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Action, and it's effect on your sound

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by Lovebown, Nov 22, 2002.

  1. Lovebown


    Jan 6, 2001
    Hey.. I'm kinda new to double bass and have been wondering, what level of action do you guys use?

    My teacher, who I respect very much and is a very talented guy, says that when he started playing people told him that higher action = bigger sound.
    But he eventually lowered his action a good bit, and found that he preffered that sound... he says that low action means longer decay and higher action decays faster... Do you agree with this? What is your preference???

    I play only pizz by the way...

  2. The action should be high enough so you can play as forcefully as necessary without the strings rattling against the fingerboard. I think in the quest for a bigger sound many people confuse things by looking at the height of the strings from the board, but overlooking the real factor - the bridge height.

    Raising the bridge adjusters may increase volume and punch, but it's not because the strings are farther from the board. It's because a taller bridge increases the string tension which, in turn, increases the downward pressure on the top. The tension is determined by the height of the bridge, not the distance of the strings from the fingerboard.

    The amount of string tension is not only affected by the bridge height. It is also determined by
    (1) The angle of the string passing over the bridge. The steeper the angle, the higher the tension. That's why people either put a raised saddle or reset the neck forward when they want to loosen the bass.
    (2) The gauge of the string. Heavy strings increase tension and are generally louder.

    Keep in mind that excessive tension may also choke the sound, make bowing difficult and cave in the top. The goal is to optimize things for a given bass *and* not make it more difficult than necessary to play.

    At the time of construction or overhaul, a luthier should determine an optimal combination bridge height and string angle for an instrument, and then set the neck angle in such a way that the board lies under the strings at a comfortable height -- high enough to play forcefully without rattles, but low enough eliminate unnecessary strain.

    An interesting attempt to address this is what bass maker Jim Hamm (I hope I got his name right) does. He made a bass that Gary Karr plays where the neck block is adjustable, so you can actually move the fingerboard closer to or farther away from to the strings, without changing the pitch. Playing a solo up the neck -- move neck forward; playing heavy attacks -- move neck back. All without disrupting the optimal bridge height.

    I'm a player, not a luthier. I'll be interested to hear if the luthiers in this group agree with what I've said.
  3. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
  4. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    Kudos to Mr. Hollender on his excellent dissertation! The only thing I'd like to add is this: Your bass has to be set up in a way that feels comfortable and right to YOU. Higher strings may sound louder for one player, but the extra tension might hold you back, and even cause your sound to have LESS oomph...some players pluck over the top of the string, others dig down in between, and everyone's technique and fingers vary. My advice is to experiment until it feels right and sounds good. I suggest you not get caught up in a numbers game. However, make sure your set-up includes extra room between the thicker strings and the fingrboard, so your sound and playability will be even.
  5. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Couple of additions:

    Since you're new to the beast, it's gonna feel huge for a while. Just be patient with it. I wouldn't expect to make it through a whole night without that feeling that 'this is ridiculous' for at least a year of steady playing.

    What I do to determine my string height is this. I experiment a bit and find the line between good tone and poop. You can usually narrow it down to a 1/4 turn of the adjusters. Hopefully your comfort level is somewhere here. If it isn't then I wouldn't know exactly what to recommend, other than put the strings where you aren't going to hurt yourself and get thee to your luthier and say, "I want it to play like this," then raise the strings to where it sounds good and say, " and sound like this." Laughter may ensue, but that's the breaks. See item 1 again...
  6. Point of reference: A 1/4 turn of the adjusters will change the string height at the octave .0062" (.16mm) - the thickness of two sheets of writing paper.
  7. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Depends on the threading of the adjuster. I have the big, wooden ones, and a 1/4 is a bit closer to a mm on my bass.
  8. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    Sorry to get anal about this, Ray, but the wooden adjusters have 14 threads per inch. Therefore, 1/4 turn equals 1/4th of a 14th, or 1/56 of an inch, which translates to slightly less than 1/2mm. But your point about narrowing down the height range to an area that works for the player and the bass is a very good one...
  9. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I must be a sensitive guy then, cuz the .5mm can be felt:)

    Kind of a low budget 'Princess and the Pea'?
  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    I would expect nothing less from a guy who named his axe "Isabella".
  11. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001

    Yours is named Thor or something?
  12. Sometimes the line between clattery and dead and sweet and growly is very fine.
    I ass-u-me-ed 1/4-20 metal adjusters, d'oh.
    A quarter turn on 14tpi Kolstein adjusters is 1/14"*.25 or .0178", half of that distance would be seen at the octave - about .009"; about the thickness of a business card.

    It might be worth noting that the condition of the f/b makes a big difference here. Generally with higher action, less relief needs to be put in the f/b.
  13. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    No kidding-
    On the other thread, when Ray said that Fuqua sat in on his gig and played Isabella, I went through all my Real Books, looking for the tune.
  14. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    Now THAT'S funny!
  15. Buddy Lee

    Buddy Lee

    May 5, 2002
    People always say I'm nuts, 'cause all my instruments have female names. Should I name my babies like guys??
    My bass may be as crappy as my playing is, but she's not a thing, she's someone I really love! :)

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