Opinions needed re: best string height for Bluegrass
Last night, I was at a big jam with lots of great bass players from all over the region. I have been playing about 2 years now and can hold my own on many songs, but still think of myself as a beginner, really.
When I first got my bass, I adjusted the action low, so that it would not hurt my left hand as much while I was learning ( I transferred to doghouse from electric bass- now I play upright exclusively).
Well, last night a couple of these much better bass players played my bass and suggested (kindly) that I raise the strings to get a louder sound and less fingerboard noise.
The thing is, I am comfortable the way it feels and plays, and I like the fingerboard noise - lots of percussive effect.
Yet, I'm smart enough to know that if these players (who are MUCH better than me) say the action needs to go up, then it probably does.
So, how does one determine how high is high enough? I have bridge adjusters so I can do it myself. I don't want to pay a luthier. I know how, I just need to know how MUCH.
How do you guys and gals determine when it's high enough?
Are there guidelines (I.e. numbers for a Ruler?). Where would you measure?
Are there other rules of thumb?
I would also like to hear what people think are the pros and cons of high versus low actions on an upright.
BTW I only play Bluegrass, and only play Pizz never Arco.
Thanks for taking the time to share your insights.
Most guys around here have strings high enough for a cat to crawl under. They are almost unplayable but that's all they have every played and they believe that's the way to go. Most of them are in desperate need of a good setup. My strings are around 3/8 of an inch high at the end of the fingerboard and I have plenty of volume and can play for hours without any discomfort.
As to the volume thing, I do think you will get more volume with a slightly higher string height, but after a point, you run into the diminishing return thing. I'm convinced that a lot of the volume comes from those things that hang from your shoulders. Watch some videos of Ray Brown's right hand-lots of meat on the string and use of arm weight.
Find a comfortable height and learn how to draw the sound out of your bass.
+ 1 to what Steve said. I've played some of the same basses he has. Cannons, but I can't last more than one tune on them. You can forget B flat :eek:
In my experience, any decrease in volume I've experienced from a properly setup bass with a comfortably set string height is negligible at best, especially to an audience. I'd also add that for me personally, I've spent years getting opinions from dozens of bluegrass bassists on basses, setups, strings, etc. I very recently settled on the fact that I'm going to play my bass which was setup professionally to my preference. It is strung with my string set of choice and adjusted to the height that makes me the most comfortable and gives me the tone I prefer. Beyond that, I've stopped worrying about what others were doing, playing, and thought and decided to put that effort into improving my technique and honing my sound. This is just me. What puts a grin on my face may not work for you or anyone else. It sounds selfish I know, but I believe that the best sound worth chasing is yours.
I play bluegrass with a full gut setup and a lower string height. I don't have exact measurements, but compared to others in my circles, it's low. Not a common setup for bluegrass where I live. I've had other bluegrassers play my bass. Maybe they like it, maybe not. Guess what? I do. Even better, I've yet to have an audience boo me off stage.
I'll second the recommendation to view the Ray Brown instructional videos that Steve mentions. There one in particular where he says, "you don't have to play loud to swing." The first time I heard this, I felt like he was talking straight to me.
I hope this helps. If you're close to a professional luthier, getting his or her opinion on your bass may not be a bad idea. Other than that, I say get it like you want it, keep studying and learning, and play on!
It's your bass. Like Steve said, learn to pull the best sound out of your bass that you can, with a comfortable action. After all, it's your bass.
That said, if you want to experiment, raise your adjusters 1/4 to 1/2 turn at a time and see how that feels. But don't let someone else's opinion of your set-up make you reconsider what has been working for you.
I've played bluegrass bass for years, and I would suggest there are more things to consider when discussing volume than simply string height.
What strings are you using? My '51 Kay is set up with Thomastic Spirocore mediums. I really like the excellent clarity and tone.
My action is low. The current set up was done by Willams Fine Violins in Nashville, and he suggested lowering the action. I asked if it would affect volume and he said not to the point anyone will notice. He was right and the bass is much more playable.
And of course I agree with the other posters that technique is as important as anything else.
or do what us old guys do, plug the dang thing into an amp and leave the strings low, if the jam gets loud lean over and turn up the amp and save your fingers.
Steve hit it right on tho........ Me I use an amp.......... and I just bought a Ubass to relieve my hands, arms and legs some more........LOL
I know some people in my area who likes their strings set up high. It's your preference. I have three basses and the string height depends on the bass and how I like them.
I'll start by saying I doubt what I enter here will provide a specific answer to your question, but it might help.
I played electric bass for about 23 years before I started playing upright. I have about 12 years on upright now.
When I started playing upright, I played steel core strings and so did most of the players I was around. I had a late model Englehardt for a while, then a solid top Romanian, but I ended up with a '52 Kay. The '52 Kay came with Spirocores and it was set up perfectly....for jazz. Nice growl, super easy to play, good string balance, and good volume, but it didn't have a "Bluegrass" tone in my opinion.
After some research, I discovered the tone I was after required gut strings or some other low tension string. I tried Piastro Obligatos, and that was the tone, but the low action and the low tension strings didn't work well together. After raising the string height, I could really dig in, but the Obligatos sort of max out under the hard plucking. I tried a few other perlon core (non-metallic) strings before coming across Innovation Super Silvers, and that's what I've used the last several years. I use what most would consider a medium high action, but the low tension strings are not difficult to play "up high".
Some I know play steel core strings with high action. I've tried, but I can't do it long; it eats on my hands.
After playing the higher action for a while, you develop a feel & technique that's difficult to duplicate with low action. I still play Spiros as low as I can get them on my EUB, but I'm always amplified, and often playing something other than bluegrass.
Your strings need to be at the height you want them to achieve the volume and tone you want based on the strings you have, and you may want to experiment with string type. You are probably the only one who will know what that height is when you find it. I recommend you use your adjustable height bridge for the search.
This is a very personal subject within the upright player community. I am a fairly old (but still immature) upright player who has a VERY long drive to any kind of luthier, so I have learned to fend for myself. If you can't improvise very well with common tools - which may have to be modified - don't do this yourself.
What I did:
I adjusted the strings (Corelli's) down with the adjustable bridge to a height I liked. I played the bass that way for a couple of weeks and decided that in half position the string height was still too high so I bought a package of cheap rat-tail files of various diameters and started gradually lowering the slots at the nut. This is very time consuming because the only way you can check the string height is to re-install the strings, but take your time because it is much easier to lower the nut that it is to make it taller! When you lower the nut then you might even be able to raise the adjusters some at the bridge to get the height you want. I wound up lowering the E string the most, with the G getting the least amount of nut work - After a lot of trial and error I have a setup that most bluegrassers think is too low, but the few jazz players I have had play my axe seem to think it is right-on to a little high.
While I had the strings off I also moved the sound post (better be ready to deal with it if you knock the post down!) and bridge around some and I feel I have a pretty good sounding instrument (I get a lot of compliments on it anyway). I also learned a lot about setting up a bass!
One thing is for sure tho - I can play for 4 hours straight. A friend of mine (excellent player) has a very high setup - he can play for an hour or so, but I can't last 30 minutes before my left hand is beggin' for mercy.
Just one thought...you may like the percussive effect of your low string height, but do the people you play with? Speaking from experience...I was told years ago (then later, reminded) by a mando player (whose opinion I value) in a band I played with that between him and the guitar (and sometimes the fiddle chops), there wasn't really room for much percussive sounds. This was when I was just learning to "slap" a little (mostly smacking the FB between notes), and before I actually learned how to do it well and tastefully. Not saying you shouldn't do whatever you want, but if your strings are so low that they are buzzing or clicking, what sounds like percussion to you might sound like noise to other players!
String set up
I too am straight up Bluegrass over 35 years on bass. I prefer my strings higher than most due to the better volume and longer sustain. That and I dont like slap bass which requires lower strings. In addition I love the LaBella 7710 black tephlon wound rope core strings. On my bass they are very loud with deep tones and great sustain and longevity. I usually let a set on about 2 years till i notice a drop in volume. These strings are so easy on your hands it is hard to believe the volume and deepth you get from them.
I just measured mine. They are 7-8 mm at the end of the fingerboard. Thats low enough that I can play something besides straight root-5 bluegrass without getting too tired but still get a pretty loud thump. Slaps work pretty good there too. Right now I'm not playing bluegrass, its alt country and 50s and 60s acoustic covers. The bass is a fairly new Roma ply bought 5-6 yrs ago. my strings are Tomastick Superflexable Solo gauge, tuned down to standard. Steel but pretty easy on the hands. I also got my setup done by Williams in Nashville. I had already decided on strings and he put the string ht to my preference.
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