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Choosing a Bass

by Dr. Robin Kay Deverich

Should I rent or buy?

Renting or purchasing are both good options for those who are beginning the bass. Since a double bass can be an expensive instrument to purchase, you may want to try renting for several months to make sure you or your child really like the instrument before deciding to purchase a bass. You also may want to do the math. Compare the cost of renting for one year with the cost of purchasing a good student bass, then make your decision.

If you do decide to purchase a bass, it is extremely important that you find and use a reputable violin maker, music store or luthier. It is strongly recommended that you enlist the help of your bass teacher or an advanced bassist to help you choose a bass that is well-made, has a good tone and is worth buying. There are many poorly made basses out there, and price isn't the best way to determine the quality or sound of an instrument.

Before purchasing an instrument, it's a good idea to test and compare several basses before making a final decision. If you do decide to purchase online or through mail order, carefully investigate the company’s return policy to make sure you're able to return the instrument if you aren't satisfied with it. It’s also very important to make sure any bass you do purchase is properly set-up (strings, tuning machines, a bridge that is properly fitted to the bass etc.). A “great deal” online may not turn out to be cost effective if you end up spending another $700 to properly fit the bass.

What size bass should I get?

Most adults and tall teenagers use a 3/4 size bass. Although violins and cellos have fairly standard sizes, the dimensions and sizing of basses vary quite a bit. This is due to the fact that the bass has undergone many variations in its shape, size, tuning and number of strings used throughout history. Although basses are available in many sizes, a knowledgeable instrument maker, music dealer or bass teacher should be able to help you find the right size for you or your child. Generally, the smaller sizes (1/10; 1/8; 1/4; and 1/2) are for children, and a 3/4 bass is the most common size used by adults and teenagers. Although there are professional bassists who play a 7/8 or 4/4 bass, since these instruments are so large, they are not as commonly used as 3/4 basses.

Although there are no precise measurements used for basses, the ½ size bass often has a body length of approximately 40” and a string length between 37 3/8 – 38” ; the 3/4 bass often has a body length of approximately 42 1/2 -43 3/4 and a string length between 40" and 42", and the very large 4/4 bass has a body length of approximately 45 1/2 and a string length over 42” . It should also be noted that when it comes to the smaller basses, different music companies may vary considerably in how they determine sizes. The dimensions used by one company to manufacture a 1/4 size bass may be used by another manufacturer to produce what they label a 1/2 bass.

Consult your bass teacher to help you select the correct bass size. As a general rule, you or your child should be able to comfortably stretch your left fingers on the bass fingerboard to play a whole step between the first and fourth fingers. Bassists have differing views regarding how high the bass should be, and how the endpin should be adjusted. Some bassists adjust the bass endpin so the nut of the bass fingerboard is at the level of their eyebrows, others say the nut should be as high as the top of the head, and some adjust the endpin so the bass bridge is at the same level as the bass player's knuckles. Ask your teacher or a bassist friend for their advice if you’re unsure about how far to adjust your bass endpin.

Which bow should I get?

Bass players use either a French bow or a German bow. The French bow is shorter and heavier than the cello bow, and utilizes a bow hold similar to what cello players use. The German bow has a taller frog that requires the bassist to use an underhand bow grip. Both bows have their advantages. Consult your bass teacher or a bassist friend for their help if you’re unsure which bow to use.

Additional options

Many bass players use adjustable bridges with bridge height adjusters. This enables the bassist to adjust the string height to assist with different playing demands, or to counter string changes due to fluctuations in the humidity. Many bassists also purchase a bass wheel to assist them in transporting their bass (to transport the bass, the end pin is taken out and the bass wheel is inserted in the endpin slot). There are many additional options to choose from: some double basses are shaped like a viol, others are designed in the shape of a violin. Some professional bassists use a “C extension” which extends the range of the lowest string’s pitch E1, down to the pitch C1, and many professional bassists in Europe use a five string bass with a low B string. These are just a few of the many different options used by bassists in setting up their bass. Check with your bass teacher or a bassist friend to see if they have any other recommendations you may want to include in your initial bass setup.

I have an old bass. What’s my bass worth?

The best (and only) way to really determine the value of a bass is to take it to one or more reputable luthiers (instrument makers or violin makers) and have an expert look at it in person. They should be able to tell you in a matter of moments if it's worth much. Many inexpensive, machine made instruments have fake “Stradivarius” labels inserted in them, so a label often has little meaning.

Just a few of the many factors used in determining the value of an instrument include: whether or not the instrument is machine or handmade; who made the instrument (if it's handmade); the country or region the bass was made in; the age of the instrument; the sound quality and condition of the instrument; and previous repair jobs. Numerous other factors are also utilized, but again, only an expert can properly evaluate the worth of your instrument.

If the instrument does appear to be valuable, you may want to get several opinions (there are unscrupulous dealers out there). Music dealers generally charge for written appraisals (often used for insurance purposes), but they should be able to give you a rough verbal estimate if you're interested in selling or "trading up" (similar to buying a car---the value of your bass is applied to the purchase price of one of their basses).

Visit our Music Store for a sampling of basses, bows & cases.