Buying a New Double Bass
In this guide we assume you are buying a double bass for the first time and have decided on buying a new double bass.
There are other guides on this site for specific situations. For example, there is a separate guide for buying a used (second hand) double bass, as there are some additional checks and considerations to make. We have posts on children learning the double bass, Bluegrass basses, and some help regarding set-up for slap-bass. Please consider checking these out as well as they go into some specifics.
- A Good Starting Point
- What Size Instrument?
- Determining the Right Size of Double Bass
- Do Not Assume All Basses are the Same Measurement
- Geometry of the Double Bass
- Smaller Instruments Are Not Necessarily Quieter
- If You Are Going to Add Pick-Ups
- A Less than Ideal Bass Can be Improved
- Double Bass Construction
- Visiting the Store
- What to Assess in the Shop
A Good Starting Point
It might sound obvious but allow yourself time when if comes to purchasing a double bass, try not to rush this process. This is probably going to be a considered purchase in terms of budget and getting the right fit for you as a musician.
It is also (usually) a bad idea to buy an instrument for someone else. Instruments are far too personal. This is especially the case with the double bass as it is such a physical instrument and they are all very individual. The player at least needs to be in the shop to try out the instrument or have had access to the same model and make of instrument prior to purchase.
If you are in ‘music’ circles a simple starting point is to ask around, make it known you are looking for a bass. Whilst these enquires are likely to unearth some used basses (which are worth checking out) the process will hopefully give you a chance to get your hands on a number of basses, listen to opinions and help form your own opinion as to what you like and do not like.
Not a musician? You would do well to get in touch with a few carefully selected bass teachers, ring them up, have a chat about your aspirations. Allow the discussion to inform you of their suitability as a future teacher or mentor for your bass journey. They should have some clear ideas as to any good music outlets where you can buy a bass.
You could also ask a teacher about any recommended luthiers who might be in your area. There is a good chance that you will be needing one at some point in the future. Do not be shy about having this conversation, any good teacher should be willing to assist, and they should be aware that this conversation could pave the way to a potential future student. If you do not have a teacher in your area have a look at our post about learning a double bass online.
The next and important step if you haven’t already done so is to consider what type of music you are most drawn to and what double bass sound you like or don’t like. Are you looking for a bright sound or deeper more resonate sound? How are you going to use the instrument, for example, are you looking to play eventually in a local community orchestra or a bluegrass band?
All of this is useful information when you visit the store – use these preferences to describe to the sales person what you are looking for and what your musical interests are. This conversation helps inform the set-up of the instrument.
Needless to say, you need to have an idea with regards to what budget you have in mind. As part of your preliminary checks you could give a local luthier a call to find out what their set-up fees are and whether they have any instruments for sale. It is quite possible that you will need to pay them a visit if you have bought a new bass and have decided to do some modifications done to upgrade or modify elements, such as the bridge or fingerboard.
What Size Instrument?
To some extent the size of a double bass is determined by the players stature. Putting aside (generally) classical players for a moment, most double bass players will choose a ¾ bass or below. Most double bassists naturally would like a smaller instrument simply because of portability of the instrument. Additionally, double basses are naturally large but are also fairly fragile for their bulk.
Do not forget to consider transportation when buying your double bass. You will most likely need at least a large hatch-back vehicle. Most double bass players drive a large estate car/station wagon to transport a double bass plus gear.
Classical musicians or musicians who are not intending to amplify the instrument are more likely to choose a full-size bass instrument. Some of this is I believe is more from tradition than any musical needs as the acoustic ambiance of the instrument is arguably more determined by the wood used as opposed to its size. That said, I am not a classical musician, so in all honesty it is probably useful to consider what most musicians in your local orchestra play. The main point here is that in most cases you would be disadvantaged if you choose a smaller instrument.
Full-size instruments are not necessarily louder instruments (more on this later). Larger instruments more often have a better acoustic sound quality than the ¾ or lower sized instruments. Full sized instruments generally speaking have been made with more expensive wood and components. The wood is usually carved or solid wood. These instruments are therefore more often associated with being on the classical stage.
Determining the Right Size of Double Bass
One method to try in the shop to determine a comfortable size is to hold the bass in front of you at an arms’ length, with your left arm (if right-handed). Lever or tilt the bass towards you so it rests on your shoulder. Do not extend the spike.
The nut on the bass needs to be approximately horizontal to your eyebrows. If the position isn’t exactly parallel it is better for the nut to be slightly below as opposed to slightly above. In this instance where the nut is just below the eyebrow of the player, the end pin or spike, can be extended so that the bass nut is level with the player’s eyebrows.
For a final check with your plucking hand reach down towards the bridge with the bass leant against your body in the playing position. The tips of the hand (right if right-handed) should just reach the bridge. You need to assess the comparative string length to your own physical stature.
For beginners it is better to go for a slightly smaller bass than larger, this is due to the relative strength and technique that needs to be developed to play the bass. When this is developed the player does have more of an opportunity to go for a slightly larger bass if they wish. A more experienced player can produced enough leverage on the strings comfortably without strain and will be able to project the sound as desired with greater ease.
If you do not get this right you could risk getting some upper body issues in your hands, neck and shoulders.
Do Not Assume All Basses are the Same Measurement
Whilst most players choose a certain sized instrument you cannot assume that all instruments will have the same geometry or feel the same. For example within the ¾ range of instruments you will find a wide range of instrument sizes. This is down to the various choices that manufacturers have made in terms of their instrument design. These differences are significant enough for you to notice when playing and comparing basses. Some basses can have for example slopping cut down shoulders and look smaller because of this.
Geometry of the Double Bass
I cannot emphasis enough how the geometry of the bass is going to be determined by how the bass feels to the musician. The size of the shoulder of the bass can be important, if it is too big it can hinder the musician in terms of the musicians reach down the fingerboard. Simply put if there is more wood here and you are shorter you have more wood to maneuver round.
The overstand can vary on basses, this is the gap between the back of the fingerboard and the soundboard where the neck joins the body, on some older basses this can be quite close. This can be something some players do not like as they can catch their hand against the bass.
Smaller Instruments Are Not Necessarily Quieter
Smaller basses can actually sound louder than larger full size models, these basses can project more and have more attack as the sound is compressed in a smaller acoustic chamber. This sound for my preference is better, especially if you are looking for a sound that has a ‘staccato’ clear punch. This could well be advantageous if you are searching or an instrument which will play slap bass or blues.
My own bass for example has a short 39 ¼” string length but it is a loud bass, louder than a lot of other double basses I have played.
Whilst it may be assumed that a double bass player needs to be a ‘big tall man’ there are a lot of petite women who play double bass, you do not have to be this typically perceived frame to get a good sound. Size does not equal a good sound.
There are so many variables in this discussion, but the underlining message here is that you cannot rule out a smaller instrument, assuming that it is not going to be loud enough, particularly if you are going to use pickups on the bass.
If You Are Going to Add Pick-Ups
If you are looking to add pickups to the bass the suggestion is to go for a ¾ bass due to the fact that a smaller bass is less likely to feedback. A full size bass has a larger acoustic sound chamber, there are more likely to feed-back and are harder to control from a sound point of view. Larger basses also have a greater surface area, so if you are using an acoustic pickup, which makes them more likely to pick up other sound frequencies on the stage.
A Less than Ideal Bass Can be Improved
A lot of the time on this site we have discussed how ‘fickle’ basses can be, not one instrument is the same, they are very ‘organic beasts,’ meaning they vary a lot. It is almost to be expected that each instrument will require tweaking or adjusting at some point in the life of the instrument (at least once) to get the set up which the player wishes.
You may be lucky in that the bass in the shop has been set up correctly, but if the sound of the instrument is not exactly as you would like there are some changes that can easily be made to improve on the original. A local luthier can help you with this if the musician has a clear style which lends itself to a specific set-up.
Good strings, which are suitable for the style of music you are looking to play. The shop, if specialist can set up the bass with the correct strings ahead of time (ring in advance) or indeed change the strings whilst you are there if requested.
The spacing of the strings, which is the gap between the four strings can be altered by a luthier if necessary. The length of the strings can be altered only by a small amount by moving the bridge.
Good quality bridge that is ideally adjustable. Adjustable bridges are helpful for a beginner to adjust to get their preferred action. If you have a teacher this is something that you can work through with your teachers’ guidance.
Playing action (height of strings) can be set according to the desired playing style. The action, is controlled by varying the height of the bridge. Generally, the higher the action, the more low bass frequencies are produced, conversely, the lower the action the more mids and high mids you will get.
Upgrade of Fingerboard. A stained wood fingerboard can be upgraded to rosewood or ebony, if desired. This will give more durability to the fingerboard, which means in turn, that the bass is less likely to exhibit less fingerboard buzzes due to wear and tear.
All of this is not to make the beginner feel overwhelmed with their purchase or complicate it. The important step is to get the bass home and to start playing. The guidance here is to explain that there are changes that can be made if desired. There are plenty of things that can be done to improve the set-up of a student bass, improving the sound and playability of the instrument.
A cheaper Chinese bass, for example, with a good set-up can sound good – which is a good starting point for a student.
Double Bass Construction
Double basses will come in the following types of construction:
Laminate, otherwise known as plywood is where several layers of wood are glued together. Plywood by its nature a lot stronger than carved or solid wood but it is considerably also cheaper. You will see a lot of musicians today choosing laminate basses, especially students.
If you are not going to rely on the acoustic sound of the double bass and intend to use picks and an amp the quality of wood is less of an concern. A laminate bass is perfectly acceptable with the right set-up. With an amplified bass the natural acoustic sound of the bass is not going to be appreciated or rather, heard that often. The downside of the laminate is that is does not resonate as well. This does improve a bit with age but not as much higher grades of wood.
Carved or Solid Wood
Carved or solid wood basses are popular with classical musicians, who are not using pickups must have the best quality acoustic sound they can afford. This is likely to come from higher grade wood such as carved or solid front basses.
A lot of very old basses were made from a selection of different types of wood, cherry, beech, oak as well as other woods. This seemed to be more of a case of whatever the maker could lay his hands on at the time as opposed to any deliberate consideration as to the sound of the instrument. Today a lot of solid basses are made from willow or spruce.
A hybrid bass is a combination of a solid wood front and laminate back and sides, it is a good middle ground between laminate basses and solid wood basses.
Visiting the Store
Try to identify a store that is a specialist string instrument supplier or has at least staff who play the double bass. Ring ahead of your intended visit to arrange a time. Explain what sort of bass playing you are looking to do and your budget range. They will have enough notice then to ensure that they have a selection of basses ready for you to try out. Hopefully you will also at this point have a dedicated sales person who is an expert or at least has experience with regards to playing a double bass. The ideal situation for a new player is to visit a specialist shop, if at all possible.
Describe what type of setup and sound you want to an experienced specialist sales person (who is a double bassist) by describing the type of music you want to play.
What to Assess in the Shop
After finding an instrument that is the right size for you, the next assessment is to look for a consistent volume when it is played. You do not want an instrument which plays one note considerably quieter or louder than the other. You need to listen for ‘dead spots’ in the tone and volume. The only way to test this is to play up and down the fingerboard on each string. Granted this might feel a bit intimidating if you cannot play the double bass, therefore, if you have someone with you who plays the double bass or at least the bass guitar, this process will be easier. It is still possible for a beginner to try. Play the bass as much as possible, use your ears. Situate yourself in a quiet area of the shop, or preferably in a practice room.
This principal test is also useful when assessing a bass guitar. All instruments can have these dead spots, and indeed it is common to have some variance across the bass instrument. What you do not want is an extreme variance in volume. It is common for double basses to lose some volume either at the top end of the fingerboard or more likely on the low e. My own bass has a bit of variance, but this is balanced out with an adjustment that I have done to the pickup.
A well balanced tone and volume will definitely help in the recording studio, it will be easier for the engineer to work with the double bass.