Buying a Good Upright Bass
If you are a seasoned, experienced upright bass player, chances are you know what to look for in a good upright bass. Often though, even upright bass players that have been playing for quite some time, still don’t know what to look for in a bass. As a player myself, I know there is a “the grass is always greener” kind of attitude. The minute we get a bass (a keeper!) we will undoubtedly find something (or a few things) that we don’t like or particularly care for in the coming weeks or months with the bass when we first own it and get to know the instrument.
In this article I will go over what kinds of things to look for as well as to what avoid in buying an upright bass. Also, how not to (hopefully) get swept up into the “puppy love” kind of buying and make costly mistakes.
There are all kinds of upright basses. Big ones, small ones, cheap ones and well, not so cheap ones! That too, is a subjective issue. For some, a lot of money (for a bass) is more than $ 1000, and for some really serious players or collectors, they would gladly trade their house for the right upright bass. (I personally thanked a close colleague of mine for personally, single handedly raising the prices of old, Italian, upright basses by paying one of the highest prices recorded (something to the tune of $ 300,000.) Recently, we heard of another selling for almost ½ million (that’s US dollars!).
Even in this rocky economy, the sky’s the limit for a great, historical instrument, with providence and authenticity! For our own (practical) purposes, we’re going to stay with basses under $ 10,000.
Plywood basses are usually the “portal” bass that players get when they buy their first double bass. Plywood basses are a safe bet in that they will not require a lot of attention to the care of them (because plywood basses are less likely to be effected by weather or hard bumps like the more expensive carved basses). Even with these ‘cheaper’ basses, don’t buy one that is ‘too cheap’. Remember what our parents told us….? If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t! Only when you’ve researched, shopped around and with the internet nowadays, get a quick idea of what not to buy, you can get a better idea of what you’re doing and to know what a “good deal” on a bass actually is.
Plywood basses again, are good to start because they are cheaper and more affordable for beginner players that want to see if they really like the bass or not. Later, if they like it, can trade up for a better bass. A good plywood will cost between $ 1,000-2,000. Personally, I wouldn’t pay more than that. With all the competition in pricing and new imports, you can get a great, professional level plywood bass for a price which is closer to the lower end than higher. For new basses, you can get one with a good warranty (where you don’t pay money if anything goes wrong with the bass or it becomes later known that there is some kind of defect.) A solid, good quality ebony fingerboard is a must, European strings (by Pirastro or Thomastik), and a cover should be included. If you’re buying a bass for the first time, don’t buy one on Ebay for $ 495!
Even the seemingly slightest issues to the untrained eyes can actually cost a small fortune to repair or make right. A buzzing string? Planning a fingerboard can go between $ 100-150. Open seams, between $ 25-200 depending what’s involved. Often, the bass bridge is not fitting properly, the fingerboard needs planning, the strings can need to be replaced etc… take anything (if you can) to a good, qualified luthier. They will point out anything there is that you might not know to look out for or give you a thumbs up. They might also try and show you their stock too. Nothing wrong with that, and you can weigh out the pros and cons of both.
The Hybrid upright basses are the “in between” bass of plywood and carved basses. Hybrids (while they will never have the ultimate quality of tone as a carved bass) take the tonal spectrum to a higher scale than the regular plywood bass. A hybrid upright bass is a bass with a carved top, and the rest of the bass is still plywood. Much of the way a bass works, the tonal and response have most to do with the top flex and vibration. So having a carved top bass will not only sound much better than a plywood (in most cases), it will enjoy the durability of a plywood because the back and the sides (being of plywood) will not contract and expand like a regular solid wood bass. Why is this beneficial? With carved basses, contracting and expanding during the seasonal changes every year, can cause the top, back or sides to crack. Repairs are expensive! These basses are cheaper than a carved bass as well. Lots of professional players like to use a hybrid because they can run all over town (and take them outside) while not having to worry too much about the care and upkeep. Many pros keep like to keep one of these basses as their “2nd” or back-up bass to their really nice, solid carved bass (staying at) home.
Getting a good carved bass as mentioned earlier in this article, can really vary in price. This is where the higher prices will be found, but the higher the price, sometimes the biggest mistakes can be made (and avoided!) First, if you are relatively new to looking at basses, try to get an expert opinion. Take your teacher with you and pay him/her what their time would ordinarily be for a lesson or gig. This way, they will be able to point out any issues that the bass may have. Cracks, or more seriously needed repairs will often not be noticed by most players. The money you pay your teacher for this help will be the best spent money ever!
There are lots of good choices in buying a good upright bass these days. The quality can be as good or better than Germany ever was. The Chinese, are skilled, expert craftsmen and they have had centuries of traditions for wood carving and craftsmanship. Whatever your price range may be, and with all of the internet resources, you can find a great, durable and well made bass. Also, about warranties: New upright basses should always come with some kind of dependable (all inclusive) warranty that replaces or repairs anything that should go wrong with normal wear “and care” of the bass.
Owner and operator of the String Emporium, LLC. Specializing in the sale and procurement of upright basses.
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