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.
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.
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!
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.