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