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Basses improving with age? (DB Forum Thread)

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Ed S, Jan 12, 2020.


  1. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    I know this has been discussed before - on both the electric and upright sides - as well as w/ fiddles. And my understanding is that some people feel a stringed instrument continues to "get better" beyond some relatively short breaking/settling in period, with little real support either in experiment or rational theory.

    I've been surprised at how many threads recently have made reference to decades old instruments having "opened up" and such. I find myself dubious to such claims.
    -I can imagine that many older instruments that have survived might have been the better sounding ones when they were young. They were cared for better and valued more.
    -I can imagine a single owner becoming increasingly in tune with the specific characteristics of an instrument, such that they can get more out of it.

    But I can't figure out a reason to think that - say - a quality 50 (or 150) year old instrument would sound better than it did after 5 years of playing.

    Anyone ready for another go-round? :D
     
  2. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    The last house I lived in was a log cabin made out of tulip poplar from the late 1800s. I had the privilege of hand-sawing through some of the logs to add a door. I thought it'd be easy since you can practically cut a live poplar down with a pocket knife, but no way. That old wood was hard as a rock. Just one example of how one wood can change over time, and for such reasons I'm firmly in the "changes" camp. Something about a piece of wood having absorbed moisture from the air and dried out again, over and over and over and over, I tend to think makes it more rigid and absorb less of the sound so there's more to come out of the bass. That's the way I see it anyway.
     
  3. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    Mine has definitely opened up.
     
  4. I heard there's a construction reason for violin family instruments get better with time. The front (and back) desk is glued to the sides on a very thin edge. With time, the joint becomes more brittle, the instrument gets more fragile, but allows for easier vibration of the body. In opposite, with acoustic guitars, the front (and back) desk is glued to the sides reinforced with braces, so the joint is very strong. With slow drying of the wood, the guitar body loses the ability to vibrate, which leads to less lows radiating out of it, which is perceived as worse sound.

    I'm sure there's more to it; luthiers know, but it certainly is hard to measure.
     
  5. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Thanks for the responses. I'd long heard such opinions, but was surprised at my inability to turn up anything that looked like more than anecdote and opinion. Folk have long been subjecting old instruments to all manner of scientific study. I would've thought that - at least over the last 20-50 years or so - someone would've been studying the structure and tone of a new instrument as it ages.

    I think it is pretty clear that all of our senses - and our subconscious - play a role in our perceptions. I wonder if it is possible that the obvious age of some instruments somehow makes us perceive them as sounding different than newer ones.
     
  6. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    Many if not most double basses do have curfing or some similar top-to-side bracing either inside or outside the bass, like most hollow body instruments (guitars and mandolins come to mind).

    I played an old flatback yesterday that had an external outer curfing-like strip on the ribs just below the violin edges... This was a great sounding instrument, btw.
     
  7. Scott Lynch

    Scott Lynch Supporting Member

    Nov 27, 2002
    Delaware, USA
    Compounding this issue is the fact that "good tone" is subjective. Beauty, in this instance, is in the ear of the beholder. Assuming that anyone would devote the time (centuries?) and resources to do so, how could you design an experiment to reliably test for this "improvement" in sound with age? What are the criteria?
     
    unbrokenchain likes this.
  8. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Looking at your thread title, I wouldn't say "improving" so much. Age and vibration aren't going to make a bad sounding bass into a good sounding bass. But the sound does become a richer and more nuanced version of that original voice over time and playing. So yes, if the bass has a good sound at the outset, that sound develops in a way that becomes objectively "better".
     
  9. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    I don't think it's that subjective, my experience is that if I hear that an instrument has a "full, warm sound" with a strong projection of the fundamental and full bloom of overtones after the initial attack, that's pretty much how everyone I talk to has experienced the same perception. And if I hear something as thin, nasal, lacking in body, well that seems to be the reaction of others who are in the same room hearing the same instrument.
    Sure, everyone is looking for something different out of any instrument. What I'm looking for as a jazz accompanist isn't going to be what an orchestral soloist is looking for. What gives me the "ping and the ring" playing a walking line may be entirely too dark a sound for someone exploring the solo repertoire of 20th century composition. It may project too much fundamental for a section bassist doing 19th century literature. But it's not like those three bassists are listening to my bass and hearing different sounds, right?
     
  10. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    A question for the ages...
     
    Scott Lynch likes this.
  11. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    It is easy to turn up acoustic analyses of violins from more than 10 yrs ago. (I have not attempted to check how far back such testing might have been done.) I would think it a pretty simple matter for some maker/college to have conducted SOME tests over the past decade (at least) to confirm that instruments "open up." Heaven knows there are enough string magazines and conferences needing material... ;)

    For some makers that have not greatly changed their methods, it might be simple enough to compare - say - 1 yr-old fiddles with 10-yr-old models. While not definitive, such comparisons could be suggestive.

    Even if decades-long studies may not have "concluded" yet, is there any indication that they have been begun?

    Disclosure: In all things, I tend to be suspicious of claims that COULD be readily verified objectively, if such verification seems to be lacking. I also note that I have not researched thoroughly, but I have not readily uncovered any studies suggesting that old string instruments DO NOT "open up."
     
  12. Ukiah Bass

    Ukiah Bass Supporting Member

    May 10, 2006
    Found these on a quick google search. Violins seem to be the preferred subject related to wood, age etc. According to these, likely dependent variables appear to be moisture and vibrations from regular playing -- and how those affect the wood.

    When Violinists Play, Their Violins Improve

    How do violins change with playing and environmental changes over time?

    https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02086598/document

    https://logosfoundation.org/kursus/The Science of String Instruments.pdf (chapter on double bass starts on p. 259)

    etc. etc etc.

    and for fun, Wooden Instruments "opening up" over time?
     
  13. Scott Lynch

    Scott Lynch Supporting Member

    Nov 27, 2002
    Delaware, USA
    You may be right, Ed in that all "good" basses share some general characteristics that give them a characteristically "good" sound.

    Or to put it another way, tone is ultimately subjective.

    Again, how can this be proven? If anything, given the many different dimensions and construction techniques seen in basses played by the highest caliber players, I am compelled to believe that the opposite is true.
     
  14. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Thanks. What specific portions of those do you believe contain objective support for "opening up"?

    The first 2, I couldn't open, and the 2d 2 are quite long.
     
  15. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Here's a study that seems to indicate that after 3 years, there is a measurable difference, which listeners could not detect. They compared 2 violins, 1 of which had been played regularly, and the other "stored" in museum conditions.

    I don't have any particular position to push here, and personally, I tend to prefer older and more hand-crafted things. But I am also fully aware of the ability to "fool" oneself through such things a selective memory, placebos, etc. - making me suspicious of folks' claims that their personal experience is all of the proof that is needed.
     
  16. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    Tennessee
    Usually, the comments about an instrument's "opening up" are not referring to a bass that has been played regularly for decades. But a bass that has been sitting dormant in a closet for 10 years tends not to speak as well until it has been played a bit.
     
  17. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Well, no. WHAT tone one wants can be subjective (I want a darker, less nasal sound), but the ASSESSMENt of that "tone" isn't (this bass sounds thin and nasal).

    What do you mean "proven"? If I hear, for example, Peter Brendler playing his bass and I think to myself "Man, that bass has a nice strong fundamental and big, warm sound." and then I talk to my buddy Jim Hershman and ask " Hey have you heard Peter Brendler play?" and Jim says "Yeah, he gets such big, warm sound." and then I talk with Nathan Peck and ask him the same thing and he says" Yeah, what a great sound, it speaks so well and has (wait for it) such a big, warm sound." then I think that the consensus is pretty well supported, I don't think that any of us mean SMALL when we say BIG, or COLD or BRITTLE when we say WARM, or that the immediate voice of the note is obscured or lost the we say PRESENT or SPEAKS WELL or anything that implies the presence of a strong fundamental when the string is addressed.

    But, as always, feel free to embrace the belief system you're most comfortable with, I'll do the same.
     
    Fretless55, Phil Rowan and lurk like this.
  18. CaseyVancouver

    CaseyVancouver

    Nov 4, 2012
    Even happens after a short time. My ‘60s carved 5/8ths bass often loses it’s warm sound during cold winter spells. I have noticed this effect for years, having owned it since 1974. Does it sound better today than when I bought it? Hard to say without a side by side. The top end (thumb position) seems bigger today than what I felt when first purchased. Could also be that I did not venture much into tp when I was 19.

    I heard from a top bassist years ago (Richard Davis?) that basses start sounding great at 50 years old. Of course we all have heard new basses sound fantastic, contradicting this very old comment.

    Recently I played a ton of gigs on my 5/8ths (including 22 hours in the 5 days before Christmas) then it sat unused for a week. Next up I used it for three gigs in one day. The first gig I thought there was something wrong with the bass, like a seam opening. It had no sound or punch. I was playing acoustically in a small room with clarinet, guitar and an audience of about 30. Later that day I played a larger room with trumpet, guitar and again no amp. The sound was starting to come back. In the evening of that day I played a large concert hall with trumpet, guitar all acoustic. The bass sound was big, warm and my solos & accompaniment could be heard fine.

    It went from tight and lifeless to warm and responsive during one day.
     
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2020
    Lee Moses likes this.
  19. Scott Lynch

    Scott Lynch Supporting Member

    Nov 27, 2002
    Delaware, USA
    Trying to understand you here, Ed. I very much respect and appreciate your many contributions to the DB Forums and have learned much from them.

    Perhaps I should have amended my previous statement to say "the interpretation of tone is subjective." I think we agree here. However, how is "thin and nasal", by its nature, an objective measurement or description? It sounds like an opinion.

    Music by its nature is aesthetic, and therefore subject to the preference of each individual listener. If you say a bass sounds thin and nasal, and I say it doesn't, how can you tell me that I'm wrong? (Maybe that's the first bass I've ever listened to and I have no frame of reference. And I liked that sound! Gee, thanks Ed. :laugh: ) Getting out a frequency analyzer and comparing and contrasting the spectrum of a 'warm, dark' bass to a 'thin, nasal' bass - now we're getting somewhere. Now I have at least a better idea of why you're saying that.


    Objective
    (adj.) - (of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.

    These are "in the ballpark" descriptors of tone accompanied by the relative consensus of others when analyzing and discussing it. For all practical intents and purposes it's good enough language for many players to be able to arrive at a sound they like and that and works for them. I do get that and the usefulness of it. However, nothing in the above quote presents any truly objective information. It's all just a bunch of opinions.

    There are, of course, many extreme, and perhaps some not so extreme, examples on which almost everyone would agree on. That's not enough to argue that listening can be an objective experience. No matter how close it may approach objectivity in some extreme cases, it never fully gets there, in my opinion.
    To try and (respectfully) drive my point home here, I don't precisely know what you mean by "richer and more nuanced version of that original voice". But I can guess - Is it a result of the bass "opening up"? (I suppose that would be the bass improving) Or through really knowing how your instrument responds to you and getting the most out of that? (That's not the bass - that's you improving!) Or both? Or some other factor(s)?
     
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2020
  20. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Meaning no disrespect, do people believe that players can hear something that is not mechanically detectable? If so, how does that work? If not, then why don't we see scientific confirmation?
     

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