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!
Why is there such wide variety in the shapes and sizes of double basses? Why does there seem to be no standard? What do the different shapes indicate?
The two biggest categorical questions we hear at QBC regard gamba vs. violin corners, and flat back vs. round (carved) back. It's said that violin-cornered and gamba-cornered double basses co-evolved - gamba-shaped violone as the contrabass instruments of the viol (viola da gamba) family, and violin-cornered double basses from the violin family. Both families were concurrently in use for centuries. The very oldest double basses have violin corners, as do many violone, and there are gamba-shaped Italian and French double basses (not just German), so the gene pool is pretty murky. The corners don't perceptibly affect the sound.
Flat backs, on the other hand, have a measurable effect on the tone and volume of a bass. Acoustical testing has demonstrated flat-back basses produce somewhat more decibels below 150Hz, though the frequency response above 150Hz becomes uneven. In short, flat-back basses do have a tendency to powerful sound, particularly in the low register.
Apart from the properties of the back, the overall shape of the bass is the foundation of its tone and character - read on!
Makers through the ages, certainly, have primarily sought to produce basses with BIG SOUND to fulfill the role of the bass in an ensemble. The fundamental frequencies of the bass (open E string = 41Hz) must emanate at a comparable volume to the much higher, faster-travelling, and more easily produced notes of the violin (open E = 659 Hz). This physics challenge has led to continual experimentation with sizes and shapes of basses from the mid-1500s to the present day.
Shortly after the double bass evolved in the 16th century, luthiers demonstrated that massive sound could be produced by massive instruments. Gigantic (though barely playable) basses were constructed from the 1500s well into the 20th century, though the majority of bass makers’ efforts went into experimenting with getting maximum tone from basses that could be played capably by average-sized bassists. Until comparatively late in this timeline, bass lines were simpler or simplified, and basses often (if not always) had frets. There was little demand for a double bass to do more than produce a good ensemble sound in the lowest positions, which called for them to be as large as practical.
Examples (such as Dragonetti) of high-level success playing in all registers on a large-shouldered bass with underhand bow may present an extreme challenge to an average-sized (5’9” male or 5’4” female) bassist embroiled in modern school and professional performance requirements - however, numerous shapes of basses are, in fact, designed for ease of playing as well as good tone. Technique and agility built while playing on an easier, slimmer-shouldered bass WILL translate later to a larger, more “orchestral” bass, if desired, while it’s more challenging to try to do technique-building on a bulkier instrument.
“Tyrolean” or “Bohemian” basses are a practical design, good-sounding, and still easy to find as reasonably-priced, vintage basses. Almost all of them are flat backs, which gives them good projection. The upper and lower bouts are close in size, but their ribs are not overly deep, and they all have a back bevel toward the upper block. They tend to be very resonant, with thin plates. Jillions of these basses were produced from about 1900-1960, some of them VERY cheaply made - many with integral bass bar (the bass bar is carved in one piece with the top) and no upper block (“blockless wonder”). Repairing these original construction shortcuts can be expensive, and the work doesn’t add to the resale value, making them viable as a “player’s bass” that sounds good and serves well. Their value is in the progress and musical expression they facilitate in the player!
What does this mean for you? When you’re choosing a bass, look for a shape that’s most compatible with your size, upper body strength, and reach. It’s true that bassists over 6’ tall, with long arms, have an easier time playing larger basses, and will have fewer concerns about which pattern they choose. Factors that comparatively reduce your reach are: height under 6’ AND/OR short upper arm*, playing German bow, sitting to play, and your girth. Should you have one or more of these factors, search for a bass that, optimally, features sloped shoulders, tapered or bevelled back, and upper-bout corners that don’t stick out (gamba corners are a slight advantage). To find maximum tone in the sloped-shouldered bass, look for one with a wider waist, a flat back, and/or the back made from poplar.
This is just some background, from Quantum Bass Center's experience with clients' and colleagues' basses, on the GENERAL characteristics of commonly-seen shapes. Of course, there are many variations, exceptions and outliers, and many more shapes. Basses and bassists are very individual! The vital factors of neck geometry and setup are topics for another article, as well.
Headed to Grandma's for Thanksgiving? You have plenty to stress about without worrying about how many practice days you'll miss. Or, if you're a musician's parent, you are a prime organizer in keeping your progeny on track for her next lesson after the holiday! With a little strategy, you can minimize your practice loss:
1) Make a practice plan! Consult your teacher - he will be MORE than happy to assist you with a practice plan that works for travelling rather than have you cancel your next lesson because you "couldn't practice". If you'll be using a rented instrument that differs substantially from your own, explain to your teacher that you may not be able to make progress with major rep, and ask for an assignment of core technique exercises. Your teacher has been secretly awaiting an opportunity to get you to work on core technique, and will instantly write out a list! Or, he may give you listening assignments, and he'll help you choose and learn a piece to play for Grandma and make her happy - then she'll let you have pie. This time may turn into a big benefit to your overall progress, so make the most of the change in routine.
2) If you'll be at home, or staying elsewhere WITH your own instrument, OPEN YOUR CASE and set up everything you need to practice as soon as you arrive at your holiday digs. You're much more likely to practice when your instrument is ready to play.
3) Don't hesitate to ask for a space you can practice - and get creative about what practice space will work. If you've ever attended a summer festival, you are quite familar with outdoor practice huts, so you can certainly practice in Grandma's garage or garden shed. She may hesitate to offer it, thinking you need a more civilized space, so be assertive about asking permission to practice anywhere you and your instrument will fit! At hotels, you can ask to use a meeting room. Or, head for a stairwell or parking garage - asking for forgiveness may be better than asking for permission, if you think your request will just confuse the personnel and they won't be able to give you a direct answer. Or, look into practicing at a local college (where the practice rooms won't be as crowded or heavily policed), a church, or ask a relative to let you into her office while it's closed for the holiday.
4) Skip the gratuitous post-Thanksgiving shopping excursion and PRACTICE while everyone is out! The day after the holiday, the household will start getting cabin fever and might want to head for the mall. You are quite capable of doing your shopping on a less-insane day of the holiday season, and your relatives don't have lessons, gigs, and juries coming up.
5) Bring your stuff! It's amazing how the car on a road trip manages to fit everything that's a high priority, so if it's at all possible to bring your instrument, absolutely do it. Speak up for yourself before the space gets committed. And if you're making a case for bringing your instrument on a trip so you can practice, make sure you actually DO the practicing, so you don't get overridden the next time you want to bring your ax along.
6) If you can't bring your instrument: bring your bow (get a bow case) rosin, endpin, mouthpiece, reeds, sticks, etc. and a few sheets of music you may need. DON'T BOTHER WITH: a music stand, entire books of music (folder, binders).
7) Be generous when seeking resources if you couldn't bring your own instrument. For example, if you decided not to bring your own bass or cello due to airline fees of several hundred dollars, anything you spend to rent one at your destination is free money - including a nice thank-you gift if a friend loaned you an instrument. Make sure to return anything you borrow in pristine condition and on time, understand that many musicians won't loan their personal instruments and/or have holiday gigs, and expect to be asked to return the favor when a friend travels to your town. Dig up some supplies to properly clean off the instrument, strings, and fingerboard.
8) The music store is your friend. Ask to be dropped off there while the fam is out shopping. The proper string shop will have a proper room to try out instruments (we do, naturally - in fact, we have multiple places to practice), and won't raise an eyebrow if you stay and play for hours. Here at Quantum Bass Center, we always have holiday visitors renting instruments to practice, but the rental instruments aren't as fancy as the ones you can play on all day in the store. Stay ahead of the curve and step out of the store's practice room when you see others need to use the space to evaluate an instrument for purchase (then again, you might find "The One" and be evaluating it for purchase!). Remember #6 and be generous - find something in the store to buy to show you appreciate their time. It's a great time to pick up holiday gifts for other musicians on your list!
9) If you travel more than once in a blue moon, consider an electric instrument that packs small and produces less sound. They really do allow for very productive practice!
10) If you're considering not practicing during a visit to relatives as you may be called upon to play something for them, plan for that now, and learn a piece they'll like to hear! Non-musicians are always curious about what you do, and will be gratified to hear one or two melodies. Be prepared to play something (if requested) soon after arriving, and, curiosity satisfied, they'll understand why you're sequestering yourself for hours on subsequent days.
11) If you really, truly can not manage to bring your instrument at all, make a playlist of all the material you're working on, bring copies of your music, and dedicate time daily to mental practice. This is so highly effective that it's prescribed by the best teachers, so if you have never done mental practice, make this trip your opportunity to develop it into part of your regular routine.
Is it REALLY disastrous to mail-order an instrument sight-unseen? Isn't is REALLY cheaper, or are dealers just trying to scare you into paying more at their stores? What exactly is the difference between a $800 bass and QBC's $1200 bass (besides dealer profit)?
[Long-winded introductions in blog posts are crafted to keep you on the page long enough to boost the article's google rankings - so let's skip that and tell you what you came here to learn!]
In short: the difference in cost is mostly 1) Quality of the instrument body itself (dealers won't stock instruments that are so badly made they result in warranty repairs) 2) Quality control (a labor cost) and 3) Parts and labor to properly set up the instrument for playing.
Example: a mail-order string bass:
Cost of unlabelled, mail-order plywood bass: $800. Maybe with free shipping; maybe with discounted shipping (about $100). It's said to be 'set up and ready to play'. The bag is extremely cheap, glossy, unpadded nylon with one zipper and one handle. The fingerboard and tailpiece are painted maple (not ebony), and the tuning machines, while decent, grind and grate, as they've never been greased. You find it's extremely hard to push the strings down, so you bring it to the shop and find (at southern USA prices - these are practically doubled in the North and the East Coast):
Cost of fingerboard planing (your fingerboard isn't ebony, so it will need to be re-blacked) $200
The extremely cheap, soft-maple bridge can be re-fitted and have adjusters added (fortunately, it doesn't have to be replaced just to get the bass to play, though it's still a terrible bridge): only $165
The tail wire broke as soon as the bass was strung up (extremely common): $25 to replace.
Cut down the nut which is a mile high: only $10
Disassemble and grease tuning machines: only $15
The strings are rubbery, and buzz on the fingerboard no matter how it's planed. They don't respond to the bow at all. Decent set of strings: $150 minimum
The sound post is only 15mm in diameter, made of extremely cheap wood, and is way too long - already forming a bulge on both top and back of your brand-new bass. The bulge can't be repaired, but it can be mitigated somewhat by fitting a quality, 19mm sound post: $65
Congrats! Out the door for only $630. You have a decent-playing, unbranded plywood bass with a bulge over the sound post for only $1430 - oops, the setup work voided the warranty, but at least it's playable. Your find your homeowners insurance isn't crazy about adding something to your policy that doesn't have a serial number. After a few months, it doesn't seem like such a great deal, so you decide to sell it - only to find that it has next to no resale value as the setup work doesn't add to its value, and it has a few scratches, and other buyers know they can get the same unlabelled bass for $800 brand new on Amazon, so you get offers of about $200. You ask the local dealer if they'll buy it, but they don't really want an Amazon bass in their showroom.
Alternatively: you could have a brand-new, labelled (with a brand name), serial numbered, plywood bass with genuine ebony fittings, a padded bag, a high-quality hard maple bridge, high-grade soundpost, professional strings, and a warranty that's no farther away than driving to the local shop, for $1200. The shop, quite honestly, after buying the bass body, parts, and good strings, and setting it up, made less than $200 (surprise! Basses are the most expensive stringed instrument at entry level, but have a very low dealer margin). When you are ready to sell the bass, they will buy it back, take it on trade, or consign it for you.
- Surprisingly, you pay just about as much in a brick-and-mortar store for the same instrument the same dealer may sell online - so, if it's REALLY CHEAP, it's because it's a really cheaply-made instrument on which the seller skipped most of the setup work.
- Setup work includes shaping the fingerboard and bridge, fitting and setting the sound post, cutting down the nut, tuning the tail wire, fitting the pegs, and several other adjustments. It requires anywhere from an hour or so of highly-trained labor in the case of a violin or viola, to nearly a full work day in the case of a double bass. Why is this setup work not done at the workshop/factory where the instruments are made? Honestly, we don't know why instrument makers are not better-trained at setup work - it would save a huge amount of redundant labor and the replacement of poor-quality parts. However, with the exception of a few individual makers (not workshops), stringed instruments are shipped from the factory with either no setup parts (strings, bridge, pegs etc) or with this work roughed in, to be finished at the dealer. Most dealers regard their setup work as their signature, and (for better or worse), it's part of their brand.
- How can sellers get away with skipping setup work on instruments sold directly to the public? As long as the instrument is assembled and appears in photos to be complete and playable, it's impossible to tell how lumpy the fingerboard is or how cheap and rubbery the strings are until having the instrument in hand. Many beginning players can't tell how bad the setup is when they are just learning to play - until they have tried a properly set up instrument and experience how much easier it is. Learning to play a stringed instrument is challenging enough without the uphill battle of a poorly-adjusted ax.
- Returning a mail-order instrument (particularly a bass) is often a costly hassle. They ship by truck freight, so returning is not as simple as slapping on a return label and awaiting a friendly UPS driver to pick it up. It's highly unlikely the Amazon seller will shell out the huge freight company surcharge for residential pickup, and freight companies are business-to-business firms that are not friendly to consumers. You will end up driving to the far suburbs to stand around in a warehouse with no climate control until the last freight driver has been helped and they will finally deign to wait on you, and then be told they won't accept the shipment because the box isn't strapped to a pallet, which they are not interested in providing for you, despite the towering stacks of used pallets in plain view. Most will require some proof that you are acting as an "authorized agent" of the original seller.
- The local violin shop may take a dim view of helping you out with an "Amazon" instrument, or a bass for which you paid top dollar from a heavily-advertised site, but which turns out to be stiff, dead-sounding, and hard to play, or the C extension buzzes and is out of tune. They may (justifiably) feel it's already been a breach of trust for you to have ordered an instrument without even trying out their inventory first, and then come to them to bail you out of a bad purchase decision. They are unlikely to be willing to call the original seller for you and explain the problem in hopes they'll agree to take it back. Some shops actually refuse to work on "Amazon" instruments, while others might charge premium rates to do the setup work - whereas all dealers of quality will warranty the setup work on instruments they sell. Violin dealers have strong feelings about really horrible instruments as they are musicians and are connected to music education. Their businesses are usually small, and are very stressed by the current internet economy, which in the case of stringed instruments, thrives on misinformation. Being a string player works best when there is a symbiotic relationship between local performing organizations, venues, players, school orchestras, and a philanthropy-minded, highly trained local luthier.
- Compare this to drop-shippers selling ultra-cheap instruments on mass e-commerce sites: you'll see identical listings posted by dozens of sellers vying for the lowest price. They have different seller names, and their pages display a wide variety of consumer goods for sale, yet they tie to the same shipping addresses in warehouse parks near the Port of Los Angeles. Do any of these traders really know if the bow hair is decent? Do they give a sh*t if your fourth grader can play the Boccherini Gavotte? Can you take her violin to a warehouse near the Port of Los Angeles and have them adjust the sound post so the E string doesn't sound like an ice pick through your eye?
- FedEx is the only winner when you receive a defective instrument. They get paid twice (not counting their already-outrageous rates). The cost of return shipping will wipe out any profit a dealer made on an instrument, so an actual violin shop will bend over backwards to inspect an instrument before it goes out. If an ad offers no-hassle, no-questions-asked, free return shipping, it means they paid next to nothing for the violin and invested nothing in it, as they have built in returns losses into the selling price, and expect a percentage of returns.
- Although there are a few dealers that ship well-set-up violins and violas, it's wise to first really feel certain you can't get an instrument locally that will suit your needs. Basses are an even more expensive prospect, although it can be much harder to find one locally. We recommend travelling to one of the country's reputable bass specialists and making your selection in person - or, if that's impossible, having one of them ship you a bass on approval. In many cases, if you are buying your first bass, or if it's a matter of just deciding the bass is quality and plays well, you can take it out of the trunk at air cargo and make your purchase decision practically on the spot.
- We don't recommend putting money down on a bass in advance (we're talking about modded stock and semi-workshop instruments here - not high-end professionals having to put down a waiting list deposit with master makers), or paying for custom features sight-unseen, as there simply are too many variables, and once you have created a "sunk cash bias" for yourself, you are likely to accept defects for which you would otherwise send it back. It's easy for a dealer to make you feel flattered and special by getting you to place an order for a customized instrument - then you'll feel obligated to keep it, and even believe it's high-quality just because it's custom. Keep in mind that, just like a custom car, custom features have next to no resale value. You may have spent thousands on a stereo, flake paint job, rims, an intake, and much more, but buyers WILL ONLY PAY for the name that's on the label - a Monte Carlo at bluebook price. We strongly recommend only buying a stock, existing instrument, playing on it for a while, getting some use out of it, making some gig money with it, and deciding you plan to keep it long-term, then taking it to a high-end bass specialist for the C extension, fingerboard extension, side bumpers, fingerboard markers and so on. Buy these add-ons only if they truly add to your gigging life with the bass, since their cost will not come back to you except as gigs.
- Being offered "levels" of setup, usually said to be from basic to "professional", is antithemic to what beginners need. If anything, beginners need more perfect setup than anyone, whereas experienced players can cope with more variables. On some instruments, there's not an advantage to paying for a higher-grade maple bridge, for example, but the specifications for workmanship, string height, and fingerboard shape should be the same for all grades of instruments. Similarly, all levels of instruments should be made available with really high-level strings - often, the quality of strings and setup are more significant to the player's progress than the instrument itself!
- So when is it safe/recommended to buy an instrument online? We can't recommend buying one blindly via e-commerce - you'll have far better results by calling one of the country's quality shops and asking for recommendations in your price range. Ask for an instrument to be sent to you on approval - meaning you'll sign a contract to try the instrument out and pay for it at the end of the approval week, if it meets your needs. If they don't have photos of it on their web site, you can ask for some. When you have spoken to the dealer and discussed your needs, you will receive an instrument that is far, far more meticulously inspected than when you order from an e-commerce site. Though they may have multiple instruments of the same model in stock, they will take the trouble to select one for you. You will be far more likely to find the instrument you need in one transaction, without costly returns, by making a personal contact with the dealer. The sites that spend the most on the glitziest advertising, or that turn up EVERYWHERE on Google, or that re-sell new instruments through Amazon and ebay are spending a lot more on advertising and Amazon commissions than they are setting up your violin. They're trying to make their money from sales volume rather than quality. You won't get a violin that doesn't need work for $88 - but you should be able to get a good beginner outfit from actual luthiers for $350 or so.
- What if I really, REALLY don't know if my kid will stick with playing a stringed instrument, and I seriously can't see shelling out hundreds of dollars on something he will fool around with for four days? Just call us and we can send you a rental instrument! Our rental customers receive support in learning as well as with their instruments.
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!
Beginning an instrument is, contrary to what it may seem, not much like setting foot on a path. The steep, arduous path analogy may have a reassuring sensibility, but actually, beginning an instrument is much more like being airdropped into a wilderness. You take off in one direction, encounter obstacles, slow down from lack of information, start over when inefficient habits have formed, backtrack, and add detail to your mental map of the terrain. As you become familiar, eventually things start to look more like a path.
You may or may not already have a bass - what to buy? How much to invest? French or German bow? Can you learn technique from youtube? Books? Where to find reliable information? Here is our page on the "BASSICS", to get familiar with what a bass is, to start.
My best advice in these areas would be to start from the top. That's right - skip the Yugo and go right for the Bentley - in quality of information and workmanship. Who's going to live long enough to become the best musician he wants to be? So, why waste time trudging your way up through the ranks of crummy gear and blind-leading-the-blind instruction? Let's make a bullet list:
- Your bass. Have you ever owned one before? If not - get your hands on one before you buy. Find the best player you know and ask questions. Ask for him to let you hold and try the bass, and ask him to show you what he likes about this particular bass and what to look for. Borrow or rent a bass for a period of time before making a first purchase decision. Why? You'll benefit from learning enough to develop some discernment and preferences.
- What are the notes? For a fast track to navigating the fingerboard, consider a well-designed electric upright (some of the cheap ones are awkward to hold in playing position and wouldn't help much). I actually have found an electric upright to be very handy in learning the map of the fingerboard and in learning to play in tune. Quantum Bass Center stocks the high-quality NS Design electric uprights. It's a personal opinion, but since electric upright basses are relatively inexpensive and have minimal setup issues as well as lots of fingerboard position markers (dots), they might be a good first bass or transition from bass guitar, especially for those who are not playing with a bow.
- To mail-order or not to mail-order? Naturally, you've seen countless tempting online deals that make it seem like every brick-and-mortar store is overpriced. And, you'll have heard a lot of opposing opinions from brick-and-mortar store owners. Who's right? What about the array of brand names? I recommend your first purchase be a used instrument purchased from a real person. As time goes on, you will get to know the shops that are reputable and what online retailers are actually drop-shippers. It is USUALLY true that the cost of an entry-level bass, properly set up, from a knowledgeable dealer is little if any more than the cost of a mail-order bass plus the setup work and strings that will inevitably be needed, even if the sight-unseen instrument is said to be "shop adjusted". However, some shops simply charge a lot and some don't do good work - most put their own labels in instruments, and you will find the identical instrument sold at different prices under different labels. As an absolute beginner, you'll be less likely to be taken advantage of by purchasing a used instrument from someone you know.
- Your instrument dealer: the cheapest bass in the best shop will be better set up and serve you better in the long run than the best bass from an uninformed dealer. You are also more likely to get a better discount on an inexpensive bass from a knowledgeable bass shop (to whom the inexpensive bass is not worth much) than a more general string shop or music retailer who knows little about double bass and is setting "value" of their inventory on the percentage of markup they want. Most importantly, find the place the highest-level professionals are taking their own basses - it's the players who will tell you who the experts are. Mass-market music stores and mail-order retailers are not places double bass experts are likely to work. Which brings us to:
- Setup: meaning the detailed adjustment of your bass in regards to the shape of the fingerboard (hand carved with a block plane), the height and curvature of the bridge, and several more parts - this is the most critical aspect of your gear, so as with the other aspects of beginning, go where the top-level bassists go without wasting any time elsewhere. Although violin and cello dimensions are much more standard, there are still many variations in the size and shape of basses, and though correct setup is a straightforward matter of the physics of the bass, there are few to no current and correct published setup specifications for double bass, so good bass luthiers are few and far between. "Professionally shop adjusted" is not a defined term, and in many cases terrible setup work is allowed as a "jazz" or "bluegrass" or "amplified" or "student" setup; often these players are badly under-served. We often see students whose parents have paid dearly for a bass and lessons, while the player is struggling or even at risk of falling short of a scholarship or conservatory audition simply because his bass was ineptly set up. Can't emphasize enough to accept nothing less than the best setup - it's even more important than the bass you choose.
- Finding a teacher: go right to the top - email the principal of your local orchestra, or the bass professor at your local university, and ask for advice and references. The best players and teachers do not mind being asked for advice, and will be happy to assist you starting on the right path. Not all great players teach, and not all teachers have good track records no matter how impressive their titles or credentials are on paper. Find out before you place your musical future in this person's hands. As a beginner, you don't need to seek out a specifically jazz or bluegrass teacher if you are not planning to go into classical playing. Good double bass technique applies to all styles of playing. You could ask someone in school or in a band for lessons, and chances are, they will jump at the chance to make some money teaching someone who knows less than they do - but teaching technique is a skill in itself. Beginning is possibly even the most critical phase of learning. Your beginning teacher can assist you in rapid advancement in proper technique, or set you up to waste years of potential, if not your career. The more I learn as a player, and the more I learn about teaching, the more convinced I become that teaching is a skill that really belongs to those who, first of all, are true masters of their instruments, and secondly, are keenly interested and extremely well developed in pedagogy.
- Gathering information: youTube: yes or no? YouTube can be an incredible source of both information and inspiration - however, if your first searches are for "beginning bass" or "how to learn bass", you'll find a bewildering array of varying advice. Taking a "top-down" view will give you more of an idea of what to look for - search out performance and master class videos of the world's top bassists in every style. Although their technical moves may at first seem complicated, seek to take mental photos of their hand position, bow hold, motions, sound, phrasing, and the position of their bodies as they hold the bass. You will form concepts of what you want to model as you begin your own study.
- Online forums: yes or no? Similarly, seek to read expert discussions even if they seem confusing at first, and similarly, true experts are not self-titled. You'll find their names recommended by other professionals. Look up any terms you find unfamiliar, and develop a picture of what's of interest to top-level players. Forums, as I'm sure you already know, are populated with enthusiastic new players and amateurs, whose advice, though usually well-meaning, is not as well-informed as what you need to move as fast as you can.
- French or German bow? Your outcome as a player is far more dependent on modeling your beginning teacher than on which bow you choose - it is more advisable to play the same bow as the best teacher in your locality than it is to end up with a second-rate teacher just because he or she is the only one around who plays the bow you like best. You'll make the most rapid progress toward good bow technique with the best teacher - then, once you have become proficient, you may wish to learn the other bow in addition, at your own pace.
Hope these are some useful starting points! As always, any of us here is happy to answer any questions you may have.
When put in terms that playing a musical instrument at a high level is a study in human achievement, support from all sectors of the community is feasible. It’s already been amply proved that basic musical performance ability is a cognitive and physiological feat. It is a pursuit open to everyone regardless of cultural background or educational level, and is achievable, remarkably, with or without training. Many of the world’s most skilled musicians are self-taught, and without any special academics, jazz players learn the rules of improvisation, which are exponentially more complex than the rules of chess. The extremely fine degree of motor coordination is an athletic activity which is retained and refined in the musician’s body for his lifetime - well past the age when sporting athletes are considered past their prime or earning capacity. The achievement of high-level musicianship is open to persons of all physical abilities or special needs: there are world-class musicians who can not walk, or who are missing a hand or leg, or are blind or even deaf. Musical competence is often achieved equally by those who are autistic, mentally or emotionally disordered, learning disabled, dyslexic, addicted, injured or seriously ill. The musician possesses a consuming, powerful emotional connection to music, and will persist in exercising this potential in spite of any hardship - our most famous, of course, being economic - including driving our shitty cars 300 miles round trip to performances, performing when we are sick, sacrificing opportunity, comfort, family, and relationships. We voluntarily spend as many or more years in conservatory training as doctors are required to do in medical school, and when we get out, on top of our school loans, we have to buy our own instruments (just for example, $70,000 is a very modest price for a professional string player to have invested; $200,000 is quite ordinary). Although the oversupply of trained musicians to living-wage jobs has been legendary for decades, if not centuries, each year conservatory applicants willingly enter a lifetime of financial instability, if not hardship, and in many cases, destitution. Apart from the tiny percentage of players who win salaried positions, commonly with well over 100 applicants for each job opening, musicians in all genres are self-employed without benefits. Add to that the drastic financial losses musicians are undergoing in the digital age - as a Grammy-winning producer remarked to me recently, as much as 85% of our recorded output is downloaded without compensation.
Then, consider that the practicing is never done. Musicianship has not yet been totally defined or fully developed. The master musician will report, as Casals has famously been quoted, “I am making progress”. He will always hear something that he would like to have done better, things he would like to do. It is a process - a self-evaluation that induces the performer to continually, each day for the rest of his life, reach beyond himself and to be and do more than he ever has before. It’s rare that a musician will retire from making music. Their process may wax and wane in their priorities, branch or morph into different forms and specialties, but with every performance, down to individual notes played, the typical musician is wired to evaluate and plan to refine the next.
Can you name any other human pursuit as comprehensive and self-propelling? Yet, music is disinvolved with any commodity. It doesn’t exactly teach you anything, since you don’t need education to become highly proficient at it - yet, by simply practicing, musicians figure out some fairly sophisticated mathematics and physics. They become engineers, inventing their own instruments, and writers, as they share their experiences (including composition). Reading music is not required for proficiency, but cultures around the globe can all make use of a common music notation. I’d submit that the understanding of physics and mathematics, and the principles of literacy, are innate; consider that the word ‘educate’ means ‘to draw out’ (and interestingly, not “beat it into your brain so you can pass a standardized test”).
I submit that, although it’s much more, music is relegated to a cultural category called The Arts or Entertainment simply because its essence has not yet been quantified. Certainly, music is both, but is also unique in its cognitive and physiological demands on the performer. A violinist has been measured as “the world’s fastest superhuman”, and a drummer has been gauged as detecting timing variances of 6 milliseconds, although there are stories of drummers being able to vary their timing by as little as one millisecond, simply by describing to them a type of groove or feel to express in the music.
If the technical ability of the individual musician is remarkable as a human achievement, then consider the social achievement of the symphony orchestra. Just as musicians are able to defer many individual needs to the practice of their art, they hold ensemble performance as a priority above personal differences and musical opinion. Up to 100 musicians enter into a contract for working hours until 10 or 11 at night, as well as weekends and holidays, silently take direction from the music director, acquiesce to assigned seating and uniform attire, and get restroom breaks only at scheduled times. It’s a completely diverse and multicultural workplace where individuals may not even share a common spoken language, and a supreme example of teamwork. The individual musician must not only be in complete command of his own technique, including any idiosyncrasy his equipment may be exhibiting at the moment, but matches his pitch, time, and articulation to the rest of his section (at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen), while simultaneously reading music, disengaging from his instrument to turn pages, watching the conductor, using his personal database of music literature to know what instrument has the melody line at each moment, and adjusting his timing and nuance to accompany that line while not varying from the style of his section. Undoubtedly a supreme physiological feat. Why do we do it? Why is it important, what do audiences get out of it, and why should musicianship be adequately supported?
I observe there is a very strong human drive to be fully engaged, inquisitive, and to challenge ourselves. Interestingly, this is one of the tenets of Montessori education. Studying and performing music is one of the most comprehensive portals humans have to this kind of satisfaction. It meets us on both an individual and social level, and is both intellectual and emotional. Since music, for some, has a steep learning curve, many turn away from its initial challenges, having been led to believe, through lack of exposure and/or well-trained educators, they aren’t “talented”, and miss the opportunity to learn how to enter a state of high-level achievement, which would translate seamlessly to other fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine. We have all seen it claimed as “remarkable” that so many of the world’s greatest intellectuals coincidentally play music - what if, actually, it’s no coincidence that early musical training led to their careers in cutting-edge science? It can be said that through music, a great many people learn how to learn, since, by its emotional effect, music supplies its own motivation for the individual to build these bridges to his potential.
That there is a virtually universal drive to be highly engaged is evident from the popularity of vicariously engaging in sports - countless people will watch them on TV or purchase tickets to games in which they don’t personally participate. It seems to represent a thwarted desire to do and be more. People will buy expensive replicas of team jerseys and go around wearing these shirts with someone else’s name on the back. They paint themselves in the colors of their favorite team. They will hug total strangers or beat each other up based on whether their favorite team wins or loses. Why this intense identification with something not directly experienced? With such an intent connection to the contest, fans deeply care that they choose to identify with a winning team. I would submit that there is an innate desire to excel. Either students are provided with the means to excel, or they grow up and bet on Fantasy Football. Or maybe they will do both - not my problem, as long as they take on the ‘excel’ part.
It also evidences, given the titanic sums contributed to these types of activities by non-participants, that there is more than enough to adequately fund not only music education for all, but the continuing development of our professionals. There has not, to date, been sufficient financial backing applied to any aspect of musical training to find out what we can do. We do know that well-funded music students, provided with top-quality instruments and teachers, tend to do better. We don’t yet know what happens when top-notch pedagogy is devoted to talent education on a large scale. In the U.S., anyway - distinguished European, Russian, and Israeli musicians evidence these societies are exposing more students to music education in general. In fact, we don’t yet know how well things can work even within music when pedagogy is prioritized - quantities of performers hang out a shingle as self-titled music teachers solely for the purpose of making a living, without the benefit of any pedagogy and sometimes without even the desire to excel at teaching. We still find that in many schools, music education majors are not held to as high a standard as performance majors, and performance majors are given little to no teacher training.
Society has not yet dedicated itself to creating more players than fans. We musicians commonly accept a social role in which we are regarded as superfluous (“not a real job”), instead of as ambassadors of achievement. Understandably, we are so busy keeping up with practicing and trying to make a living that we don’t much consider what non-musicians think, and we tend to be passive when we could do a lot of job creation. We’ve been willing to be regarded as different, a breed apart, even when it’s disadvantageous, such as when we see talented young musicians distraught and demotivated when their parents demand they major in engineering or business “so they can make money”. Our willingness to accept this has led to giving up the role of talent buyer to tavern owners, coffee shop owners, and mass-market media conglomerates that own the concert arenas, the radio stations, the record stores, and the billboards. It’s all the same to them to hire amateur bands who will bring a few friends from work to their rock gig, or to manufacture pop stars. We wait around for work to be handed out by contractors and personnel managers who play favorites instead of hiring the most qualified - a disservice to all, since it bypasses the motivation to practice and improve in less-accomplished players who get handed work. It’s often more convenient to “fill out a section” with marginally qualified contract performers rather than undertake holding auditions - giving out a mixed message to patrons whose developed musical taste is the substance of their willingness to buy tickets. As if it weren’t hard enough for career musicians to win living-wage jobs, we are seeing the exposure of orchestra managements that are running (cough - destroying) performing organizations instead of being hired by, and working for, the musicians. I would submit that any individual in performing arts administration who raises any complaint about how much musicians are paid should be handed a trumpet (a very athletically challenging transposing instrument with very exposed lines) and sent into the next concert. Patrons supporting the organization have the right to hear plainly the musical competence of persons making these decisions on their behalf.
One of the most disappointing missed opportunities is undertaken equally by musicians eager for work and music educators - severely underfunded music programs paying professional musicians to come in and serve as the entire accompaniment for student performances. I don’t mean to be the “walked to school three miles in the snow uphill both ways” kind of storyteller, but, beginning in junior high school, our directors undertook to stage full-scale musicals with a full orchestra. It took us weeks to learn the music, and sometimes, we were awful. Rental parts went missing. We had to make cuts, transpose songs, and hand-write out our own parts. Kids missed rehearsals. Our directors were supremely frustrated every time, although they’d been doing it for years. Evidently, there is no end to the novel ways 7th-graders can screw up a full-scale musical theatre production. There was screaming. But, by the time we reached ninth grade, other junior high schools who didn’t have a full orchestra were inviting us to come and serve as the orchestra for their musicals. By the time we got to high school, full-orchestra musical preparation was no big deal. I still meet professional musicians who came through the same junior high school. Our directors created careers.
Nowadays, we union players sometimes get calls to go in and perform a musical for a high school. I’ve even been paid to travel to the state music convention to accompany a high school choir. We learn the parts in one rehearsal, which takes place in quiet concentration, without a high school student in sight. It’s always for a very reduced ensemble, because “there’s no budget for a full orchestra”. Sometimes we are called upon to cover it with five musicians instead of 20 or so. The school captures a nice, tidy performance on DVD for the parents. The end product is nice, but no one had the chance to make a big mess and take on the learning curve. The school’s orchestra students have zero participation - no side-by-side performance, no coaching by the union players. I wonder where they are going to find players competent enough to play it at all a generation from now. This trend reflects the current model of public education. I don’t take these gigs any more because the concept is frankly too depressing. Instead, I volunteer to help out the orchestra at the middle school. I have no idea what the end product is going to be, but I know that musicianship is achievement, and it’s math, science, culture, history, foreign language, and literacy, whether the school district acknowledges it or not, or pays for it or not. These kids are going to be lawyers, my neighbors, driving instructors, and in city council, so this is my chance to teach them to appreciate my profession and what musicianship can do for them.
Musicianship is a study in human achievement, and therefore it’s worthy of all necessary support. Only musicians are capable of demonstrating this at the present time. I think we have a lot of work to do.
There are a great many factors contributing to the market value of a stringed instrument, - here is an overview of what you'll encounter when you seek a valuation of your instrument.
- Origin. Was your instrument originally handmade by a master luthier, or was it a workshop instrument? The great majority of those likely to be encountered through everyday channels, such as being found at an estate sale or inherited from a grandparent, are workshop instruments which originally sold for as little as a few dollars through a catalog! Yikes! In Germany and Czechoslovakia, quantities of instruments were made at home by craftsmen in the early 20th century, and sold by their makers to "publishers" (distributors) who may have labelled them with various brand names, realistic or not. Other instruments which currently turn up on the market in quantity were once school instruments, or comparable. Although many are made of fairly nice wood and may even be in good condition, their general quality of workmanship limits their resale value.
- Condition. Even an instrument from a good maker can be severely devalued (to 30% or less of the value of a comparable instrument in good condition). Though the instrument may play beautifully and sound as good as one in good shape, specific issues can drastically devalue it, as well as having a large number of smaller defects. The majority of old instruments have suffered serious damage, mainly as a result of the lack of climate control and sufficiently protective cases. Once damaged, the devaluation to the current market depends greatly on the quality of the repair or restoration work. The more severe the damage, the greater demand on the skill of the restorer to mitigate the devaluation - or put another way, severe damage which has been ineptly repaired is a culmination of evils. Conservation is the single most important factor in recouping the value of an instrument you own. If you've inherited an instrument you don't play, taking it for an evaluation and keeping it in good repair, safely stored, is the best investment in its eventual selling price. It's just tragic to see instruments come in with warped plates, cracks, and with warped necks and bows because heirs didn't know there are a few simple steps to preserving them. If you don't have space to store it in your house, it's better to sell it, even if it has sentimental value, rather than store it in an attic, garage, or storage locker, which will inevitably damage it.
- Playability. This is the most significant factor to a buyer, and invariably a buyer will choose a less-valuable instrument that sounds good and plays well over one of a better pedigree which is hard to play or sounds bad. A bass which has had many devaluing repairs, or which came from an inexpensive label, but which sounds good, is known as a "player's bass" and is sought-after bargain. When deciding on a bass to buy (you're not going to like this), a workshop bass that sounds good is a better investment than a handmade bass from a modern maker IF the handmade bass has inferior workmanship. This is an unfortunate fact in the US in modern times - many owners who have invested large sums, doing the right thing in supporting domestic makers, have nonetheless ended up with basses that are extremely difficult to sell, and/or that have serious problems. This is admittedly not a popular topic, and one which may be explored a bit more in a later blog.
- Inaccurate papers. OMG - where to start. Firstly, an INSURANCE APPRAISAL is not a MARKET APPRAISAL. Owners/sellers are very often dismayed to learn this after the fact! Many have been led to believe that a bass that was appraised by the shop from which they bought it (which may or may not reflect a viable value) 15 years ago has appreciated and will sell for more than they paid. It is always very sad to have to relay that the appraisal they are carrying is in fact a dealer's opinion of replacement cost, not its estimated resale value. When requesting an appraisal for your instrument, make sure to specify which you want - insurance 'appraisals' should be CLEARLY worded as the appraiser's "estimation of replacement cost for insurance purposes". This number is generally understood to be 30% higher than an instrument's market value, but don't take this for granted. Secondly, a huge number of unlabelled instruments are inaccurately attributed, even to this day. QBC is a pretty new shop (5 1/2 years), yet has already witnessed a large number of far-out written appraisals and misattributed instruments. The staff was recently presented with a modern, garden-variety Eastern European bass that had been revarnished, yet had papers from a major name in the trade attributing it as early 20th-century Italian, at a value 4x what it would bring on the market. Anyone working with stringed instruments would have to be blind, deaf, dumb and unable to smell to fail to recognize the instrument as Eastern European. Yet, someone put his reputation on the line and caused a large effect in the financial life of the unsuspecting bass owner by signing his name to a wildly inaccurate appraisal. This has happened so many times there are instrument dealers who have actually been enjoined through the courts from writing appraisals! Another customer had paid 2x the market price for a modern Hungarian bass which had been labelled Italian, so he wanted to consign it for far more than its market value and was very upset to hear that his instrument, in which he was financially and emotionally deeply invested, was not actually a 250-year-old Cremonese bass. What's the answer? At least one appraisal from an instrument expert (not necessarily the dealer from whom you are considering buying), plus an 'opinion' on the age and origin of your instrument from another expert. This can usually be obtained via email by sending photos. All parties should be able to substantiate their statements, and their opinions should concur. If not, ask questions and/or seek another appraiser.
The biggest factor in the value of your instrument is the market. The music world is seeing many fine instruments disappear into private collections in Europe and Japan, at record prices, while at the same time it's extremely difficult to sell a mid-priced instrument at a price near to what you paid. Dealers have influence on both sides of this issue and must be ethical enough to stand up against artificial inflation. Artificial inflation is when a seller insists on getting the same amount he paid, so the dealer adds his commission on top of the seller's demand, thus pushing up the price by as much as 25% each time an instrument gets sold. Example: a mid-century German workshop bass such as a nice Roth or a Juzek sells on consignment for $5500, a price the seller and dealer found on the net for similar instruments. A reasonable plan. Three years later, the buyer brings it back to the dealer to be sold, but insists he wants $5500 in his pocket "because instruments appreciate", so the dealer shows the bass at $6600. Other customers see the bass in the showroom and want to consign their basses at that price. Rinse, repeat: in a few years, the dealer has a log jam of numerous mid-century German workshop basses in his showroom at prices approaching $10,000, several clients upset that their instruments haven't sold, and then a private seller puts a bass up for sale that has not been on the market in 20 or more years at $5500. The dealer looks to be radically overpricing everything (true) and perpetuates the stereotype that dealers are greedy.
THE MAGIC OF 10%
Artificial inflation can be largely averted by dealer and seller agreeing to each sacrifice 10% WHEN RE-SELLING AN INSTRUMENT THEY HAVE SOLD BEFORE or that has sold recently. The consignment fee pays the dealer for a service: advertising, insuring, appraising, inspecting, cleaning, adjusting, shipping, and securing your instrument and the financial transaction. Private sellers, unable to verify the condition of their instruments, fall prey to lowballers and almost always pocket less from a sale than if they sold through a dealer, are unable to offer financing and take credit card payments, and in some cases have been robbed or even physically harmed AND robbed by assailants posing as buyers. Many buyers paid far too much from private sellers for instruments with faked labels or hidden damage, and find they have no recourse.
Why should dealers discount their consignment fee when they are re-selling an instrument they've recently shown? Primarily for market viability - it keeps things moving for everyone to keep the instrument in a marketable price range. Some of the work of selling this instrument has already been done: photographing and creating the advertising pieces, writing the apprasial, and performing repairs. Sellers are hugely influenced by the persistent myth that stringed instruments appreciate - but ultimately, the market doesn't see it that way. In order to get a recently-sold instrument to re-sell in a reasonable time frame, expect to receive about 10% or so less than you paid. Make sure you take excellent care of your instrument, and that it's as close as possible to showroom condition. The cost of interest, repairs, customizations and accessories can virtually never be recouped. The true value of a stringed instrument is what you can do with it - did it help you grow as a musician, and are you selling it to get a better instrument that will help you grow even more? Instrument dealers and their clients are best served by collaborating to make this happen!
Greetings, bassists! Just a brief post to discuss an issue recently brought up by a customer - backup gear. What do you need to own to keep yourself covered in case of bass drama/bow drama/amp-pickup drama? What do you need to have in your bass bag at all times?
First off, the big one: do you really need to own more than one bass? It's always astounding when I travel to a summer festival to note that most upper-string players travel with just one instrument, and at most a backup bow and a spare set of strings, whereas bassists are the ones most likely to bring two instruments! But do you really need that backup?
There will be times when you definitely do. You can't assume you can borrow a bass at a travel destination or while your bass is in repair - especially if it's another player's personal instrument. Some rules of thumb when you really need to borrow a bass would be: have a sterling reputation for returning everything on time and in perfect condition; always be ready and willing to compensate - i.e., pay something; and use discretion about asking to use gear to play a gig the other person might have been called for! It's of utmost importance to bring your own "stuff": your strings of choice, your pickup, your endpin, etc. and to be certain to return any adjustments (e.g., bridge height) to the exact place you found them. More importantly, plan ahead to have your own resources. If your bass needs repair, make the appointment at such a time as the shop can make a bass available for you to rent - not everyone has 'loaners', and if they do, it may be in use. When buying up to a better bass or bow, many players are in a hurry to cash out of the old one, and sell low - if you are talking a value you can possibly afford, consider keeping it as a backup. A 'buddy system' is inestimably valuable between bassists. And, if your school's basses are insufficient for the bassists' needs, it's a great investment for you to speak up and offer to assist in the effort to acquire or repair them. Certainly, have a plan in place for a backup instrument, but prioritize using your own, so you don't sacrifice your performance (or your friends' patience). Bassists HAVE to be resourceful when travelling. Yes, we do have to drive and to have a bigger car when the violinists can carpool in a Honda. Do we need to have trunks? Pretty much. Basically, if it's your job to go somewhere and play the bass, it's your job to get yourself there with your bass. We gave up the notion of convenience when we chose the bass - using a different bass at a destination should be a very last resort.
Do you need a backup bow? In a word: yes. That's a 'don't-leave-home-without-it'. Bows are amazingly vulnerable! If there's going to be an equipment failure on stage, chances are it will be your bow.
While your bass may be fine, there are still a few things to keep in your case - I don't mean the things you already know you need to have (tuner, rag, rosin, mute, etc.), but in case of emergency:
- Things easily forgotten, such as an extra rosin and a pencil.
- Set of strings - it can happen! The nastiest 15-year-old Red Labels are better than having to go home if you break a string.
- Endpin. There seems to be no end to the parade of bassists walking around in circles looking for their endpin stuff. It goes double for those of us who use removable wood endpins. I once had a stage crew pick up my endpin when they were re-setting during a concert and put it away with the percussion mallets! Walked out on stage to play the next piece, and...no endpin. This is an ugly scene. Drill a hole through it and tie it to your bass with a string, or else keep that spare in your case!
- Battery for your active preamp (where applicable)
- Eyeglasses, if needed
- A piccolo (for those times when you're asked if you wished you played it). Okay, maybe this one is optional.
No further away than your car:
- Folding music stand
- Mini music stand lamp
- Tools: for adjusting C extension, if you have one; electric-bass adjustment tool kit, if applicable; multi-tool (Swiss army knife) if there are no specialty tools required
Things to own, in addition to the above:
- String winder, if you like, and if you have the kind of tuning machines that are compatible. Don't get me started on whether these are really necessary (no), but have it if you prefer. Just don't let me hear you say you can't change your own strings. We are bassists.
- Sound post setter. If you don't know how to use one, we do have maintenance classes at least once a year at the bass center, and this is something every string player is going to need to deal with sooner or later.
Just a bare minimum of emergency supplies - naturally, fill in with other things you know you may need. The main thing is the awareness that contingencies arise, so be as prepared as you can. The gig you save may be your own!
At music conventions, I observe a steady flow of cautious parents sidling among the displays of stringed-instrument providers. They eventually approach and begin to inquire how much they are going to have to spend to outfit their bassist children who aspire to be music majors in college. My answer is that the best equipment makes a huge difference, though I apologize to them that I know this is not what they want to hear from an instrument dealer. Some of them pick up on it and start to put a picture together of how they are going to get behind their kids and give them the best shot of getting into a good music school. Others are so far out of their comfort zone that I see them later engaged with uniformed sales reps at "mass-market" music stores, talking payment plans and model numbers as if they are buying a car. Clipboards and calculators, catalogues, shiny new instruments, and percentages make some parents feel they have a sensible plan for spending "less" to indulge what must certainly be a pipe dream. I would submit that underfunding a talented student's instrument is the express lane for downgrading his potential into a pipe dream.
My parents had the foresight to buy me a very fine old bass (Gemunder) when I was in high school, with the guidance of my teacher in the symphony and a recommendation from the symphony principal (who's now my husband YAY). My mom was an antique dealer and can identify good workmanship when she sees it, and understands that fine instruments appreciate. I can't say definitively that the bass did it, but after acquiring the bass, I ranked first in the state three years in a row, and was accepted to every music school to which I applied, with either a full scholarship or nearly so. I won some competitions that had cash awards, a recording award, tuition remission to summer festivals, and a small independent scholarship. The value of the scholarships at the schools I attended was probably around eight times the price of the bass. And, my parents got their money back in full for the bass, which eventually sold for 2.5 times what they paid.
As an adult, I was off to a slower start funding my own bass purchases, and was making frustratingly slow progress in technique - but since I had already been performing for years, I lost sight of the association between the quality of my instrument and my technical development. I figured I "knew how to play" and work with the instrument I had available. I observed some young students whose parents had equipped them with better basses and bows pass me up and get study and performance opportunities that I was struggling to access. With very few exceptions, those who had the best equipment won the best jobs. The pace of my technical progress ONLY improved when I took their cue, took out a loan, and got a good bass. Your skill may or may not be developed enough to win you the Indy 500, but if it is, you are not going to win it in a Ford Fiesta, or scale Everest with a Disney Pocahontas tent.
This begs the question "then why are there crappy basses?" and the best I can answer that is "because people buy them". Which begs the question "why do people buy them", which begs the answer "because dealers stock them and appear to be offering expert guidance", begging the question "why would they do that?" which can be answered "through some combination of ineptitude and greed". I observed a dealer rep trying really hard to sell a customer a German bow, and then finally saying "well I can't play German bow...". Then why is it on display? How does he know if it's worthy of what the customer needs to do with it? If its value is in its playability, how does he have any idea of how to price it? Because it has a model number in a colorful catalogue?
I PROPOSE A TWO-POINT SOLUTION TO GIVING YOUR STUDENT BASSIST THE BEST ADVANTAGE. DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE SCHOOL INSTRUMENT PROBLEM, AND USE THE SAVINGS TOWARD GETTING HIM A BETTER BASS OF HIS OWN.
I submit that the entire economy of selling crappy instruments at a profit to schools is a crock and a reprehensible destructor of talent and human potential. We already know that in some cases, textbooks are erroneous and/or insufficient, and we are certain they are absurdly overpriced, but the publishers price them and the schools pay it. Yet if it comes under the heading of arts education, it's OK to supply horrible equipment that can't remotely be said to function to the level of the instruction provided. We dealers are compelled to underbid each other, which has led to the most unethical practices in the race to the bottom. Instruments that are drop-shipped, defective, unplayable, and worse and worse over time as budgets are eroded. Don't get me started on the setup. We are all supposed to bid on the same model numbers, which is a shifting sands of distributors and unethical dealers labelling the identical model instrument with their own numbers to make it impossible for others to compete, even by supplying better equipment at the same or better price. Arts administrator positions are being eliminated, and purchasing departments don't know that buying a bass is any different than ordering a desk.
If state departments of education were serious about education, they would be set up to buy their instruments direct, and have their own repair departments. They would be picky about quality instead of pitching dealers into a cage match. They would not hear of orchestra teachers (musicians) having to parcel out their own meager budgets instead of teaching music. They would actually have good instruments AND also be saving a ton of money you paid in school taxes. School districts employ their own bus mechanics, but when it comes to instrument repair, they give out contracts to the lowest bidder. How could there be any consequences of that? Only your kid's career, that's all.
I invite any parents who want to discuss a non-profit school instrument co-op to get in touch. The profit motive is doubtlessly the biggest obstacle to talent education. It is really time to overturn this regressive system, but it's going to take a little work and your voices. AS A RETAILER, I HAVE THOUGHT THROUGH THIS MANY TIMES AND I STILL DON'T SEE THE POINT IN CHARGING SCHOOLS FOR STUFF. Would you charge a child for his uniforms, books, and what he needs to get an education so he can get a job? Yet, it's the kids who are ultimately paying the price - adults cheating them on quality so they can line their own pockets. Here at the bass center, we find ourselves often barred from supplying better luthiery and better equipment to schools that desperately need it, because of long-term contracts given to big dealerships. So we can't sell them stuff, but we CAN in many cases give it to them, and/or facilitate their booster clubs to provide what the string programs really need, with affordable solutions that can be put in place as long as there is enough manpower to administrate it. I don't know about you, but anything I can do to get my offspring a talent scholarship instead of having to fork over full list price for college sounds like a good investment. [UPDATE: I decided to stop waiting around for people to get interested in changing the system, and to just do something about it. So, Quantum Bass Center will be providing top-level instruments to one beginning orchestra class starting Fall 2014, and publicizing their progress compared to students provided with for-profit, low-quality instruments. See our Education section for the latest updates on the project.
So what's the answer? How can parents navigate the bewildering morass of dealers out to make a buck? How can they feel safe buying an instrument that is old, unlabelled, cracked, ugly, and expensive, instead of something that has a model number? Basses are made of trees. No two are identical, regardless of what the sticker says. There really isn't any security in labelling. I'd submit the best security in purchasing comes from expert advice, usually starting with your child's private teacher - as long as he does not have a financial relationship with the instrument dealer. This can not be emphasized enough. If you run into a teacher who takes commissions on instruments, he's not ethical enough to be a teacher. I'll say it again. Find someone else.
Just about any reputable teacher, even if he is not yours, will offer an opinion on an instrument you are considering. Consider asking him to review photos of it by email.
You can save a lot of time and possibly a regrettable purchase by going directly to the shop(s) where the professionals go, and visiting with personnel who can competently demonstrate and clearly explain their inventory and where their pricing fits into the market. This is also funky territory, as not all shops with fine instruments in inventory are entirely ethical. At a bass convention, I was looking at an old, unstamped French bow from a major East Coast shop, when the salesman came over and said "yeah, that's an old Ouchard". I said I don't think so, and he insisted. I replied that I own one (his opportunity to substantiate his claim), and he walked away without another word. There was a world-renowned expert in French bow makers on site. An ethical dealer will not only be OK with seeking authentication on an unstamped or unlabelled instrument, but will suggest it, participate in it, and usually offer to pay for it. Taking an instrument you are considering to a luthier for an opinion can be enlightening, not only in learning about the instrument, but about the dealers involved. An ethical dealer will point out any known defects of a used instrument in advance, and will not have a problem with you taking it to a respected luthier who may see something overlooked, and if something is found, will make it right. If the second dealer just runs down the instrument you are considering in order to try to sell you one of theirs instead, you know who to avoid in the future. Keep in mind that mass-market music stores, though they employ repair staff, typically don't attract expert luthiers capable of evaluating fine instruments. If possible, get a player's opinion from a respected professional bassist who is knowledgeable about instruments. Not all bassists and teachers know instruments particularly well - some are more "gearheads" than others.
Is it going to be expensive? Probably. Capable dealers will be able to offer multiple solutions to the financing issue and will work with you. They know it can be a supreme challenge to get the gear musicians need. Parents will want to know what will become of this investment if things really don't work out for their young bassists. Virtually every dealer will accept their instruments back on trade or consignment. The key to getting the most value when it's time to sell is the condition of the instrument. Youth sometimes have a pretty casual opinion of what constitutes "taking good care" of their instruments, and it literally pays cash dollars to drum into them they need to take exceptional care to avoid devaluing the bass you paid for. Otherwise, it's essential not to overpay to begin with. New, factory-made instruments rarely resell for at or near their purchase prices, unless you keep them in superb condition for several decades. Used instruments actually retain their value much better. Laminated basses are becoming increasingly overpriced and have the poorest resale prices. Interestingly, here at the bass center, we almost never see a fine instrument up for sale because the player gave up playing for lack of opportunity. The basses that come from abandoned careers are virtually always entry-level instruments. You make the connection.
A wolf can be evident on any kind of bass of any size. The worst one we have ever encountered at Quantum Bass Center, in fact, was on an entry-level German plywood. The wolf tone was strobing so badly that we could not play even the open A string arco - the string skipped around and would not oscillate! The culprit turned out to be its nylon tail wire - we swapped it out for a thin, stainless steel stranded cable, and the bass played normally.
A lot of fractional (small-size) basses that have a terrible, cardboard-like tone are actually impacted by a really severe wolf. The single more important thing to know about wolf tones is that HAVING ONE IS NOT A BAD THING. Usually. Unless it is so severe that it interferes with ordinary playing. Virtually every fine double bass has a wolf. In actual fact, HAVING NO WOLF IS MORE OF AN INDICATOR OF TROUBLE. When we are presented with a bass that has very poor response, gray tone, and poor projection, we have most often discovered the bass is so out of adjustment that there is NO wolf tone, and on improving the adjustment, a bit of a wolf appears along with better tone and response.
In a large percentage of workshop basses on the market today, enclosure design (the size and shape of the bass body AKA sound cavity) is not based on the best physics. These instruments are designed to be aesthetically attractive and economical to build - however, thanks to dealer competition, there is a large-scale disconnect between bassists and the workshops building their instruments. Dealers are known to mask the actual source of the basses, so they can maintain priority access to workshops they prefer, and knowingly mis-label instruments with their store name and their own model numbers to evade MAP pricing. This not only permits a majority flow of poorly-engineered basses to market, but disallows any responsibility for their design on the part of the dealer or the workshop. Bassists are led to believe the workshops know what they are doing - and then if the basses don’t work properly, assume it’s because of their playing insufficiencies. It's time to change all that, but today we are dealing with one bit of the fallout of this larger problem - unmitigated wolf tones.
What is a wolf tone?
It’s a phenomenon that occurs in the body of the bass when it’s being played, resulting in a wild oscillation on one given pitch (with 3/4 basses, most commonly A or B-flat). Sometimes, the pitch drops out completely (strobing). Though it’s been described in many ways, and is variously said to be the result of tension in the assembly of the instrument, faulty graduation, and numerous other causes, a wolf behaves like phase cancellation, and I believe we can study it the same way speaker cabinet engineers do (hence the topic of incomplete/insufficient engineering of workshop basses keeps resurfacing). One of the misfortunes we bassists have to cope with is the deeply-rooted paradigm that a bass is a big violin. Violins do, technically, have wolf tones, but they are rarely audible enough to be a problem - so why should a bass wolf be a problem? Our gargantuan, hairy wolf tones, resulting from the faulty engineering of basses being built as giant violins, are evidence that we have to treat them at the cause by methods unique to the bass.
Some factors affecting the wolf tone, in order of user-modifiable/typically accessible luthiery features:
Soundpost placement - this is the easiest change to make on a stringed instrument which will affect the wolf; however, the desired tone and response are often sacrificed in deference to controlling the wolf note. Other, more systemic methods are preferable, and moving the sound post can then be minimized.
Your bow - yep. It’s unfortunate, because it’s really hard to find a bow that plays the way you want it to, and it may place you in the position of having to modify your bass or live with an exacerbated wolf. Using a different bow will probably not completely eliminate a wolf, but it will affect it.
Your bow hair - I am not making this up. Your bow hair constantly creates overtones from the string. At some phases of the natural aging and wear of your bow hair, it interacts with the string in such a way as to make the wolf more prominent. You can sometimes control this by using more rosin, less rosin, or different rosin. Your bow sometimes tunes to a discernable pitch when you tighten the hair, and sometimes that pitch excites the wolf. If your bow was just rehaired with a different color hair and you suddenly notice a wolf, yep, that was the bow hair. It will change as the hair plays in.
Afterlength tuning - this is often the most effective solution, and frequently benefits the tone of the instrument as well. For most basses, I currently like the afterlength to be tuned to two octaves plus a fourth above the open string. There are other tunings that work, and the tuning chosen should match the bass. The afterlength most often will not tune on all four strings with a standard tailpiece, but hitting 2 or 3 in tune will mitigate most wolf tones. A notable improvement in overall tone can be gained with a harp-shaped tailpiece properly matched to the bass and its string length.
Tail wire material - a rigid (solid) metal wire, instead of a cable, is frequently seen on mass-market basses, and is often a major cause of an unneccessary wolf tone. The solid wire was traditionally used on some viol-type instruments, and suits the low-tension setup of gut strings. IMHO a solid tail wire is not generally compatible with a modern, steel-string setup, and as a result, we see things such as fractional plywood basses having terrible tone and/or a wolf, which dramatically improves by changing the tail wire to a stranded cable.
Steel/metal end pin - around here, we are not only fans of wood endpins because of the angled-endpin setup. A steel endpin vibrates like a tuning fork, and not necessarily on the pitch you want! Who needs that? One of the first and easiest things anyone can do to reduce an unwanted wolf is to pull the steel endpin, or at the very least, saw off the excess length that extends into the bass. If you find, to your chagrin, that your bass has been fitted with one of those non-removable endpins, I can’t recommend more strongly having it replaced with a grownup’s endpin (or button if you don’t require an endpin). The non-removable endpin does not offer a single benefit to the function of the double bass, and impertinently supposes the bassist lacks the sense to keep up with his own endpin. It’s like putting a governor on your accelerator. If you (like most bassists) don’t care for being bossed around by an aluminum tube, you will want that thing off there. OFF. OFF. There are adjustable all-wood endpins, and carbon-fiber endpins are very easy to come by. I don’t try to influence players to replace all the world’s steel end pins, but to customize them, at least, when there is a problem with a wolf. Of course it begs the question of whether a different endpin would improve a bass that is not having problems.
Tailpiece mass (should be matched to the instrument). Has a large effect on the wolf as well as the overall tone and response of the instrument. Good makers take the time to match the tailpieces to their new basses, and good shops take the time to match/customize tailpieces even when setting up stock instruments! No one type of tailpiece is a panacaea - some basses respond well to low-mass, plastic or all-wire tailpieces, but others need more mass. Often, a bass with a thinner, more flexible top responds best to the stability offered by a more massive tailpiece. This can be tested by clamping weights to the existing tailpiece while playing.
Bridge placement - a bridge that is as little as 2mm out of place can dramatically affect the wolf, as it changes the relationship between the bridge, the sound post, and the bass bar. If the bridge is tilted toward the fingerboard (very common), it messes up the afterlength tuning. Some basses are hyper-sensitive to bridge placement.
Open seam (evident if the wolf appears on multiple pitches, especially adjacent pitches). Though the seam may not be buzzing, it is oscillating to some degree.
Top crack - a crack in the top plate of your bass is likely to cause the appearance of a wolf. This is an often-overlooked factor, because the player is much more likely to notice the crack than a change in the wolf note. However, if you are searching and searching for the cause of a new wolf, there may be a top crack that is very hard to see and may not be buzzing. A “mystery buzz” coinciding with the new appearance of a wolf tone is an indicator of a hairline top crack. Around here, we use a stethoscope to locate mystery buzzes.
Sound post fit - either too loose or too tight, or a gap, can contribute to a wolf.
Training the wolf, or “playing it out”. Once the bass is properly adjusted, spending several minutes a day training it is really the most organic way to control a wolf. Start by playing the wolf note on its absolute worst spot, at full volume, close to the bridge, and letting it strobe as much as it wants to, for as long as you can stand it. Alternate this with playing the wolf note pitch cleanly, without letting it strobe - this can be achieved with bow placement (usually very close to the fingerboard) and at a lower volume, as if you are showing the bass the “right” way to make this pitch. I find it useful, with ordinary playing, not to allow the wolf note to strobe unless it’s undergoing its daily “training” procedure. When you come across the wolf note while playing, back off and get the bass to play the note “right”. Typically, improvement will be noticed in as little as three hours, though it can take as long as 6 months of daily “training” to get to a point where the wolf does not interfere with your comfort level of everyday playing. I am not making this up. If even electric guitars, with comparatively few parts and no resonance cavity, show well-documented improvement with playing, the bass will also do so.
Doing nothing - the most common approach of professional players. I am really not sure how the rumour started that a wolf tone indicates some kind of defect with the bass and must be stamped out. Maybe just the fact that wolf eliminators are on the market as a product implies it’s something players have to have. We sell about 5 of them a year, virtually all of them mail-order to locations where a good bass luthier is inaccessible.
Scordatura - tuning your E string down to a D is a big help, and one that modern players can often live with on a long-term basis. So is not tuning to A=440 (helps the wolf, but not your ensemble playing), or other scordature such as fifths tuning. These are very subjective choices, but from a physics standpoint, EADG tuning is not perfectly compatible with the ‘traditional’ range of sizes and shapes in which we find many modern workshop basses.
Get a C extension - similarly, the scordatura of the low string offsets most of the problems caused by a wolf, and is pretty compatible with the top 3 strings remaining at ADG. For most modern playing, the solution of adding a C extension is as good as it gets.
Using appliances (“Wolf elminators/modulators”) -
The use of appliances to control a wolf can be effective, although I emphasize they should be a last resort, after the bass is thoroughly and knowledgeably adjusted, and in the unlikely event the wolf is still so prominent as to interfere with ordinary playing. The most familiar, of course, is the brass weight affixed to the afterlength. The important thing to know about these weights is they work because they are mutes. Who really wants less A string sound? And, the important thing to know about USING the brass-weight wolf eliminator is that it affects the training of the bass, so it can be temporary! If you resort to this type of appliance, try taking it off after 3 months. Chances are, your wolf will be greatly reduced. Although the weights are sold up to 22 grams or so, I find no advantage in using one this heavy. We don’t stock them above 18 grams, since after having adjusted several hundred basses for wolf mitigation, we find that if it takes more than an 16-gram wolf eliminator to control the wolf, it indicates the bass is out of adjustment. Choose the bare minimum weight that will reduce the wolf to a level that is tolerable to you.
Case in point: we had a customer who had mail-ordered a bass, and came in with 3 wolf eliminators on the strings, in different weights. After placing the first one, he noted a wolf on a different note, and so on. He was still hearing a wolf, and like many new players, thought it was essential to have no detectable wolf on the bass. The first thing we did was take off all three weights so we could hear what was going on, and the player noted the wolf was hardly worse. He’d had them on there so long the wolf was largely trained out. Then we changed the tailwire to tune the afterlength, and the wolf was mitigated down to such a low level the customer was satisfied. Adding one wolf eliminator, when the afterlength was incorrect, simply moved the problem to another pitch, much like squeezing a balloon just causes it to bulge in a different place.
Other appliances that are less invasive include adding mass to the hollow behind the fingerboard, to the hollow behind the tailpiece (if changing the tailpiece is not practical), or to a location on the top of the bass. Generally, a contact point that dramatically decreases a wolf, without interfering with the response of the bass, can be located on the bass side of the top about 6 inches below the southernmost point of the FF hole. Fine bass shops can make a custom wolf eliminator that they glue to the inside of the top, and done. I would recommend this for an older bass that is thoroughly played-in, yet still has a wolf that interferes with regular playing, and it’s unadvised to alter the original maker’s work by regraduating.
Luthiery that can affect the wolf
The carving of your bass is, to a large degree, both the problem and its solution. Having regraduating or other carving done for the sole purpose of controlling a wolf tone is not indicated, since the wolf is a symptom of an imbalance, and not the cause. However, it’s always worth the discussion with your high-level bass luthier, and keep in mind that if at any time you have the top off your bass for another repair, you can ask for the graduation and the bass bar to be checked and modified if indicated. The work should be contracted from a luthier experienced in this task, since it is possible to cause a host of problems, the least of which would be a more annoying wolf. Thanks to the neverending supply of horrible school basses being repaired here at Quantum Bass Center, on which we have the opportunity to conduct unholy experiments, we find that if, at the very least, the top plate has a discernible tap tone, not too muddy, and the bass bar is not oversized, the bass will have a full tone and minimal wolf. It’s kind of horrifying, the huge majority of workshop instruments that don’t even have this modicum of graduation. If you are in possession of an ordinary workshop bass (that is to say, it has a brand name), there is minimal risk in having judicious regraduating done.
Substantial benefits can be gained from, similarly, expert balancing of the mass of the neck/scroll assembly and the back of the free end of the fingerboard. Time constraints around here, so far, have kept us from really getting into this, but there are a few luthiers knowledgable in it. Something that is unlikely to be undertaken for the sole purpose of controlling a wolf, but worthwhile to explore when large-scale improvements are being sought for an instrument, and is likely to result in an improvement of the wolf as a side benefit. There is a good deal of research on it here: http://www.catgutacoustical.org/research/articles/modetune/
How can a wolf affect your playing life?
Though mostly a complaint of arco players, a wolf is a wolf and does affect the bass even when played pizzicato. If you find your bass has notes that are inexplicably hard to hit in tune or that have no sustain played pizz, chances are it’s the wolf. And, even if the wolf is not bothering you, checking for a wolf with the bow when having the bass adjusted for tone will be beneficial. Normally, an apt bass luthier will start checking a bass by playing pizz, and may remark right away that you have a wolf or an open seam (if there are 2 or more wolves).
There is one important effect on your bass of which you should be aware. This might sound a little obscure, but the wolf can cause fingered notes to buzz as if there were a defect in your fingerboard. I am not making this up! If you have a problem with buzzing notes, particularly on the G string, and 1) this is on a fingerboard you KNOW to be dressed by a thoroughly knowledgeable bass luthier, so it was properly shaped to begin with, and 2) you are considering having the fingerboard planed because of the buzz, make sure you have the bass adjusted to mitigate the wolf first. Here’s why - if the fingerboard buzz is caused by the wolf, no amount of scoop planed into the fingerboard will eliminate the buzz. An unknowing luthier could take off so much ebony as to destroy the fingerboard, and it will not change the buzz one bit. The primary location where a wolf/fingerboard buzz will present is on the wolf note. You can test this by playing the pitch of the wolf note pizzicato, at a conservative volume, on the G string. It will buzz even when played quietly. It will usually be evident above the octave (not in first position). Play the buzzing note while simultaneously holding down the note one octave below, and chances are, the buzz will be reduced or eliminated. If so, it’s definitely a wolf and not your fingerboard. It can also appear on the dominant or sub-dominant of the wolf note. Say for example your wolf is on G# - if your fingerboard is buzzing on the G string, it will likely be around D#, less frequently on C#. The buzz can extend to about a whole step on either side of its epicenter - though it may be worst on the C#, for example, it may also buzz on all notes between B and D#. When the wolf is mitigated, the buzzing area will shrink to its central pitch, or disappear entirely.
One wolf that will affect your playing life
The pitch of the wolf note is inherent - meaning it will stay on the same pitch whether or not the bass is in tune. One thing we can observe changes the wolf’s pitch is the string length. From a modern bassist’s standpoint, one wolf that can interfere with ordinary playing in a particularly annoying fashion is G natural. Holy hell. Just try to start the Beethoven V scherzo cleanly if you have a wolf on your open G. Apart from the challenge of the opening pp low G, it requires heroic measures and a vise-grip left hand to land on the first dotted half note G without it being flat, in the best of circumstances. With a G wolf, it’s practically impossible to get the attack of that G to come out on pitch. You can plant your finger in the precise location, but there is no controlling what part of the oscillation of the wolf will sound first, and it’s equally likely to be severely sharp, flat, or no sound at all - then jump in out of tune. Having a wolf on that ONE note in that ONE passage has probably cost more than one otherwise qualified bassist an audition!
This theory is not proved, but I am coming to the conclusion that a G wolf indicates the string length is incompatible with the size of the body cavity. A G wolf is particularly unresponsive to most measures to dislodge it, though changes to the string length have been known to get rid of it! If you are having a neck reset or neck graft done to your bass, remember to mention to your luthier whether you have a wolf on G, and don’t be married to its current string length. Changing it by as little as 3/8” can shift the wolf. Anything but G!
Please feel free to comment here if you have any questions about wolf tones!
A Wolf you actually want in your musical life.
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!