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Double Dealing

Double Basses

Article from Making Music, January 1987

Those large wooden things that are becoming surprisingly trend. How to cope.

David Etheridge has a few words to scribble on the subject of double basses - the buying, the playing and the lifting of them without the aid of a crane.

GO ON, admit it, you've studied those pics of Mr Sting clutching that enormous creation on stage, haven't you?

Over the last few years the humble double bass has crept or more likely lurched back into popularity. The rebirth of jazz amongst young musicians, the rockabilly bands, and of course Sting himself, have all meant that around the country fearless bassists are taking the acoustic bass seriously. If you want to be right up to date (compare the Rickenbacker five-string review in October), five-string double basses have been around for... well, would you believe the last century? From around 1880 orchestral megastars of the ilk of Wagner and Richard Strauss dictated that them low Cs and Bs had to be there under the cellos where they belonged.

The dear old DB hasn't had a very good deal from rock'n'roll. Once Buddy Holly had decided to drown the thing out with the early Fender guitars, and Bill Haley's bassist had resorted to aerobics to divert the fans' attention, the double bass retreated to jazz circles where similar damage was done when bassists used the crude amplification of the times. There was also folk and country.

However, with the development of good quality amplification, mikes, transducers and the desire to get away from high tech sounds, the double bass comes back into its own.

What exactly do you need? First of all, MUSCLES! You qualify for honorary roadie status picking up an instrument weighing in at up to 60lbs. Next, a large pair of hands. The average scale from nut to bridge is around 42in and when fingering the first octave on a bass you only use fingers 1, 2 and then 3 and 4 together (practice your Winston Churchill V-signs to get the distance between your digits — three to four inches represents just one semi-tone). As the years go on and your hands (and blisters) develop, you'll find that your left hand is larger than your right. Yes, we really suffer for our art here.

Next, the instruments themselves. One immediate question is cost and here your mind must make the quantum leap away from the world of £150-£300 guitars. Most basses start at around £500-£600 and can go up to four or even five figure sums with no trouble. All is not lost, though, as a good quality bass not only keeps up with inflation but is usually an excellent investment if cared for properly.

Basses come in two types of construction — hand carved (a good quality job) and laminated (relatively cheap and cheerful, but a good one is worth considering). All hard carved ones improve with age, and new ones need playing for a year or so. Laminated basses seem to reach their optimum sound fairly quickly in life and stay at that level from then on.

When choosing an instrument, beware the occasional rock'n'roll type monstrosity in red sunburst and, even worse, the guitar style cutaway neck. They look tasteless, sound appalling, and are marketed for total bozos. Look for a low action on a bass — some players like a high action for added volume, but they're exhausting to play and in this world of good PAs you shouldn't have to fight the instrument as the poor guys did in the bad old dance band days.

Depending on your stature, basses come in both three-quarter and half sizes as well as full size, with a corresponding decrease in floor shaking tone but good if you like small classical chamber music groups. And on that subject, try to get some classical experience on double bass. Not only will you be in demand from amateur and semi-pro orchestras as the only bassist for miles around but you'll discover that orchestral bass playing is great fun. It allows you to be player and audience at the same time — far better to train the ears by listening to what's going on while counting 324 bars rest. This will stand you in very good stead for every other type of music you wish to play.

Where to find the bass of your dreams? Most of the larger music shops may have one lurking in the back, but try Exchange and Mart for some real bargains. (Why not advertise in Making Music, of course.) Two good establishments for all bassists (usual disclaimer) are Foote's of Golden Square, London W1 ((Contact Details)), and Julian Thwaite's of Bushey, Herts ((Contact Details)), and they will answer any questions you have.

Just a brief word on accessories. Sets of strings (I swear by Rotosound) won't leave you much change from £50 (horrors!), but they should last at least a year, and have been known to go up to five years or more. A bottle of surgical spirit is invaluable not for boozing, but cleaning your strings and ministering to your poor suffering blisters. Get the most luxurious case you can afford, the more padded the better, as it will save you from collisions with self closing studio doors and heavy footed clots on trains. Wealthy players have enormous wood and/or fibreglass flightcases. Basses are notoriously fragile when subject to life on the road and many's the nightmare players have had of finding their pride and joy mangled to match-wood by homicidal baggage handlers. So avoid cheap and thin canvas cases which even absorb the rain to an annoying extent.

Get a good bow for your classical playing (known as arco as opposed to pizzicato which means intoxicated — er, sorry, I mean plucking). Cheap and nasty ones fail at the most inopportune times as the bow hair comes undone leaving you seething and inaudible, not to mention looking a total wally.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jan 1987

Feature by David Etheridge

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