Why add bow grip to your bow? Multiple reasons: firstly, it makes the bow easier to hold. The bassist’s bow hand has two simultaneous tasks: HOLDING the bow against gravity and its own balance point, and producing bow strokes requiring an extremely high level of fine motor control from the muscles and ligaments of the hand. A bass bow has more than twice the weight of a violin bow, so the holding task demands much more from the fingers, arm, and shoulder. The finger pressure required to merely keep the bass bow from falling out of the hand, and keep it in playing position, is contrary to the flexibility needed to produce fine bow strokes, so the bassist is asking the hand to perform two opposite tasks at once.
Adding a soft piece of high-friction material, such as rubber, to the contact area allows for holding the bow with less pressure, resulting in a more relaxed hand that’s more available for fine motor control. The slightly larger diameter of the grip is not only easier to hold securely in position, but the higher-friction material also helps to prevent the thumb and fingers from slipping.
Secondly, adding a piece of bow grip material helps considerably with the balance of the bow. Modern playing standards demand an unprecedented level of agility and clarity on the bass at earlier and earlier stages of study, and the demands only increase every year. Most mass-produced bass bows, and even many bows by fine makers, are COMPARATIVELY tip-heavy, as contrasted with bows that are balanced to maximize the bassist’s agility. The choice of a COMPARATIVELY tip-heavy bass bow is fine for an advanced player who selects it as a specific match for his bass and whose bow control is thoroughly developed, but is no advantage to a student or someone who has no choice of which bow is assigned for him to use. Teachers can identify with the drama when a student arrives, beaming, with a newly-acquired, tip-heavy bow that “makes such a big sound”, and whose bubble is popped with the reminder that a big sound is produced by relaxed arm weight, whereas with a bow like that, the necessary spiccato and sautille will be forever out of reach (and, privately, the teacher doesn’t really want the protracted drama of trying to teach spiccato to a kid with a tip-heavy bow).
A piece of suitable diameter rubber grip material weighs 3-5 grams, and can dramatically change the balance or the PERCEIVED balance of the bow - even when the balance point of a given bow doesn’t noticeably change with the addition of bow grip material to the frog, it will feel more balanced. It’s important not to install too large a piece and add more weight to the bow than necessary, as that causes a reversal of the benefits! Teachers can carefully evaluate the position of the piece of bow grip (on an average bow - this doesn’t work for all) so it’s short enough to remind students not to over-extend the first finger - if the finger falls off the forward edge of the grip onto the stick, it’s over-extended.
Thirdly, bow grip material preserves the contact area of the bow, assisting greatly in preventing wear to the stick, the leather, and the frog.
Doesn’t the thumb leather installed by the maker suffice for balance, padding, and secure grip?
With the exception of a superbly balanced bow by a very top-echelon archetier, no.
You could think of the addition of bow grip material as a performance enhancing accessory, like toe clips on bike pedals and built-in cup holders in your car - though toe clips weren’t part of original bike design, no one in the Tour de France is racing without them. And by all means, you can (theoretically) enjoy a cup of coffee while driving a manual, pre-cup-holder 1960 VW. Many people certainly have done this successfully, but it's nicer to drink coffee than to wear it - enter built-in cup holders. Some contemporary bass bow makers allow for the addition of replaceable bow grip material in the original balance of the bow, but mass-produced bows have little or no fine-tuning for balance. On bass bows, the thumb leather and winding serve as little more than a traditional decoration (this goes double for ‘whalebone’ winding on German bows). To have the traditional items is fine, and there’s no need to alter them in order to use replaceable grip material.
Additionally, wear to the leather, and stretching of the bow hair between re-hairing jobs, changes the balance and can’t be adjusted by the player. Bass bows (as you may have noticed) are extremely destructive to their bow hair! The high strength of the stick causes bow hair to stretch considerably more, and much faster, than on bows for the other instruments. Knowledgeable bow repairmen will rehair bass bows tighter than violin, viola, and cello bows, as hair on a bass bow stretches a huge amount in the first few days after rehairing. The more the hair stretches, the more tip-heavy the bow becomes. With the use of a piece of bow grip material, the bassist can adjust the balance of his bow at least a little bit to compensate.
Isn’t all of this just for French bows? It can’t be of any use on a German bow.
Actually, bow grip on a German bow can assist greatly with balance (though German bows have less tendency to be made tip-heavy) and in preventing slippage of the thumb and fingers. Additionally, the strategic positioning of the grip material can be a great pedagogical aid, reminding students to keep their index and middle fingers curved, so the bow is resting on these two fingertips, and the fingers are not flat against the underside of the stick. This is such a common beginner mistake that it’s nearly ubiquitous, so the teacher can easily position a piece of bow grip material so when the two fingers are properly curved, they are touching the grip, and if the student forgets and reverts to flattening the fingers, they will protrude past the grip onto the stick. Usually, on German bows, thin-wall rubber tubing is preferable, as it has to stretch more to be installed over the tongue of the frog, and it’s not desirable to add excess diameter to the top of the stick, where the thumb rests. It can also be folded back on itself to create a little ridge at the forward end, providing even more control of the position of the bow within the hand.
The most commonly-available commercial bow grip material is latex tubing. It’s installed on the bow by completely backing out the adjuster screw, carefully tipping the frog out of the mortise, and sliding the tubing over the stick to a spot out of the way of the frog. Once the frog and screw are back in place, the tubing is forced backward over the tongue of the frog. This process is greatly facilitated by using corn starch inside the piece of tubing to reduce the friction of installation. The use of soap is equally functional, initially, but then causes the accelerated deterioration of the rubber tubing, shortly turning it into a green, greasy, disgusting mess! Quantum Bass Center supplies inexpensive, bevelled pre-cut pieces of natural rubber tubing in swanky concert black, pre-loaded with corn starch for easy installation. It’s recommended that you change the tubing whenever you have your bow rehaired, as it does break down, wear through, and start to get sticky. It’s most functional at rehairing time for the repairman to cut off the old tubing and install a new one.
Of course, if you have an allergy to latex, or to corn starch, these materials won’t work for you. One of our clients substituted a silicone grip from a pencil! We have also had great success using athletic tape/tennis racket grip tape, creating a custom-shaped wrap. This material is hypo-allergenic, available in black, and slightly tacky, providing actually PHENOMENAL grip and comfort, but it doesn’t last nearly as long as rubber tubing. As it needs to be replaced as frequently as once a week, it’s something the bassist would need to learn to do on his own rather than take it to a shop, so QBC has never tried to offer it as a service. We’ve also seen self-adhesive moleskin used, which is a nice, thin, accessible, hypo-allergenic material sold in drug stores for foot care.
What size do I need/who can benefit from bow grip tubing?
These are malleable materials, and the length of tubing that works best for your bow is determined mainly by the limits of your patience in taking the tubing off, trimming it, and re-installing. We can confidently say that as an enhancement to playing comfort and finesse, it’s certainly worth trying by all French and German bow bassists. Our observation is that a large majority use some type of grip material. A few try it, then decide they don’t care for it. A number of others simply have never tried it, as they either weren’t exposed to an easy way to try it, or didn’t realize the addition of grip material isn’t destructive to the traditional leather and winding. Such a majority of students benefit from holding the bow with less hand tension that bow grip material is something we wholeheartedly recommend to string teachers to install on all their classroom bass bows, and the bows their students practice with at home. Additionally, the subtle reminder of correct bow hold, while less specific and bulky than bow hold trainers, can be very helpful in classroom situations, when the teacher can’t constantly correct each individual student.
If you've never tried a bow with rubber grip, stop by QBC (or the online store) today!
History of the angled endpin
Endpins made of wood, in fixed lenths, have been the standard on double basses for hundreds of years. Adjustable steel endpins came into common use well into the 20th century, and now are so ubiquitous that the public has all but forgotten the original version. It is also quite ordinary for double basses to have an end button, like a violin, plus a separate endpin socket. Until the 1950’s, unless the bassist was lucky enough to have a newfangled adjustable endpin, he cut a piece of broom handle to length. This was in the days when everyone, by later childhood years at latest, was able to use a high-tech and dangerous piece of technology - now largely lost to time, like the original purpose of the Pyramids - called a “saw” for cutting things, without having to seek the assistance of a professional who had safety glasses and three insurance policies.
Nor is the concept of balancing the bass at an angle anything new. From the earliest double basses made (beginning in the mid-1500s), wood bumpers were fitted to the lower rear edge, sometimes with a steel spike inlaid into the bumper, so the bass could be tilted back at an angle toward the player without slipping on the floor. This lowers the center of gravity and balances the bass lightly against the player’s body, freeing the left hand to travel up and down the fingerboard. If you give a beginner a modern bass with a straight steel endpin extended, practically the first thing he’ll say is “it’s heavy”. He’s having to hold the bass up with his left hand and attempt to articulate his fingers at the same time. As a player advances, this doesn’t change, it just recedes from the awareness. Certainly one’s left hand becomes stronger and more dexterous, but the weight of the bass is a constant factor, whether or not one realizes the freedom and velocity of movement being sacrificed.
In the 1980’s, the fine German bass maker Horst Grunert bent a steel endpin (by hand against the curb) at the request of Francois Rabbath, and the advantages of the modern angled enpin applied to the double bass (it was already in use by cellists) became immediately evident. In an ordinary standing posture (just as one stands without the bass), without twisting the torso, the bass can be balanced practically hands-free, and with unrestricted access to every note on the fingerboard.
Shortly thereafter, French bass maker Christian Laborie, who had been making basses for Mr. Rabbath, began drilling a conical hole into the end block of the bass and making corresponding wood endpins whose taper exactly matched the conical hole. The endpin is held into the bass simply by friction, exactly as the broom handle-type endpins have been for the preceding 400 years or so. Mr. Laborie constructed an endpin with a tapered plug and carbon-fiber shaft as well as “old-fashioned” all-wood endpins; via experimentation with just about every type of wood imaginable, Mr. Laborie and Mr. Rabbath determined oak endpins allowed the best sound from the bass for practical purposes. Other woods, such as maple, walnut, cherry, and many more, offer disctinct tonal palettes, but oak is consistently strong while it minimizes wolf tones. The system of the tapered, angled hole in the end block of the bass and corresponding tapered endpin is still largely known as “the Laborie-style endpin”.
The common adaptation of playing with the side (rib) of the bass against the player’s body makes it extremely difficult to shift into the upper part of thumb position. Playing while seated solves the majority of issues of access to the notes and of playing in tune, but for a majority of players, with the exception of very tall bassists and/or those with very long arms, playing seated requires a sacrifice in finesse with the bow. Optimally, the entire bow arm needs to be positioned in front of the strings, which is most often inaccessible to bassists of average height while seated, but is easily achieved standing with the angled endpin.
While it’s not a complete solution for everyone - some bassists have better results sitting for some types of performance - most who are able to try playing with the angled endpin take to it like a fish to water. As it permits playing with the best possible body dynamics, most players feel a great sense of ease and relief, greatly improved bow strokes, and a freer, more resonant tone resulting from the better geometry of the contact point of the bow hair to the string. The right arm is allowed to be more in front of the strings, giving a more relaxed bow arm as the player can use his relaxed arm weight when more volume is desired, without having to “push” to get more sound. Pushing or digging in to the string to play louder results in a more edgy, choked sound that lacks the full overtone series. Over time, one’s bass quite literally adjusts to the range of overtones the player produces, so playing with a pinched, nasal tone results in a long-term restriction of the potential of the sound of one’s bass.
Surprisingly, playing with the angled endpin, and thus standing in a natural, relaxed upright position, with weight evenly distributed between the balls of both feet (as opposed to the outside edges of the feet, or the heels), permits playing for more hours without fatigue even than sitting to play. When standing with good body dynamics, the majority of the work of holding the arms out in front of the body is done by the supple, strong, lower-center-of-gravity thoracic spine, which is the part of the back optimally designed for these movements. Sitting with one or both knees elevated tilts the pelvis (among other strains), immobilizing the lumbar spine, which results in disproportionate use of the upper part of the trapezius and the rhomboids rather than the lats, and leading to both fatigue and back pain (the “ice pick between the shoulder blades” common to bassists who sit). Immobilizing the lumbar spine has dramatic negative effects on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, with the resulting possibility that the bassist begins to feel, over time, a mysterious spectrum of discomforts that seem unrelated to bass playing. This is not to imply bassists should not sit - it means that sitting, as opposed to merely taking a load off the feet, brings its own set of responsibilities to finding good body dynamics in a seated position. Optimally, the pelvis needs to remain level and the waist free to rotate and participate in the required movements.
An often-seen adaptation to sitting with the knees elevated is for the bassist to have both feet on the floor, with the bass as low as possible, sitting as far forward as possible on the front edge of the seat, and the legs only very slightly bent. This can be effective if the bassist has good guidance, as it’s often interpreted by young players who develop the habit of hunching over the bass, negating the potential benefits by having the bass too low and too vertical, throwing the strain of carrying the weight of the head to (once again) the upper trapezius and rhomboids.
Standing with the straight steel endpin tempts the player to elevate the bass much higher in order to counterbalance the weight that rests on his left hand. It’s extremely common to see bassists standing with the heel of the neck nearly or at the height of the armpit! This compounds the problem of comfortably traversing back and forth from thumb position. Alternatively, one sees playing positions with the bass angled dramatically leftward (the endpin is closer to the bassist’s left foot than right), which makes it virtually impossible to bow at a right angle to the strings. The player believes, from his visual perspective, that he is drawing the bow straight across, but the tip is actually angled downward relative to the strings. This causes the bow to skate around, especially on off-the-string strokes. It requires a lot of tension and overcontrol in the right hand to attempt to develop a sophisticated spiccato when the bow is skating around, whereas the process is greatly simplified by positioning the bass directly in front of the player, so the bow addresses the strings at a right angle.
Why choose endpins from Quantum Bass Center?
- Qualification: Quantum Bass Center has the dual advantage of being staffed by both active professional bassists with a long history of using the angled endpin, and repairmen who have very strong backgrounds in structural engineering and physics. From its earliest days, Quantum Bass Center only used machinist tooling and produced the most precise, consistent tapered endpins on the market, and has only continued to make improvements to its tooling and materials since then.
- Commitment to value: we have also stayed true to our mission of providing our endpins to our hard-working musician and student clients at an affordable price - about half of what the very few other providers charge. We will drill any bass purchased from Quantum Bass Center for free, regardless of how long ago it was purchased.
- Precision: the biggest risk in using a friction-fit endpin in the tapered hole is the endpin fitting incorrectly and falling out, so we set about to virtually eliminate that issue on the part of the endpin (though we can’t control for basses that were drilled elsewhere). As a significant portion of our client base relies on our wood endpins, we invested in a mammoth gunsmith’s lathe so we can reliably set the taper to hundredth-of-an-inch precision.
- Quality material: we have gone above and beyond using the oak dowel commercially available in stores, and have the highest grade white oak custom-milled for us as our raw stock, committing to quantities that we can support by our volume. We designed the hardened steel floor spike we use and had it manufactured for us at great cost; although it’s very disappointing that our custom part was pirated, we appreciate the loyal customers who have looked to us for the hundreds of endpins we ship each year.
- Innovation: QBC was the first in the US to provide precision-turned, surface-finished tapered wood endpins to the public, the first to make them available self-service via ecommerce, and remains the largest as well as the least expensive worldwide.
There are certainly many playing positions that bassists have found to work for them. We hope to illuminate how numbers of bassists have found using the angled endpin setup to be liberating and advantageous!
It's an essential task to the bassist, and most often, this little work detail brings the gratification of playing on new strings. I just wanted to cover a few concerns by new bassists, so anyone can feel at ease with changing bass strings and eagerly undertake to get 'r done and on to playing. Just like learning to safely carry and transport your bass, keeping your bridge straight and the bass cleaned of rosin accumulation, changing your strings is a duty that comes along with the choice to be a bassist. Fortunately, changing bass strings is both FUN and EASY!
How long does it take to change a set of bass strings (with no attendant maintenance tasks)? I find that it takes about 15 minutes to accomplish without mechanical aids, and about 5 or 7 minutes with the use of a power drill/string winder. Seriously, it’s really no big deal.
Occasionally new bassists have admitted they're afraid to change their own strings because they don't know how or are afraid something could go wrong. A little observation of how the strings are attached makes it apparent that what you see is what you get - there really is nothing mysterious about installation, though ordinary care and common sense are required. I would be far more concerned about feeling unable to change one’s own strings than about making a mistake. It’s never too soon to start learning how to care for your instrument!
A concern was once raised that changing bass strings could hurt the player’s hands or wrists. This makes me want to yell “ARE YOU KIDDING ME???”, but only on the inside. In the unlikely event you too have been secretly suffering with this shame, put your mind at ease - anyone strong enough to play the bass is fully capable of changing strings, or put another way, if changing strings feels like a strain, one would be more concerned about being strong enough to practice sufficiently. Manually changing strings can get a bit boring, but the activity isn't as strenuous as a regular warmup. In my experience, manually changing 4 or 6 sets in a day has not yet interfered with my daily practice routine or made my hands feel perceptibly tired. And to cover a related topic: does manual labor interfere with playing dexterity? In a word: no. Or in a few more words: not if you do enough of it. Bassists are trained to be aware of and concerned about repetitive-motion injuries - exactly why it’s a benefit to do a sensible variety of manual tasks requiring hand strength and dexterity. Adaptation to a regular manual task can take as long as a few months before the hands are strong enough to handle both the task and a daily practice regimen, but I seriously don’t believe players “can’t” do functional work. Avoiding functional tasks because one’s hands might get temporarily stiff is no more advisable than avoiding running or working out. It also rapidly gains the complainer the reputation of being a princess. Who wants to be that guy?
String changing procedure
You will need (in addition to the obvious): a pencil, needle-nose pliers, wire cutters, piece of wax (such as a candle stub), light mineral oil (such as baby oil - don’t worry, it’s not made from babies, and since it’s petroleum, actually shouldn’t be applied to babies or other living things either, but never mind that - it’s easy to come by), rag or paper towel in case of oil drips.
AND NOW, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: WILL MY SOUND POST FALL?
Backing up to the beginning of the story, yes, any bassist can change his own strings, AND any bassist can set his own soundpost, but before you take strings off, you will want to have checked out with your luthier whether or not your soundpost is so loose that it will fall if you take off one or two strings. With the exception of inherently very tight basses that benefit from a shorter post, IMHO, if it falls when string tension is reduced, it needs replacing. It your soundpost is purposely short, it’s essential to know how to set it, as many things can cause it to fall.
(A brief digression into sound posts: BASSES CHANGE. A LOT, like more than 5mm in depth. Especially when they are new - typically needing a new sound post after being played for about a year, even assuming the post was properly fitted in the first place. Humidity, in my experience, has a lot more to do with the shrinkage of the bass than does ambient temperature. Brief changes in humidity (taking a trip for a few days) are unlikely to cause a drastic change in a bass, but moving to a dry climate can cause it to crack or come open. Moving to a wetter climate is unlikely to cause open seams, but is VERY likely to result in the need for a longer sound post. Travel, or moving the bridge feet significantly, can also cause the sound post to migrate around even when the bass is under tension).
So, once you are familiarized with the behavior of your sound post:
I find the easiest way to change strings is to have the bass on its back on the carpet. I sit beside the neck, loosen the D and G strings enough to take them off the bridge and then, using needle-nosed pliers, pull them out of the holes in the pegs. The strings are off the bass in moments and you don’t have to painstakingly unwind them all the way to zero. Replace the G, then D (easiest to access in the peg box this way), making sure the ball end is securely seated in the tailpiece and doesn’t slip out as the string tightens. Keeping one arm under the neck, use that hand to guide and control the string as it winds onto the peg, while the other hand cranks. Repeat with the lower strings (installing the E first - or B/outside string on a 5-string, then A). Use pencil in all the string slots on the nut and the bridge - it really does make a difference in the string sliding over the bridge and not pulling the bridge forward or cracking the string winding. If you are not concerned about the sound post falling with all strings off, you can take the bridge off (first marking its location with little strips of tape, if necessary) and lube the threads and bearing surfaces of the adjusters with the candle wax. Aluminum adjusters become harder to turn unless waxed from time to time. If your adjusters are caked with rosin, you can soak them in a small container of “Goof-Off” or similar citrus-oil solvent for about half an hour or so (don’t soak wooden adjusters!), and scrub the rosin crust off before re-installing.
The baby oil is to lube your tuning machines - you can use a QTip to dab or drip oil into the contacting surfaces. Rosin and “human function” (that greasy gray DNA/sweat buildup - so gross) can be cleaned off an ebony fingerboard with alcohol, lightly applied to a rag in a location far, far away from the instrument’s varnish, so there is no possibility it will drip onto the instrument. The fingerboard can then be lightly buffed with baby oil. These little maintenance tasks are conveniently done while waiting for rosin crust to dissolve off your bridge adjusters.
Several ways to retain the end of the new string when installing, so it doesn’t slip back through the peg hole:
1) Pinch the loose end of the string between two coils as you wind it up around the peg (generally the most successful, and easiest, method)
2) Pull the loose end significantly through the hole, halfway back around the peg, and stick it through a second time, pulling it tight before winding the rest of the string. A little harder and more time-consuming to achieve. Sometimes necessary on older basses whose peg holes were drilled for large-gauge gut strings.
3) Make an acute bend about 1” long in the loose end, and pinch it tight with the pliers. Put the tip of the bend back through the peg hole and it acts as a barb, keeping the string from slipping back. Works great to prevent slippage, but the barb has to be pulled out in order to remove the string later.
Not recommended: pulling a lot of string through the peg hole and twisting it around the remaining string, or tying in a knot around the peg. This is only because it results in a messy coil that is hard to place where you want it (away from the sides and the other strings), and a big time-waster when you go to remove the strings. Knots get really tight over time, and often have to be cut apart, sometimes destroying the string so it can’t be re-used.
A TIDY PEG BOX IS A HAPPY PEG BOX
Remember "The Game of Operation"? The trick was not to touch the sides of the cavity, and that's just how you want to pose your strings inside your pegbox. Don't let the coils of string get wound up against the interior walls - believe it or not, as strong as our machine tuners are, the excess friction of the strings grinding against the wood can lead to premature wear of the brass gears. If you have ever had a tuning machine fail, asking what can possibly cause so much resistance as to chew up a brass gear leads to the practice of reducing friction on your machines by keeping the bulk of the coiled strings clear of obstacles.
(A brief digression into tuning machines - do expensive, bazillion-toothed gears that are heavy and bulky really offer greater tuning precision? Any tuning machine is a gear that stops in any position).
Additionally, keep the strings inside the pegbox from dragging on each other - tangling them can easily cause the thinner, pegbox end of a string to break or go false. I am not making this up - it’s breathtaking to find yourself holding the broken end of a brand-new, non-returnable, $100 bass string that you haven’t even had a chance to play a note on, simply from winding it on fast with a power drill and not noticing it was dragging across the other strings. As you wind, simply keep them headed in a straight line from the nut to the peg. It’s advisable to cut off excess string with wire cutters, just like on guitar and electric bass, rather than have a lot of bulk wound up around your pegs (usually just an issue with the E string - on most sets, you can cut off about 6”). IMPORTANT: cut only the silk-wrapped portion of the string - cutting through the metal winding can cause the string to unravel. Use the right size strings for the bass - they are precision-manufactured for small-size basses, and it’s a huge disservice to young players to put larger strings on a smaller bass. Well, it won’t exactly hurt the instrument, but the strings will be flabby and the bass will sound like crap. It’s hard enough to get a small-sized bass to sound decent without the handicap of too-long strings that play even slower. Flexocor, Spirocore, D’Addario, and Corelli strings are all made in precise fractional sizes, and it’s worth it to ask your dealer to special-order them (of course, you can get them here at QBC).
Similarly, an extended E/C string is not an E string! They are literally made differently, and wrapping an extended string up around your E peg can cause the string to break (done that!) or, at best, it will sound like crap. Mama is not going to be happy if you break a $100 extended string by putting it on a regular E peg.
(A brief digression into extended strings - the sweet spot for bowing is closer to the bridge than on an E string. Even when the E gate is closed. Now you know!)
When re-setting the bridge, I find it beneficial to have slight tension on both of the outside strings first, to keep the bridge from sliding side to side while everything is brought up to pitch. You will have to straighten your bridge several times during the initial tuning of the new strings, as well as during the break-in period - remember, the bridge feet center on the tiny notches of the FF holes, and the BACK of the bridge stands perpendicular to the top of the bass (unless your luthier is one of the few who cuts bass bridges pyramidal - a practice more common to violin bridges). Keep checking it while installing the strings, so it doesn’t fall over. If the bridge has been off completely, don’t forget to check the tail wire is centered over the saddle and is properly seated around the endpin.
If you still have concerns, ask an experienced bassist, your teacher, or your luthier to supervise the first time around. Shops will install strings for you (at QBC we don’t charge for the service if the strings were purchased here, and we price-match string prices), and though we gladly do the work, it’s a priority to see bassists being enabled to do their own maintenance as well as pass the knowledge along. As soon as you have it down, help out with the other basses at your school, and show the younger students. Though you definitely want to keep a spare set of strings on hand in case one breaks (see our blog post about a crash kit), the professional player’s year-old, high-quality used strings are a huge benefit to a local school, where bass strings were the cheapest possible brand to begin with, and are often older than the bassists! Here at QBC, we absolutely give away more strings than we sell, as we gladly accept good used strings and install them on school repairs, as well as share them with bassists who need to try different strings to decide what works best with their basses. The used-string economy, and the vast topic of string choices, is the subject of another blog!
The setup of an instrument is possibly the most critical factor to the performance and development of the musician. To touch on some phrases you're probably heard: "I played on a $100,000 bass at a convention and it didn't sound good", and "you can get a bass mail-order for $800 - why pay more?"
The response to both these issues is 'setup' - also known as adjustment, a labor-intensive, expert procedure and body of knowledge. An inexpensive bass may never sound as grand as a fine instrument, but you don't have to sacrifice playability. A fine instrument may have a stellar pedigree, gorgeous wood, and everything going for it, but if somewhere along the way an owner cheesed out on some setup work, the magnificent bass won't sound to its potential. There is no substitute for a good setup with quality components. And - it's not a plug for our repair department to state that dollar for dollar, it is actually less expensive to buy a new instrument that has been set up by a top-notch bass luthier with a quality bridge, professional strings, and other appropriate fittings than to order a bass that already has labor invested in an inferior setup or a cheap quality bridge that will have to be replaced.
Like the drive train in a car, the setup on your bass involves the 'moving parts' (more accurately, the replaceable parts) - the bridge, sound post, tailpiece and tailwire, endpin, fingerboard, nut, and saddle. The two largest components of this drive train are the fingerboard and bridge, as if either of those is misshaped, the bass simply will not play properly. In fact, if the fingerboard is not properly shaped, it makes it virtually impossible to play that instrument in tune (as a simple matter of physics - variations in the fingerboard surface directly affect the vibrating length of the string). Nor will the bass sound to its full potential if either the bridge or fingerboard is made from soft, inferior wood. A bridge requires more than just the top edge being cut to a correct curve - bridges, like the top and back plates of the bass, are graduated (cut thinner in specific places) and shaped to complement the bass, the strings of choice, and the player's style. A bridge for solo playing, for example, is shaped quite differently than one for orchestral playing, and the mass and shape of the bridge have a big effect on the tone and resonance of the bass. As such, a bass that is inherently bright or dark can be 'normalized' to a degree with the help of a properly graduated and shaped bridge.
The quality of the spruce sound post does make a difference, and the fit and position of the sound post are critical, as most players know. Basses change shape significantly in response to temperature and humidity - often expanding or contracting by more than 1/4 inch! Also, even when perfectly fitted and the bass is under tension, some sound posts have a mysterious way of migrating around, and do have to be periodically put back into their happy place.
The tailpiece should be well matched to the bass. The (very) general rule is that if the top of the bass is thick or rigid, the bass will do well with a lighter weight tailpiece, and vice versa - those with a thin or very flexible top sound better with a more massive tailpiece. Like diets, there is not a "one fits all", and though from time to time there is a big buzz about light plastic tailpieces, low-mass wire tailpieces, or harp-shaped 'compensated' ones, it's good to seek the advice of your luthier on whether any specific appliance will benefit your bass. All of those types can be helpful in the right circumstances, and with some basses, none are really the best choice.
A tailwire which is the proper length to tune your afterlength (the short length of the strings between your bridge and the tailpiece) is one setup feature that shouldn't be underestimated. When the afterlength is a consonant pitch relative to the open strings, wolf tones are reduced "naturally" (without having to resort to a wolf eliminator), and basses most always have more low frequencies and a more open sound.
The height of the saddle is a very important factor in the perceived string tension of an instrument, but as it's a little more labor-intensive than many other adjustments, make sure your bass has already been adjusted to its optimum and you have played it in significantly before asking to have a new saddle made. The luthier may find that your bass is either too tight or too loose for other reasons apart from the height of the saddle.
Strings are possibly the most discussed, most debated factor in the bass world. Every string on the market has players who love them, and players who swear they are garbage and they just wasted $200 - why? A great deal has to do with matching the strings to the bass, firstly, and adjusting the bass to work optimally with a given string. Some strings become hugely popular because they are almost a panacea - improving almost every instrument - but then, there are those basses which are just not compatible with that string. In almost every case, switching brands of strings requires a soundpost adjustment, and often a bridge adjustment, when the strings are installed and again after the break-in period. When you choose a new brand of strings and find they are perfect, it indicates your sound post was in a great spot to work with those strings, or in other words, it was in a bad spot to work with your old strings. There are strings that offer wonderful nuance - and require more of the player than strings that are 'forgiving' and cover technique issues. When deciding on strings, a luthier's advice as to what will work with your bass is valuable, as is your teacher's advice about the technique that works best with those strings. Just about every healthy, thoughtfully chosen upgrade to your bass comes with the challenge of meeting it with improving your technique. If you have a perfectly cambered fingerboard, for example, but the strings are still buzzing when you play, check with your teacher to see if your bow arm or your pizz technique is driving the strings into the fingerboard instead of producing a round, open oscillation of the strings. The best outcome is when you and your bass are the best they can be.
This leads to a mention of the most important factor in instrument setup - awareness! Feel free to ask a lot of questions when your instrument is being worked on. A reputable bass luthier can explain how things work best and why. When your bass is in optimal adjustment, take special notice of the bridge and sound post position, wolf tone, the afterlength pitch, and so on. If the bass suddenly changes and the G or E string starts hitting the fingerboard, you will know if the bridge has been knocked out of place. If all the strings are suddenly much lower, you will know that a seam has come open near the sound post. Once you know how the bridge looks when it's centered and at right angles to the top of the bass, you become an invaluable ambassador to string players everywhere - especially if you are in school. Replacing a violin bridge that has warped due to being allowed to lean over costs $50 or less, whereas replacing a warped bass bridge costs around $250 - which means schools almost invariably choose to fix five violins in favor of repairing one bass. You can look down your section and help other players learn to keep their bridges straight, saving your school a ton of repair money, and importantly, insist the violinists keep their bridges straight so the school can afford to get your bass new strings!
As time goes on, we will get more into detail about the physics of each of the components of the bass. I hope this overview serves to give you an idea of the setup concept. Happy practicing!