"Professional" versus "Student" -level basses

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by mindwell, Dec 30, 2013.


  1. mindwell

    mindwell Supporting Member

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    Aug 17, 2006
    Location:
    Wichita, KS
    Maybe this is nothing more than what Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography ("I know it when I see it!"), but when makers designate an instrument as "Student" rather than "Professional" grade, what factors are taken into account? What different things might this distinction entail when one is considering laminated, hybrid, and carved instruments? What, precisely, does this difference ultimately amount to? :bag:

    And just to be clear about what motivates the question, I just sold off a "student" level bass (Engelhardt EM1) owned for 20 years, and part of me thinks (rightly or wrongly) that I've earned the right to step up to a "professional" upright bass.

    BONUS QUESTION: how many "professionals" on this board regularly sport a "student" level instrument?
  2. bssist

    bssist

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    Jun 23, 2007
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    St. Louis, MO USA
    I don't know what criteria separates "student" from "professional" but I earn a significant part of my rent every month by performing on an "upgraded" EC1, which I believe is considered a "student" model instrument.
  3. Adam Attard

    Adam Attard

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    Feb 9, 2009
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    Cleveland, Ohio
    "Professional level" doesn't really have a strict definition. Student level basses, like yours and the Shen SB-80 I own, are generally factory made, and contain some amount of plywood in it (whether fully or a hybrid.

    The next step up, which you could call "professional level" would generally be something carved (with no plywood). With better basses (and a higher price range), the difference comes from having it built out of better woods (generally maple or spruce), and usually handmade by a good luthier. The end result being, obviously, that it's going to sound better. There are a wide range of these, though- from basses in the $5000-10,000 range (which would usually consist of things like carved Shens, to old German instruments) all the way up to basses in the stratosphere at $100,000 and up. There are many different tiers of instruments in that span, all with varying levels of provenance, age, and sound quality. It all depends on what you're using it for, and your budget.
  4. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

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    Arkansas
    In my limited experience, "student-level" seems to be a somewhat subjective term meaning "more affordable." Typically, student level basses are laminated while professional level basses are carved, but some of the lower-end Shen, Christopher, etc. carved basses are probably thought of as "student-level" as well. I would think it's more of a price cutoff--something like "below $4k = student level; above $5k = professional level."
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  6. Rebop

    Rebop Supporting Member

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    There is a lot of junk out there no matter the price range. You can also (fairly often sometimes) get really lucky and never pay close to the market value of an instrument so it's tough putting an actual number on where the line is. The more you know basses in general, the more apparent the quality will be.

    It may be worth noting, a lot of the great players from a half century ago used "student" instruments of their day. We now ohh and ahh over those basses and their makers somewhat.
  7. KUNGfuSHERIFF

    KUNGfuSHERIFF

    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2002
    I'd call a student instrument something you were a little embarrassed and slightly worried to play in front of an audience...it may not sound great, look right, the machines might freeze or slip out if tune, etc. A bass that's good enough for right now, nothing more.

    A professional bass is what I would call an instrument that is close to 100% reliable, plays well, sounds good and won't be likely to embarrass you in front of a packed house of paying customers.

    The seed of my gear obsession was working with unreliable crap that died during a gig and embarrassed me, leading me to find good gear that wouldn't.
  8. bssist

    bssist

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    Jun 23, 2007
    Location:
    St. Louis, MO USA
    I am finding this thread to be increasingly interesting. I have noticed that it has generally stated that for "jazz pizz" and/or "club work" (which I consider to be professional positions) a laminate is suggested, while carved is suggested more as being for "orchestral" playing.

    My father played jazz in nightclubs 5-7 nights a week for decades on a carved instrument that he bought new for only a few hundred $$. When he retired he sold it (at a discount - to a student) for a bit under $10k.

    Since I have a technical background and a diy/self-reliant attitude I tend to buy less costly equipment up front, learn how to repair/maintain it, then customize it to suite my ear and my needs. The end result is that I usually end up with good sounding/playing equipment for a smaller $$ investment (and a large time investment).

    The only time I have been embarrassed by my bass was when a player I respected looked down his nose at it with an elitist, condescending attitude.

    Given all that, I guess I play a "Professional Student" level bass.
  9. Mike Goodbar

    Mike Goodbar

    Joined:
    Jun 6, 2001
    Location:
    SE Wisconsin
    My one and only bass is a hybrid 7/8 Christopher bass, and I play all my gigs, jazz and classical, on that bass.

    Do I drool over the other guys' expensive basses? Absolutely! Would I drop $25K-plus on a fine instrument if I had the jing? You betcha. Would a qualified player win a big orchestra audition using my bass? Unlikely.Has my bass has ever been a factor in me losing or getting passed over for a job? Not as far as I know.

    Until I hit the Powerball, the Christopher is getting the job done just fine in the three or four regional orchestras I play in and on the bandstand at the clubs I play in.
  10. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

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    Apr 2, 2013
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    Arkansas
    I might have to revise what I said earlier. Because I would have a hard time labeling almost any 7/8 bass a "student bass."
  11. longfinger

    longfinger

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2008
    Location:
    Montreal, QC, Canada
    Those are just marketing terms. While there may be a nice hierarchy to be described using them within the double bass selling world, those terms may have absolutely no correlation with their economic definitions which are widely used outside the music instrument world.

    Economically, if you make money with an instrument, it and your performance with it, is professional. Actual instrument build and music performance standards may vary wildly.
  12. Adam Attard

    Adam Attard

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    Feb 9, 2009
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    Cleveland, Ohio
    Someone playing "country" bass, using weedwhacker strings on a bass that cost them $500 is just as much using it for a professional purpose as a member of a major orchestra using a $600,000 Da Salo. Good point.
  13. mindwell

    mindwell Supporting Member

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    Granting that "student" and "professional" are something like third-order predicates defined by usage, I actually do think they connote something in the minds of those who produce and market upright basses, and I'm interested in finding out what this is.
  14. bssist

    bssist

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    Jun 23, 2007
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    St. Louis, MO USA
    If you want a bass (for any reason) that has a bigger price tag or fancier sounding label you have the right. If the money you will use to purchase it was earned then you have earned the right.

    As someone mentioned earlier, a $500 bass and a $600,000 bass both have their professional settings and uses. I too am curious about how the manufacturer (or marketing team) decides how to label (or market) their instruments. Perhaps it has little to do with the build or material choice, but is more about targeting a demographic.
  15. drurb

    drurb Oracle, Ancient Order of Rass Hattur; Mem. #1, EPC Supporting Member

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    I agree that a bass on which you earn money is a "professional" bass. In the mind of the builder/marketer, I think it's a different story. Given a particular builder, I think it has a great deal to do with the build and choice of materials while also targeting a demographic. It's safe to say that a builder will generally use more costly materials and build techniques on what he/she markets as a "professional" bass as compared to what he/she markets as a "student" bass. After it's in the hands of a player, those labels might matter very little.

    One other historical aspect of "student" basses seems to concern their design. If I recall correctly, the thinner neck profiles of Kays (retained in the Engelhardts) had something to do with having them accommodate smaller hands. As so many here know, those basses were and are used to good effect in adult-sized hands.

    The labels are used for many other products as well. Think about "professional grade" drain cleaner, glue, auto parts, trucks, coffee makers, and on and on. Whether true or not, it's meant to convey that the product is more effective than the regular versions or than those of other manufacturers.
  16. eerbrev

    eerbrev

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    Dec 6, 2009
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    Sudbury,ON, Canada/ Akron, OH
    if I had to be set arbitrary boundaries on what makes something a "professional" quality instrument as marketed by luthiers, companies and businesses, I'd say it has to do with the following:

    - the quality of the Tonewoods: Their age, the straightness of grain, etc.

    - The amount of time spent: How long the maker spent on individual parts getting them to a level of their own personal satisfaction.

    - The knowledge of the maker: The ability and knowledge of the maker to create a product that can create a high quality sound, and is easily playable.

    All of which is not to say that an instrument made in a "industrial" setting is not, or cannot be a "professional instrument". as has been said here, what a players needs are can change drastically from player to player, and situation to situation. A section guy in a community orchestra doesn't need a $50,000 instrument, and a session great in Nashville might desire a nice old german Pre-war roundback to get the sound he's hearing in his head.

    Also, Occasionally the factory process can create an instrument that's above and beyond what one would "expect", and occasionally a handmade instrument that someone took hundreds of hours to make ends up being a total sow's ear. Wood is a fickle mistress, and the bass is a Fickle beast.
  17. mindwell

    mindwell Supporting Member

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    Quantum physics-grade spookiness.
  18. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member

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    HPF Technology: Protecting the Pocket since 2007
    I've got two kids learning instruments, so "student grade" is a matter of interest to me. I consider a student instrument to be a step above the cheap crap that flows out of eBay etc.

    Parents (many of whom are not knowledgeable about music), teachers, schools, don't need to be burdened with instruments that fall apart. The materials and construction need to be solid, and repairable. The student deserves an instrument that won't be an obstacle to developing correct technique, and that sounds good enough to make presentable music.

    For student use, plywood basses make a lot of sense, especially here in the Midwest. Instruments get knocked around a lot, and most older school buildings have no humidity control.

    I suspect that "student" instruments have always presented a good option for a professional who needs all of the same features, but has modest needs regarding tone quality for whatever reason. My electric basses have always been what I'd call student instruments.
  19. drurb

    drurb Oracle, Ancient Order of Rass Hattur; Mem. #1, EPC Supporting Member

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    Thoughtful, as usual, F-- and Happy New Year! Waaaaaaay back when, my newly-built high-school with its emphasis on the music department, was stocked with a fleet of fully-carved Juzeks. Hardly "student grade" and they had quite soft spruce tops. Guess what they looked like after three to four years. :) Yup, as you pointed out, sometimes "student grade" just makes more sense.
  20. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member

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    Happy New Year as well!

    I'm reminded that my luthier calls this "crack season," so let's all wish one another a crack free new year!
  21. Hector Wolff

    Hector Wolff

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    Jun 7, 2003
    Location:
    East Norwich, Long Island, NY
    I agree that the issue is the quality distinctions in or expectations of the instrument - not the use to which it is put. We all know that talented and professional players use a wide variety of instruments, either by preference or necessity to earn their living. Not to mention that a really good player can often make a student instrument sound much better than a student could.

    I would make one point that that in my opinion, many if not most "student" instruments that do have carved tops (usually hybrids) have tops that were produced in a factory environment and the carving was likely done from a pattern by some form of machine (though it might be manually controlled). While a professional level instrument is almost certainly fully carved, and the carving is likely to be done by hand.

    The distinction is that the skilled luthier can evaluate a piece of wood before and as he is working it, and adjust his carving to bring out the best in that piece of wood. A machine following a template will by necessity treat each piece of wood as the same and all the cutting will be the same. Strength and flexibility will not enter into the machines calculations.

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