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Differences in Construction and Sound

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by mattj1stc, Jan 20, 2021.

  1. mattj1stc

    mattj1stc Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2009
    Dallas, TX USA
    I'm still a fairly new upright player, and I've been thinking about getting a better double bass. Luckily, I was able to go to a local shop to try a few of them out. Specifically, I was interested in trying out some of the Shen models as they are well regarded, but you can only learn so much by reading about them vs. playing them.

    Realistically, in terms of my playing ability and budget, I going to be looking for a higher end laminate or a mid-range hybrid. However, I did get to try out several different models of different construction methods, but all from the same manufacturer.

    At this point, I've mostly played lower end laminate basses, so I was especially curious to try a hybrid. I also got to try some of the fully carved models. I think that they were all more or less equivalent in terms of set up (same shop) and strings (although I think that the laminated basses had a slightly lower version of the strings from the same string family).

    I can say pretty confidently that there is a significant difference between the nicer laminate basses from the lower end ones that I have been using. From there however, the hybrid was a remarkable step up in terms of sound, feeling and even fit/finish. The fully carved one I tried was even nicer still in terms of all of the above, it felt so much more alive and resonant than anything else.

    Anyway, I'm not an expert, but I terms of the difference between the laminate and the carved, the hybrid probably got to 80% of the carved sound to my ears. Again, these were all Shen basses, and they were all very nice. I also didn't try the very top end of the range carved basses, but I can imagine that they would be nicer still. That said, there seems to be a pattern like in all things in life that the incremental improvements at the top end of the range come with higher and higher costs.

    The bottom line is that I am now more convinced that the hybrid is a good value proposition for me right now I just need to save up a bit more. I am curious to know if others who are more knowledgeable have had similar experiences when playing different basses from the same family. Either way, I'm looking forward to getting a better instrument.
    Wasnex likes this.
  2. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    As you progress in your double-bass experience, you will surely want to step up from a plywood bass. You might as well do it sooner than later... unless you want to spend the money twice.
  3. SteSte


    Mar 28, 2017
    Rome, Italy
    I suggest you a used Kay.
    Its robust its nice sounding (some are really great) and it is a value if you resell and is a conversation item (its like a fender jazz bass, a "standard instrument" with a great history) and the measures are perfect and have personality and history in american instruments.
    Notable bassists owned a Kay by choice.
    mattj1stc likes this.
  4. Chris204T


    Feb 4, 2014
    Dallas area
  5. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Assuming you have the $ to spend, my general rule for musical instruments is to buy the best you can afford. And while there might be some overlap between a higher quality ply and a lower level hybrid, I think most people will agree that in general terms of sound quality: ply<hybrid<carved. And, as a general matter, the same relation is generally true for price. I'd probably suggest that a decent hybrid would be AT LEAST as good as a bottom priced carved, but that would likely depend on the specific basses.

    Sounds like your comparison led you to similar conclusions. The ability to compare similarly setup models from one maker is a fabulous opportunity which many folk lack. Don't be in a rush - go back and try them all again. And then compare your experiences to your pocketbook. Here's a crazy idea - would it be possible to try the basses w/o being told the construction/price? Not sure how tolerant the shop would be, but if they basically gave you free reign w/ their inventory, you could bring a friend and as them to hand you basses in no order. That would be really fun - to see if your ears/hands told you the same thing as your eyes! :D

    W/ upright, however, there might be a couple of reasons someone might prefer a laminate - your preferred musical style, and where you will be playing.

    Here's my example. I played a cheap ply for 10 yrs. I recently bought (what I consider to be) a pretty nice hybrid.

    My most common playing is outdoors in a parking lot, and indoors in tight space in a coffee shop. My main playing is bluegrass/oldtime. Hauling a bass in and out of a car, around parking lots and coffee shops, occasionally laying it down - it is tough to keep from incurring some damage to your bass. I kinda appreciate that the occasional scratch and ding, and edge rash, add "character" to my ply. I do very little bowing in public, and the ply thumps fine for most of what we play at these jams.

    While I'm dying to show my new bass off, it will kill me if/when I inevitably mar its beauty. That's likely just me - I should try not to be ruled by my possessions. I imagine I'll bring my hybrid for selective jams/gigs, but will mostly stick w/ my travel beater.

    At home, I'm practicing a lot of arco/classical, which I enjoy on the hybrid. I love thumping on my ply set up w/ guts, but bowing classical music was a challenge.

    So - if you are just thumping along playing oldtime/bluegrass, playing various places in and outside - a decent ply might be the perfect instrument for you. If bass is only one of many instruments you play, and you never plan on using it other than as something to thump away with casually, no need to spend more money. But if you do wish to expand your playing later, you may become dissatisfied with a ply.

    We can debate what is or isn't a "decent" hybrid, but my personal opinion is that you'd have to be pretty dedicated/accomplished to outgrow a decent hybrid such that you appreciated what the carved could give you.

    Folk also express opinions WRT susceptibility to temp/humidity changes of hybrid vs carved. Some folk say hybrids resist cracks better, while other folk say cracks are no big deal. I lack experience/expertise to opine further.

    Good luck!
  6. mattj1stc

    mattj1stc Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2009
    Dallas, TX USA
    Dallas Strings in Allen has several. They mostly have very high end ones that I didn't try, but they did have several Shens at different levels.
  7. 1. Shen's are solidly regarded - not the same as "well regarded". They are consistent and therefore can be recommended. I have one I love dearly, but I am not confused as to what it is!
    2. Do not bother with a Kay, the prices have gotten too high for what they are. There is no equivalent to a "Fender" if there was it certainly wouldn't be a plywood tank!
    Trying to find analogs to bass guitar is going to keep you from progressing on the double bass as well as keep you from finding the right instrument. Shut down all of that thinking now!
    A solid fully carved German shop bass around 50 years old is probably a good medium to look out for. You can find them for 3-6k.

    It is likely worth the drive to check out basses at Quantum in Houston - you may need an appointment. Stop at Woody's Smokehouse and get a bacon wrapped quail breast - check to see what other things look fresh, Woody's does a solid brisket, but they do volume, so it can be just OK if it has been sitting too long.
    When in Houston I'd recommend the pork belly burnt ends from Blood Brothers. Also, stop by the Menil collection for art, it is free.
    VictorW126 and mattj1stc like this.
  8. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    While I often like your recommendations for basses based upon sound, healthy advice..... brother, I'm often terrified of your heart attack club carnivore only food suggestions!!!!
  9. When in Texas...If you want a vegan meal between Dallas and Houston on I45, you better bring it with you!
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2021
    Chris K, Winoman, RBrownBass and 3 others like this.
  10. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard Commercial User

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    Black Dog Bass Works
    Play a lot of basses and take along a friend or teacher because it’s good to hear someone else play and just listen. They can sound very different to the player and listener.

    Ed’s advice about buying the best you can afford is good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy the most expensive bass you can afford. Six figure Italian basses aren’t much good on a Bluegrass or Jazz gig. For those I recommend nice Kay. And yes, Shens can be good basses and a great value.

    Condition and setup can make all the difference.
    mattj1stc and james condino like this.
  11. mattj1stc

    mattj1stc Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2009
    Dallas, TX USA
    Thanks everyone for the advice. I appreciate the recommendations. I can say that my visit yesterday was just one of many steps that I'm taking in terms of sorting this out. Obviously, I have spent a fair about of time online researching, and trying out a few examples was one of many subsequent steps. That main thing that I feel like the experience gave was an understanding of some of the differences between good, better and best (at least within that small universe). Still much to try and think through, likely including a visit to Houston. I agree that there isn't a complete match between bass guitar and double bass other than as you continue to strive for better solutions, the price goes up fast, even faster in the double bass world.
  12. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Any chance of renting one of the basses you tried - maybe a nice hybrid? Then you could learn what you want/don't want in a bass, as you continue to shop.

    But taking your time is the right move.
    mattj1stc likes this.
  13. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    If you can afford it, a hybrid is a no brainer IMO. String choice is also important. If you like live strings, dead strings on a great bass can blind you to the true sound of the bass. I’ve learned to mostly hear through that at this point, but it’s still sort of a leap of faith.
  14. Bluegrass sure. Making a Kay or any ply work in 21st Century jazz is an exception not a rule. Jazz players tend to like the best basses they can get, maybe not six figure Italian, but most of the jazz bassists I know play nice to great fully carved instruments.
  15. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard Commercial User

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    Black Dog Bass Works
    Your experience is valid but I see plenty of good jazz players using Kays or other plywoods. I did an American Standard for a player a few years ago who also has a beautiful carved bass worth about $40k which stays home. He prefers the plywood on jazz gigs.
    My advice is to focus on playability, sound (on the bandstand through an amp) and practicality. The best tool may not be the most expensive.
    Joshua likes this.
  16. You do see not many of the greats, but there are good players out there. You quote Haden - he had one of the most expensive basses of all the jazz greats!
    I'll argue to the end of time that plywood bass is a specific and advanced choice for a jazz player. No beginner with any aspirations beyond a one dimensional thump should be fighting through a ply bass in this day and age.

    Fretless55 and VictorW126 like this.
  17. Jmilitsc

    Jmilitsc Gold Supporting Member

    Sep 22, 2013
    Fairfield County, CT
    All great posts, one additional experience to consider: When it came time (well past really) to upgrade from my beginner ply after 20+ years, thinking about plunking down thousands was significant - but one of the luthiers I was trialing basses from said something like “if you love the bass (easier to play, and already sounds good) you’ll use it more, practice more, enjoy it more, and your sound will be better”. That was great advice at the time because I kinda hated my ply by then and wanted to learn arco(i just joined a community orchestra), and he was right. I didn’t spend anywhere near the top of the range I was looking at because I found the one bass out of dozens i tried that made me want to play it and not stop - it sounded amazing when played by professionals and I sounded better on it, and it made me want to play it more. So keep trialing them and take your time, ask to trial the basses that you think have real potential for you for a few days or a week, and wait for the one that speaks to you and you never want to put down.
  18. I started on a 60s Kay because it was all we could afford. It was okay but not great, and today there are much better options. If you know a Kay is what you want, by all means, search some out and but the best one you can. However unless your plans end at playing a bluegrass and old-time jams (a perfectly respectable goal!) I think you’ll be better served by something else.

    I know plenty of folks who can get a great sound out of a laminate bass. Many hybrids are awesome, and they take less care and feeding than a solid instrument. From what you say I think the hybrid is a great option. If you won’t be happy without going for a solid instrument, the world is your oyster, at least as far as your wallet can stretch.
    mattj1stc and Fretless55 like this.
  19. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard Commercial User

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    Black Dog Bass Works
    Dennis Irwin chose a thumpy American Standard when he played with many of the greats. Check out Marco Panascia on his Kay.
    -I would never recommend 90% of Kays for anybody, much less a beginner.
    -It may be that students need a bass beyond their capabilities to allow growth, to help formulate their sound.
    -Once that sound is developed, it will follow the player.
    -Many old thumpy basses will benefit from a proper fingerboard and setup which can transform them. I’ve done it and seen it. There are plenty of fully carved thudding old dogs in racks too.
    Good luck on your search.

    Damon, if you get over to KC we should hang. You might be surprised. Surely not convinced, but...................
  20. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    ^^^ Exactly my recent experience. I played ply for 10 yrs, and was pretty competent in my narrow range of BG thumping. I REALLY liked my ply, but I wanted to just become a better bassist overall. Wanted to learn more about the instrument to be able to play up the neck and take occasional breaks, and wanted to explore arco for occasional use in public, but also just as a practice/growth tool.

    When all I did was thump, I often found it a challenge to motivate myself to practice. Just playing scales and working w/ a metronome was boring, bowing was a challenge, and I lacked the structure to motivate myself to work on theory/shifting/etc.

    Now that I have a bass that I personally consider to look and sound beautiful, I'm practicing at least an hr a day (no big deal for many of you, but far more than I used to.) And I even bit the bullet and signed up for on-line lessons. Weirdly, my increased motivation to practice bass has also had me playing banjo more.

    Personally, I could imagine a REALLY nice bass being intimidating. But if you think bas is something you are going to stick with and try to grow into, don't cheap out on the initial purchase. You could get many very nice instruments for around $4k - possibly even cheaper, but could involve a lot of legwork. Up through $6-8-10k, unless you are a pro, you should aim at something that really gets your juices flowing - for whatever reason. Yes, how it sounds, but could also include looks, history ...

    A lot of people love Shens. The ones I've played have been very nice. Some of the lower priced ones impress me as a tad "cookie cutter-ish" in appearance. And I'm personally not thrilled w/ the effect Asian makers have had on independent makers - but that's probably irrational on my part. Not saying I wouldn't own a Shen, just that I'd be happy to find alternatives, and would likely pay SOME premium. But if you want a solid, safe choice, it would be tough to go wrong w/ a Shen.
    Jmilitsc, AGCurry and mattj1stc like this.
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