, do they have any thoughts on this bass.  This conversation will give you a good steer ahead of seeing the instrument. All of this really is akin to buying a car, what the service history is of the car and then seeking out the mechanic for his view on the cars performance and verifying that the two stories match up.

You can always go back and verify any further questions after you have seen the bass. 

My Bass Repairs and History

To help illustrate what you need to look for when assessing a used double bass I am going to show you my bass.

The pictures taken are therefore from a bass which I have owned since 1982.  This bass has a lot of mileage on it as I have played it professionally throughout my life.  You can see lots of ‘road’ damage and general wear and tear.  Each break or crack has a story behind it. 

Know the History

The important thing for this bass is that I know its history.  Like a car, I know what has been done to it and by who.  All the repairs have been undertaken by a professional specialist repairer.  The bass, of course, sounds great which is why I own it and play it.  It is my one and only bass.  I have owned another model in the past, it did not sound so good so it went.  This bass has had plenty of damage over the years but the professional repairs mean that the bass still has plenty of mileage and importantly sounds good. 

What if The Owner Has Repaired the Double Bass

If you understand that repairs have been done by the owner you are most likely to consider walking away from the purchase at that point and will need to take the view of a specialist repairer before making the purchase.  Take photographs of the damage to assist with the specialist consultation. Repairs can be costly.  You will need to weigh up the cost of the repair if needed to be done professionally (most likely it will need to be) against the purchase cost and whether it can, in fact, be repaired professionally.  Any rattles or dullness in the sound can easily be attributed to unprofessional repairs. 

Check the Machine Heads

In order to check the tuning or machine head it is helpful to take a guitar tuner with you when you assess the bass.  One test is to see if the bass stays in tune.  A bass that easily loses it tuning could indicate an issue with the machine head.  Play each of the E A D G strings open on the bass confirming it is in tune with the tuner.  Ask the owner to demonstrate their bass if they can play,  or simply play the bass yourself if necessary

with open strings, then recheck the tuning with open strings on the tuner. 

Any changes in tuning could indicate either the strings are on the way out or a more serious concern the tuning heads. If the tuning heads are not functioning properly the strings could be slipping and the bass, therefore, would not hold its tuning.  The tuning pegs which make up the machine head are likely to be expensive to replace.

Start by asking how long the strings have been put on the bass. There is no need to oil these cogs or parts, doing so might make the strings slip and cause the issue.

Check the Finger Plates

Check the finger plates are not loose or damaged.  It is often the ‘d’ which gets damaged.

finger plate double bass

Check the ‘Nut’

Check that the nut is correctly positioned, it must be cut properly showing the strings sitting correctly in the ‘nut’ so that they do not touch the fingerboard.  You should be able to see a few millimeters of space between the fingerboard and the strings. 

double bass nut

Head Stock Damage on a Double Bass

Two main weak points on a double bass, where the headstock joins the neck and the neck joins the body,  is this is known as the ‘saddle.’  Look out for repairs or crack at these two points in particular.  You can see quite a bit of damage on this bass, the neck snapped. The bass was repaired professionally and several bolts were inserted inside the wood to secure the finished repair.  This underlines the point that a professional repair is a necessity not an option for instruments. 

double bass headstock
Damage on the headstock, repaired professionally. Enforced by steel rod.

Splits in the Front Sound Panel of Bass

Look for splits in the front sound panel of the bass. The sound panel is the front panel of the bass.  Such splits usually follow the grain of the wood and are from any impact the bass has endured.  These splits can be repaired but they have to be done properly otherwise the bass can develop a rattle.  A professional repair procedure would involve taking the panel off the bass completely.

Particular areas to check for splits would be where the feet of the bridge meet the front panel.  This is a point of tension and therefore puts extra pressure on the wood at this junction.  Blows to the bridge could also impact at this point onto the front panel.  It is therefore important to protect the bridge, especially when loading the bass into the car or when storing. 

‘Leaks’ in the Front and Rear Panels

Check for ‘leaks’ where the front panel and the back panel join the side panel.  These leaks can occur in particularly around the the cutaway section.  This area in the body is somewhat of a more weak point.  It can also be an area where the glue has deteriorated over time, humidity can also destroy the glue. 

To check for leaks you need to tap around the bass.  Simply knock or tap the front panel ½ an inch from the edge of the bass.  Tap all around the bass at approximately 2-inch intervals, tracing the circumference of the bass with this tapping motion. 

Tap around the edge of the bass on the front and rear panels to listen out for changes in tone which could indidcate a poor seal or leak.

The difference will be in the tone, if there are any leaks present.  At some points around the edge of the bass, the sound might be a little more hollow. If you consider a film scene where the detective is trying to find a false wall, it is a bit like that, you are tapping for a hollow space in the join. Repeat the same process where the back panel joins the side.  It is more common to find these leaks in the front panel than the back.

Check the Fingeboard

Ask what the fingerboard is made from.  Options include stained wood, which is often used on budget models, such as student instruments. Mahogany, rosewood, ebony are also used on more expensive models.  Look out for ruts made by the strings, such ruts may cause rattles.  Ebony is the preferred quality but is now a concern for the environment. 

The fingerboard can be replaced, however, this is considered an extreme thing to do. It would be advisable to check with the repairer if they are willing to do such a job. The original fingerboard was only stained wood which suffered from wear and was upgraded to ebony, which is a much harder wood.

It is possible to skim the fingerboard to get rid of string buzz,  this process is where the wood is shaved, again a professional job here.  For this to be achieved there needs to be sufficient wood on the fingerboard in the first place.   

Check the Bridge

Check the bridge is cut properly and that there are no gaps between the front panel and the feet of the bridge

Check the ‘Tail Gut’

The ‘tail gut’ at the foot of the bass carried a lot of tension.   As expected the name comes from the fact that the cord was made from animal intestine, however not many are these days. It is more common to see that the cord is made from nylon or a steel cable. The tension is measured in pounds and it is constant.  Make sure that the tail gut is in good order and not about to snap and does not appear frayed.  It should be under tension.  In this picture, you can see the use of gaffer tape which is protecting the solder which joins the steel chord and prevents any snagging from stray strands of wire when the bass is being placed in its bag. 

Tail Gut with extra tap to protect the join

Soundpost on a Double Bass

Check the positioning of the soundpost.  The soundpost should be about half an inch below the foot of the bridge on the g side of the bridge.  This is quite hard to see so take your phone with a torch. The soundpost needs to be in position for the instrument to resonate.  If for some reason the soundpost moves or has dropped out of the position, such as when the strings on the double bass have all been slackened off too much the soundpost will need to be placed back into position.  However this is to be avoided at all costs. The occurrence of this happening is rare but the consequences are frustrating, to say the least. It is virtually impossible to reset the soundpost without the use of a post setter, a special instrument that can be bought to do the job. 

Guide to buying a used double bass, checks and advice.
You can just seen the soundpost

Condition of Strings

Check the condition of the strings, ask what make they are.  Google them, ask how much they are.  A good set is going to be from about $120 the strings on this bass are ‘Thomastik Superflexible.’ If they have cheap strings on the bass this is a good indicator of the care of the bass has received and whether it has been played much, and whether it is indeed been played by a professional musician. 

Being fore warned is fore armed as they say and have a list like this of simple checks ensures you have a clear idea of the weak points on a double bass. For such as large instrument they are relatively fragile.  Damage of course does not mean you should not take on the bass but it does mean you will take on the extra expense and cannot truly determine the ‘sound’ and performance of the bass truly until these issues have been ironed out.  

During the lifetime of your bass if it is used as mine that is on a daily basis the instrument will show wear and tear. Especially so if as this includes road trips or passage in an aircraft hold.  These checks can of course be repeated if and when rattles occur, or something does not quite sound right.

It is perhaps a good idea to have at least one phone number of a specialist repairer in your directory.  Few things are more stressful than a break somewhere on the bass which is impacting its performance and you have a gig date coming up.  Word of mouth is of course as always a good indicator of professionalism. 

You can see from this double bass that it has had plenty of wear over the years and also some quite major repairs.  The sound of the instrument is what makes everything possible of course and, in this instance, careful repairs on the bass have enabled this relationship to continue.  Visual perfection is not required for a good bass, sound is much more important.

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