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!
Articles on basses, setup, technique, teaching and more, by Quantum Bass Center staff and guests