The Upright Bass

I've been asked to contribute some articles regarding my experience with the playing the upright bass in a bluegrass band setting. I agreed to give it a try and please forgive me if my writing skills are not up to standard. Further more my contributions will be from my perspective only and I'm sure that everyone will not agree with my views. No hate mail please !!! LOL

Well I guess to get started you have to be foolish enough to get coerced into playing the great big bulky instrument that requires a $40,000 SUV to haul it around with. Next you likely should go to the gym and spend several months pumping iron to get the arms and fingers ready for the grueling 8 hour jam sessions that seem to pop up at festivals.

After that is all done and over with it's time to go shopping, no this is the hard part folks....

as there just aren't that many used upright bass's in the market place and even fewer good upright bass's in the market place. I was lucky enough to be over at Jim Mac Donalds one night right after he picked up a good old Grunert German bass while visiting his brother in Burlington if my memory recollects.

I heard it and immediately had to have it as it had a real nice solid bottom end and good tone with a good adjustable bridge, a straight neck and flat fret board. These are really the most important considerations in obtaining an upright from my perspective anyway. Cosmetics are secondary to playability and tone.

There are quite a few new bass's on the market out there with price's starting at around $1200 in Canadian Currency. In my experience thus far only a couple of the lower priced makes are worth spending the money on. If at all possible try holding off and looking for an old Kay, American Standard or German made bass such as a Grunert which can be found in the price range of $1000 and up. If you can find a good one such as those mentioned above $1500 - $1800 is not a bad price in this day and age. Also there are various sizes from 1/4 size, half sizes, 3/4 sizes which are the standard and full size. The 3/4 size is the most popular and likely to be found and seems to give the best sound for a bluegrass band although I've heard some 1/4 size bass's with a good pickup and amp system doing a heck of a job as well.

Also a consideration is the construction of the bass or better put is it made of solid woods, plywood's or a combination of both. If your like me and your playing outside at festivals in all kinds of weather one week and inside at a concert or a friends house the next then you would likely be best off to find a plywood construction bass. They sound great for bluegrass, they stay in tune very well, they handle sudden rapid changes in temperature and humidity with little problems and they are somewhat more capable of being dropped, banged, dragged and abused than a solid wood constructed bass. In my experience the solid bass's and to a lessor degree the hybrid solid top, back or both with plywood constructed bass's are harder to keep in tune and you must be much more aware of sudden temperature changes and humidity levels or damage can occur. Tuning also becomes an issue in the damp weather.

I did see the results of a sudden temperature change on a solid wood constructed bass at the Renfrew Festival a couple years back when Mike ORiely's band left their bass in the car one morning while they went for breakfast. They returned from breakfast and the bass had basically imploded on itself and was in several pieces. It was way beyond any repair that could be done that weekend and would be requiring several hundred dollars worth of work. The sun had changed direction and the car warmed up and boom the bass was now good kindling for a fire. They borrowed my old plywood bass for the remainder of their sets and commented that they should have brought the plywood bass not the solid wood bass for the weekend as it with stands temperature changes better.

Another big problem for older bass's and I've seen this on quite a few is that the bridge's are severely cupped and pulled one way or the other. This is not a big deal and don't let it influence your decision if you have a choice between a nice new shiny bass and an older some what beat up used one with a bent bridge. There are a couple of really simple fix's for this problem, one is to replace the bridge for around $100 and the other is to do what I learned off a very reputable luthier. If you have a micro-wave your half way to fixing the problem, simply remove the bridge from the bass obtain a couple C clamps and 6" X 6" pieced of wood and a table or flat surface you can clamp the bridge too. Next dampen the bridge and place it in the micro-wave along with a small bowl of water, turn the micro-wave on high for approximately 5 minutes and remove the bridge from the oven using heat resistant mitts.

Place the bridge on the flat surface and clamp it down the go away and let it cool for a couple hours, when you return it will be nice and flat and straight.

When looking at bass's another thing to look for is structural integrity, look at the joints on the body of the bass and ensure they aren't all pulling away, not a big deal as they can be fixed but that all costs time and money. Next have a good look at the neck joint where it meets the body of the bass and ensure it isn't pulling away. My bass had been pulling away at one time or the other however someone installed big ole screws years ago which must have stopped the problem. It hasn't moved in the 10 years I've owned it and it's went through some pretty crazy climate changes in that time.

I would next inspect the fret board for obvious wear and warping, if possible have a straight edge such as a metal yard stick with you to check the radius surfaces of the fret board. If you have warpage it can be fixed if it is not too severe, also small wear in fretting locations can be repaired as well. It generally requires a very careful planning of the fret board by a qualified luthier for this, the fret boards are generally made of ebony or rosewood which are extremely expensive hardwoods and you don't want to take on this task in your basement or garage unless your a master woodworker. New fret boards can be obtained through several Hyland music but prices start at around $200 for the part and an additional $200 - 300 for labour so it's something you don't want to take on yourself.

The neck itself is probably your next inspection point where you should check for splitting cracking and other obvious damage. Be sure to check up by the tuners for cracks and splits as the wood is quite thin in spots due to the installation of the tuners. While looking there inspect the tuners and there gears for severe wear, give them a turn in each direction and make sure they aren't seized or feel rough when turning the keys. From there I would check the inside of the bass body to ensure that there is a sound post and that there are no big cracks showing in there that aren't on the outside. The sound post is something that can be adjusted at a later date and can really increase the tone and bottom end of a bass when placed properly we'll get into that at a later date.

Strings are next on the list and this is where personal preference comes into play, I like the steel wound Thomastic Spiral Core strings and would have nothing else on my bass. I like their feel and tone and they are an excellent string to use when amplifying the bass through a pickup. Many others like to use nylon and hybrid combinations. Although Gut Strings are still available I don't recommend them for bluegrass players for a couple reasons and the first being their cost, at almost $500 a set who in bluegrass can afford to pay for them. That's almost a whole summers wages if your band is lucky enough to pickup most of the Ontario Festivals !!! Secondly the Gut strings don't handle the temperature and moisture changes well and become extremely tough to keep tuned and actually become gummy in the damp weather.... yuck and did I mention they cost $500 a set plus tax's !!!! In any event strings are a major cash outlay regardless if your used to paying $20 a set for guitar strings. My Thomastic Spiral Cores run around $200 -220 a set from the Stringman depending on Canadian Currency Exchange Rates when he buy's them in. The nylon strings start at around $70 a set however I really don't like them as they are hard on the fingers as they are quite course and they don't hold their tone or tune when pulled hard which I am guilty of most of the time.

If everything looks okay at this point its time to start making an offer or bidding on the bass depending on the situation. I've seen two and three people trying to buy the same bass due to the availability of the good used ones. Don't waste too much time as they usually don't last too long.

Sheldon Speedie
Northbound Bluegrass Band
skspeedie@bmts.com