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Fingerboard dress; What would you do?

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by drguitar, Apr 5, 2009.

  1. I recently had an upright bass I built set up for proper fingerboard relief. The work was done by a well known bass luthier. His shop is not really set up for playing and my wife (who owns the bass) and I had a few hours to travel to get home so we didn't spend much time in the shop playing it. I did notice while we were there that the action seemed high.

    A little background. The bass fingerboard was dead straight when I brought it to him. I told him that the bass would be plucked only (my wife is a bluegrasser). I also told him that I wanted the action a low as possible without any buzzing.

    Back to the present. When I got the bass home, the action was indeed quite high. In addition, the relief under the strings was strange and haphazard. The E string has a relief of about 2.5mm measured under the note A on that string (the A is where the relief is cut deepest). The A string looks to have the most relief with a measurement of about 3.5 mm at the E position. The D string relief is at about 2mm measured at the note A and the G string has no relief at all.

    Two things have me troubled about this. The first is that the E string is reliefed deeply between the open string and the note A making fingering in this position difficult. The other thing that troubles me is that the neck is so strangely reliefed, that I am unable to find a good position for the bridge height so that the bass plays easily. In other words, what works for one string does not work for other strings.

    So my questions are:

    Is my fingerboard reliefed properly? and
    If not, what should I do now?

  2. Eric Hochberg

    Eric Hochberg

    Jul 7, 2004
    It doesn't sound like it, a proper relief should work for all strings at the same bridge height, up and down the fingerboard. Take it back, and have the job done properly so the bass plays the way your wife likes it. Maybe the bridge is not cut properly. It sounds like you need to spend some time with this luthier. If he can't get it right for you the second time, better go elsewhere.
  3. jallenbass

    jallenbass Supporting Member Commercial User

    May 17, 2005
    Bend, Oregon
    In my experience I would say that your fingerboard is not correctly dressed. If it were me I would write off the luthier who did the work and go to someone else.

    Fill out your profile and you might get some suggestions as to who are qualified luthiers in your area.
  4. I am feeling the same way. First off, the drive to this luthiers work is about 2 hours each way. Secondly, the work was so poor, that I am resistant to take it back. The big problem is that this fellow has a sterling reputation and is well known in the upright bass community. I will NOT mention his name (no matter what). The fingerboard dress (relief) with minor setting up of the nut and bridge cost in the neighborhood of $250. I am feeling like I should just chalk this off to lost money and look elsewhere. I am in the Philadelphia area and I know of no one else who does this sort of work.

    What to do...

  5. Eric Hochberg

    Eric Hochberg

    Jul 7, 2004
    There are any number of good luthiers in the NY area, A Schnitzer, J Bollbach, B Merchant, D Gage...

    This should not be a problem to get this done correctly.
  6. zeytoun


    Dec 19, 2008
    Portland, Oregon
    I'd want my money back at a minimum. If it caused a significant loss of ebony, I'd expect compensation for that too (negotiable - a little money towards the diminished value, an offer to switch out the FB if it were new, a piece of merchandise, something...).

    If the person wouldn't agree to reasonable amends, I'd post pictures of the work, and reveal the business name.
  7. Actually zeytoun, he did a pretty decent job on the nut and bridge (clean, smooth work), so I don't feel comfortable asking for my money back. In addition, remember I said this was a handmade (homemade) upright? The fingerboard is black walnut. Also, the bass is unusual in that it is not your standard upright bass shape. It is essentially a "kit" bass sold as a suitcase upright bass. The shape of the body is a large trapezoid and the neck screws on and off with one large hand screw knob; this allows for fast breakdown and setup (for traveling the bass packs into about half it's normal size.


    Here is a picture from standing next to it. You can clearly see the hand screw for locking the neck in position. Also notice that action can be easily set by loosening the strings and the hand screw and sliding the neck either forward or back.


    Here is a shot of the inside. The body does not have a front sound port (although it could). The sound port is roughly a 4 inch circular cutout in the bottom of the box. This allows for easy adjustment of the sound post and easy pictures of the inside...


    I may scallop the bass bar a bit to bring out a little more volume and low E tone, but only after I get the set up problems fixed first.

    Thanks for any advise anyone can give... other than get a real bass... lol

  8. zeytoun


    Dec 19, 2008
    Portland, Oregon
    Suit yourself. My response was what I would do. (edit: given the info at the time)

    I might speculate, now that I know about the FB material, that perhaps the grain of the walnut made planing it a disaster. In which case, I would expect the luthier to warn me in advance that it may not turn out well, and let me make the call.

    p.s. I wasn't about to dis your bass. I'm working on b***ard bass myself.

    curious, what does the bass sound like?
  9. Matthew Tucker

    Matthew Tucker Commercial User

    Aug 21, 2002
    Sydney, Australia
    Owner: Bresque Basses, Sydney Basses and Cellos
    A bit of a conundrum there.

    If you took that to a reputable luthier I'd say he probably did the best he could with what you gave him. First, you're asking for an action as low as possible, without any buzzing, for a bluegrass player. To me that sounds a bit like asking to put slick tyres on a tractor.

    You asked for a "proper" fingerboard relief. But with respect, I think what you're asking is tricky. You have a VERY non-standard bass there. A great long neck, it probably flexes a bit, an unconventional bridge, no pickup, nonstandard soundpost and bassbar, EVERYTHING is different to a "standard" DB, so it will respond very differently to a "standard" bass - if there is such a thing.

    BTW you say he did a good job on the bridge - but that's no standard bridge - did you give him that, or did he make it? It doesn't look ANYTHING like a good job by any conventional benchmark. Look at the thickness of the feet - and someone has drilled a dirty great hole in the middle! :eek:

    But there again, conventional benchmarks may not apply for this instrument. What IS a proper setup for that bass? No-one knows, except maybe the person who designed it in the first place. IS there a fingerboard? Or is that fingerboard wood integral with the neck, ie, one piece?

    What to do now, practically?

    I suggest you put a good straightedge against the fingerboard and take a bunch of measurements up and down each string. Check string height at the nut for each string. Then take the strings off and repeat the process. See if the neck is flexing or twisting under string tension? That could throw the whole thing out.

    Then, maybe, you could try phoning the luthier and asking him about what he intended, what you have found, and what to expect. You might learn something, maybe not.

    Then, maybe, if no joy there, have a good old think about it, mark the changes you want to make with a wax pencil, get out your block plane and start planing! Good luck!
    Dobe likes this.
  10. Here is a short mp3 file of the box. This was recorded directly into the computer without any eq or effect. The mic was a large condenser at about 14 inches from the front of the box. Please excuse the playing, this is my first time messing with a fretless bass of this scale. I improvised a little to show the sound across all the strings and show the sustain at the end. The strings are Corelli 370F.

    Also zeytoun, I was considering doing exactly as you suggested, but the gentleman who did the work is sincere and a good guy. Anyone can make a mistake and I would definitely give him another chance before asking for my money back (if I were to decide to go that route which I probably wouldn't). By the way, cool looking bass you got there!

    Matthew, the neck is very stable. It is 3 pieces of laminated walnut and very hefty. In addition, there is a walnut fingerboard on the front (that is why it is hard to see the fingerboard separate from the neck). Mostly my post was about the measurements of relief beneath each string and where the relief was greatest. It may be that the luthier had a difficult time getting the relief right because of the grain of the wood (this would be my guess). But mostly, I was wondering if the relief measurements I stated seemed correct. I work on guitars and fretted instruments (going on 39 years) and the measurements for relief of the neck are pretty exact and carry over from one guitar to the next (depending on the playing style of the owner). Are there measurements for relief on a bass neck that are considered standard? If so, what are they?

    Thanks in advance,

  11. jallenbass

    jallenbass Supporting Member Commercial User

    May 17, 2005
    Bend, Oregon

    I like around 2 mm of relief. There was a discussion awhile back on this topic and several luthiers gave their professional opinions. You might search for that.
  12. Jeremy Darrow

    Jeremy Darrow

    Apr 6, 2007
    Nashville, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Fishman Transducers, D'Addarrio Strings
    You've made a unique instrument, you could probably debate whether or not it's a double bass at all (or upright, whatever), or if it's a new instrument entirely. Whatever it is, it looks cool to me. Either way, it might be good for you to work with this luthier, or another luthier if this one is not a good fit, to help you tweak this instrument. Your bass is so far outside the "box" that you have to expect it to take a while to get things right. You've said that you plan to give your guy another chance, I think that's a really good idea. Maybe you should be willing to give him three or four since you've asked him to sail into uncharted waters, and he was willing to go there for you.

    I know very little about bass set-up, but I do know that different strings need varying amounts of room to move without buzzing from one end of the board to the other. There are even variations from brand to brand. With this in mind, it's possible that your luthier applied their knowledge in a standard way, but it didn't work on your bass. What appears "strange and haphazard" might, in fact, work well on a more traditional bass. I expect that whatever rules there may be about double bass set-up cannot necessarily be applied here.

    Edit: Sorry to have repeated so much of what Matthew said. If we ever meet in person, Matt, I'll buy you a beer.

    Best of luck with your new bass.
  13. drurb

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

    Apr 17, 2004
    This statement puzzled me. Could you elaborate? I don't really understand how a shop would not be "set up for playing." It seems to me, the job could be evaluated by the player even if enclosed in a closet. What, if anything, am I missing?
  14. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The sound of the thing is surprisingly good, considering that it's pretty unique and, well, square. I sure don't hear anything that sounds like a setup issue. The notes ring clearly and without much in the way of buzzing. Aside from the twanginess of the (presumably new) strings, that sounds better than a lot of CCB's I've seen.

    The last sentence of the above quote is suggestive to me. I bet the best way to answer your question would be to get out and play a bunch of "normal" double basses and see how the feel compares. I know very little about what normal camber is, etc., but i do know that when I was standing in your shoes (as a DB newbie), most basses seemed physically daunting, when in fact I just wasn't used to the idea of how much force it takes to play them, and where that force needs to come from if you don't want to kill yourself trying to learn how to play. Good luck. :)
  15. Pentabass


    Dec 11, 2007
    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for posting your most interesting instrument. Removable neck, Adjustable overstand, Downwards projection, what's not to like?

    Having buildt a Dennis Havlena style weedwacker string bass, I found myself stumped by the same question you ask: What are the 'standard' measurements of releif on a 41 inch long string that you pluck or bow, and push with your soft fingers against a fretless fingerboard??
    After searching and reading many opinions and posts on this board, I finally come to the conclusion that there is not one standard. There are too many variables.

    Therefore, in order to compare and talk about it, I thought we should have at least a matrix of the most important variables (string length, type and thickness, playing type - plucked or bowed, length of fingerboard) with measurements between the underside of the string and the fingerboard at the most useful spots. That is what I tried to do here, but it is maybe too complex for most to look people to look at. The rewards are not instant enough.

    Yet is is essentially the same as Jake's String height Poll except that poll refers only to the end of the fingerboard, and who knows where that is in relation to the string length, on all the various double basses?

    Mike, even though you say the neck is stable, remember that we are dealing with tremendous tensions, and wood is organic. Matthew's point may be very true: you have a long neck, and it could bend. Your relief might be altered when you take the strings off for planing. Consider shaping your relief the way it has been suggested here on Talkbass: take only the string off that you are working on, and using a narrow rabbet plane (3/4 inch or so), you work only on one section of the fingerboard at a time. Between that and a straightedge, shining a light from the back, you may not have to travel so far again.

    greetings from Winnipeg
  16. Thanks everyone for your replies.

    John Allen, thanks the measurement. My guess is that the E string could be slightly larger than 2mm and the G string could be slightly less than 2mm, but you gave me a great starting point.

    Jeremy, I may give this luthier another shot at it if he is willing. He is extremely busy (it took over a month just to get a date when he could let me bring it in). But I think I will try playing it for a while to let the wood know it is supposed to be an instrument (there is less than 2 hours of play on this beast). I also want to let a very good upright bass friend of mine check out the action to see what he thinks. He certainly has much more experience with these instruments than I do.

    Drurb, I cannot say more about the condition of the shop where I had the work done without giving some clue as to who did the work. I can just say that the area was not set up in a way that would make playing the bass easy to do.

    Chris F, thanks for the complement about the tone of the instrument. It is not a bad sound and as I mess with the sound post, I am finding better and worse places to set it. I have played other nice upright basses (back when I played guitar in lots of small jazz ensembles) and I have played some upright basses that played like buttah. I also know that when I level and dress a guitar fingerboard, the first time I generally get it about 90% perfect. When I do it again, it is closer to 98% perfect. This may be the case with this bass. It may just need some more loving care to get it just right.

    Pentabass, I wish I could take credit for the design. In fact, after building this beast, I realized there were many things I would do differently if I were to build another (larger acoustic chamber, different bass bar wood, different plywood for back...etc). I was not able to either open or download your posted specifications. Thanks for trying though.

    Thanks for all the info guys,

  17. drurb

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

    Apr 17, 2004
  18. Matthew Tucker

    Matthew Tucker Commercial User

    Aug 21, 2002
    Sydney, Australia
    Owner: Bresque Basses, Sydney Basses and Cellos
    OK, so roughly, at the centre of the fingerboard, with the string held down to the fingerboard at both ends, there should be a gap, about the thickness of the string, under the string. And this varies across the four strings, in the same way. And then there are variations on this theme, where the deepest point of the scoop is placed, how deep, whether there is any scoop at all! All depending on the wisdom of the luthier and the preference of the player, ultimately.

    Any flexing of the neck can throw it out, particularly at the thinner part of the neck, and it really depends what make and tension of strings, who is playing and how. As an example, a vigorous bow stroke on the G string in open or first position will often cause a nasty rattle, and if it bothers you, it can be a devil to shape so that the string doesn't rattle - but then normal fingering is affected further up the board by the deeper scoop necessary. So some players like this, others don't worry about the G rattle and play around it by playing notes on the D string, and get a more powerful tone, too.

    I feel Chris is on the mark - you may be looking for a bass guitar setup on a double-bass-type-instrument, and its not necessarily a good thing. The higher the strings, generally, the louder and better the acoustic tone. To a point. A double bass is played in a much more vigorous and powerful way than a bass guitar, and that's where the sound comes from. And that technique takes time to develop.

    Jeremy: Mmmmmmm. Beer.

  19. Mike,
    I am familiar with the neck design as I made one from MusicMaker plans for their older, discontinued model Baroque Bass design. Same neck. Since it is laminated, it is strong, stable, and twist-resistant even at twice the length of a DB neck. My homemade bass stays in tune for months; much more stable than my DB.

    To the issue - My fingerboard is arrow straight and for what I play (pizz below the neck position where the 8th fret would be) straight is great. I can reduce the height to 4 mm w/o a buzz but usually play it at about 6-7 MM just so I can grab the string better. I had a bit of an after-buzz on sustained notes with the A string and found the nut was cut too deep. They are all at playing-card clearance now and it simply does not buzz. The strings are $25 eBay no-names.

    I don't know why fingerboard camber is desirable for pizz if in fact it is. :meh: Maybe someone who knows will explain. I just know I don't seem to need it.

    Walnut is a very workable and ANY work-worker should have no problem shaping it. A separate issue - walnut might be a little soft for a fingerboard and tend to wear faster than a harder wood, but that is in the distant future.

    IMHO the bridge is well-designed acoustically with no direct path from string to the soundboard (Jerry at MusicMaker knows instrument design), but it is a little different than the heart design known to the DB world.

    Your suitcase bass looks good, Mike, nice job. Good luck with the fingerboard.
  20. Yep,

    The bass seems very stable and the neck seems strong and unbending. I am amazed at the strength of this bass; practically bullet proof. It is also a very nice design; simple to build and efficient in design.

    With the straight fingerboard, I could not lower the action as low as my wife would like. That is why I took the bass to a highly sought after bass luthier for relief work. She is nearing her 50s, and beginning to play a full size bass may be too tough for her slightly arthritic hands. It may be that I will design and build her another bass similar to the Ashbory design except slightly bigger scale (20" to 21"). I am already drawing out the plans. They have a tone that is similar to an DB when played through an amp. Here she is playing with our bluegrass group at a local gospel concert. I have already rebuilt a Cort Acoustic guitar bass with an internal battery powered amplifier and speaker system so that she can play with our bluegrass band and be heard but the sound is not full enough to sound like an DB.

    And Jerry at Musicmakers is a great guy. The bass was a fun project. I tried my best not to leave any glue blobs anywhere... ;)

    Take care,


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