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How can you tell if a bass is laminated, etc?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by thrash_jazz, Jun 11, 2002.

  1. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    There's probably an obvious answer to this question, but... ;)

    I'm a Toybass player who is starting to look into buying a Realbass (I dig "that sound") and I was just wondering if there is a tried-and-true method to tell whether the bass...

    a) has a laminated top;
    b) is carved, or made of plywood.

    I saw a decent-looking bass (to my untrained eyes) yesterday for $1600, and I want to know if there is more I can find out from a visual inspection. It was a Czech-made 3/4 (Aucona or something like that... does anyone know this brand?) Unfortunately, it was at one of those stores that doesn't let you touch anything expensive unless you're actually going to buy it...

    Any help much appreciated!
  2. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    Plywood and "laminated" mean the same thing. The easiest way to tell as far as the top is concerned is to look at the exposed edges of wood inside the f holes. Black paint/stain can hide a lot, but not that much.

  3. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings

    Thank you kindly for your prompt reply! I ran a search, but that particular thread didn't appear, for some reason.

    To expand upon my original question... With a BG, you can (usually) tell from a close visual inspection whether an instrument is crap or not. Is this also true for DB, or is the sound the only clue?

    I know it's best to try out an instrument yourself, but once again, many places around here pretty much won't let you touch 'em without a deposit...
  4. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    "Crap" is a tough concept. When I sold guitars 20 years ago, I thought they were crap. Tom Baxer said, "Each one leaves with a happy customer." His point underscores that a "crap" DB is a DB that doesn't meet your needs. If you need is a strung object resembling a bass in some aspects, delivered to your door for five hundred bucks, you're going to wind up with something I'd call a piece of crap.

    My needs, in order, are: Sounds great, can buy, is sturdy. Consequently, my working bass isn't pretty and is not as sturdy as I wish it were. It looks like it's been through the mill (which it has) but it sounds IMHO like a five-figure instrument (which it ain't). If you're looking for a sturdy or pretty instrument, you'd think that mine was a piece of crap.

    I don't play plywood anymore; I don't like garish sunbursts; I don't like polyester finishes; I don't like rosewood fingerboards. Right now, somebody's reading this and sees me describing their dearly-beloved hard-earned bass. It's not crap to them, and they play A LOT better than me and sound better, too, so who's right?

    Punch line is, unless you just won the megabucks, you're going to have to compromise on something. Evaluate your priorities, set your budget, and keep your eyes open.
  5. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    Thanks guys!

    Ed - Unfortunately, I am dealing with music stores here. There are a couple of double bass luthiers in the area, but they are going to be waaay out of my price range.

    I was exaggerating about the deposit bit, but every place I've been to that has had DB's for sale has not been eager to let you try out expensive instruments if you're not buying 'em that same visit. The one I had my eye on was actually put in a corner behind a bunch of keyboards and things - you couldn't get within three feet of it, which made me wonder. That's why I asked the question - all I had to go on was a visual inspection, and it looked, ummm... okay, I guess.

    Samuel - you're right, "crap" is a relative term. I suppose my definition would imply an instrument that is so poorly constructed that it is unnecessarily difficult to play. On BG, there are telltale signs that would indicate that without ever having to plug it in - electronic component quality, fretwork, neck joint construction etc. Just wondering if the same thing applied to DB at all, since I may very well be purchasing a used instrument.
  6. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    It's still worth paying them a visit and talking budgets. Sometimes luthiers will buy used basses that need work if they know they have a buyer beforehand. They may also have customers looking to get rid of a bass.

    Besides, almost any bass you buy will still need to be set up, so sooner or later you will be in that luthier's shop for something!
  7. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    OK, Thrash, point taken. Here's some thoughts about buying a used bass, which other, wiser, minds will no-doubt expand upon:

    a) Review Reedo's post in the "Newby" section about buying a bass.

    b) Inspect every inch of every seam. Look for open seams.

    c) Inspect every crack. Flex both sides, firmly but carefully. Look for open cracks. If it's a flat-back, look carefully at the back-cant: It's a prime place for cracks. Thump the back where it's braced: Listen for loose back-braces. Try to look inside with a mirror and a light.

    d) Pull the strings to the side. Inspect for grooves in the FB.

    e) Try to determine whether the FB is ebony or ebonoid.

    f) Play every note on all four strings, pizz & bow, loud & soft, long-tones. Listen for wolf-tone (notes that "just won't work") and for hump on the FB (notes that choke, like a high fret on BG).

    g) If you can't do all these things, shop with someone who can. Having another set of ears along is a good idea in any event.

    h) If the seller won't let you do this, DON'T BUY or pay an as-is price.

    If the bass doesn't pass some of these tests, you can still buy it -- heck, I did. I've paid for crack-repair, FB work and even an emergency neck re-set because I chose good sound over sturdy condition. But, get clues or estimates about how much it will cost to repair before you finalize your deal.
  8. rablack


    Mar 9, 2000
    Houston, Texas
    Definitely talk to the luthiers. Look for a teacher (you'll need one anyway), talk to the symphony guys, the local university string department profs, DB players after gigs. All can be a source for a lead on a DB.

    How the heck does that music store expect to sell an instrument you can't try out? BTW is the bass you looked at a Strunal? They are Czech made and pretty decent. I've got one (a hybrid) and except for the godawful dayglo orange color and thick sprayed on nitro finish I like it. It sounds fine and plays well.

    Good luck
  9. nicklloyd

    nicklloyd Supporting Member/Luthier

    Jan 27, 2002
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    You mention that your local luthiers are out of your price range. Have you called or visited them yet? They might have a good plywood for under $2500. Most luthiers know of a couple players, or trustworthy contacts, that sell non-Crap. But, this website is a damn fine resource; get hip to all the information in the NEWBY section.

    It's true that "Crap" or Quality is a relative term, but there are some Pure Crap instruments out there. The Cremona or Skylark DB is one of them. I would classify them as a BSO. (Bass Shaped Objects. I see new players getting ripped off ALL THE TIME.) Plywood basses are wonderful things, but this company can't cut it. The brand name you mention is unfamiliar to me, so I can't help you there.

    As a general rule of thumb, if a Music Store is selling it, it's going to need set-up work. $50-$500. Bridges, soundposts, endpins, buzzing fingerboards, and nuts are the most common culprits. I would stay away from Ebonized fingerboards, though. (It's an industry term for dying and/or hardening non-ebony wood). To determine if a board is Ebony or Ebonized, peek under the fingerboard. The 18" that sticks out over the body usually isn't Ebonized on the backside, and the result is pale gray, or even white, wood. Because Ebony is very dense, it feels "colder" than an Ebonized board, which is usually maple. What you will gain in tone, neck strength, and fewer visits to the shop will offset the initial cost of buying a DB with Ebony.

    One Last Word- Don't get scared, just get informed! If the salespeople won't let you play it, then don't buy it. Would you buy a car without driving it?
  10. Remember that the guy playing the bass is in the worst position to really hear how it sounds. the sound is going straight out from, and perpendicular to, the top. The best situation is to have a friend play it while you stand 15 feet away from it.
    Tell the morons in the store that it is STANDARD PROCEDURE in the selling of basses for the seller to give the buyer full opportunity to play and examine the bass (and reject it, for that matter).
    The bass you see in my avatar was shipped from Chicago to New York so I could try it for a couple of weeks. Of course, I made up my mind in twelve seconds.
  11. I would suggest you play any bass before you buy it. One thing to remember though, most new basses in the $1500.00 range (my strunal hybryd included) will have bad strings, they make it very hard to get a real idea of what the bass will sound like. Room acoustics will play a role as well.
    If the bass you are talking about is a Strunal, I say it will do you well, I've had mine for a year and a half now and I must say the sound is really shaping up nice. I have done most of my gigs completely acoustic and it has stood up well. It has also stood up to some abuse. The other night I had a gig in this bar, we had to be set up on the floor close to the bar. Anyway, this drunk fell from his barstool and sent the chair I was using as a musicstand (big mistake) into my bass. I am glad to report that no more than a scratch in the nitro orange finish.
    In other words, I say a Strunal will fit into your concept of quality.

  12. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    I want to thank you all very much for your input! I've learned a great deal from this thread (as well as the Newbie Links, which I'd checked out before).

    I don't think the bass was a Strunal - it was Acuna or Aurora or something like that. Armed with this new information, I will of course go and check it out again. I also saw a beaten-up used one for $1200 - from the look of it, it could possibly be a Kay, although I don't really know what I'm talking about. Is there a way I can tell what brand the bass is if there's no tag on it?

    As far as the store's policy goes, that bass has been in there for probably close to two years, if memory serves. No wonder. It's overpriced in there, so the actual list price for the Augusta/Abigail/Acrimony/Abdomen/whatever-it-is is probably more like $1100-$1300...

    I do have a teacher and haven't had the chance to ask him about it yet, but I wanted to see what you folks thought also. Thanks again! (obligatory Toybassland smilie -> :) )
  13. dhosek


    May 25, 2000
    Los Angeles, CA
    1. If the seller won't let you play a bass to see how it sounds, buy from someone else. Always.

    2. Setup makes a huge difference. Gargantuan. I'm playing an Engelhardt M-1. I tried two on the same day at different shops. These are factory-made instruments which should be near-identical. Difference was that at shop B, they spent some time setting the instrument up properly while at shop A, they didn't. Sounded like two completely different instruments. Guess who I bought from?

    3. Strings make a huge difference. I bought the bass strung with Thomastiks. I've since re-strung with Obligatos. The difference in sound quality is astonishing. I won't go so far as to say that all the sound is in the strings, but I will say that a pretty significant chunk of the sound is.

    4. Get a teacher, have him/her accompany you to the store when you're shopping.

    5. Bows make a difference. And even if you think you only want to ever play pizz, you should still work with a bow cause you can't hide bad intonation playing arco.

    6. Don't buy a double bass from a guitar store. Buy from some place that deals with orchestral instruments (if you're lucky you'll be somewhere that there's a shop that deals exclusively in basses with perhaps the odd cello thrown in, but failing that, you want to buy somewhere that they know what they're doing.

  14. Could the bass be Amati? Strunal distributes them too.
    I would look at a luthier if I were you. That way you may find a decent ply bass set-up for less thatn buying it in a guitar shop then having it set up. David Gage in NYC does that with plywood Strunals, they inspect them to make sure they are good then set them up. All said and done the bass sells for $1800.00. I think I was lucky, I didn't go there and got a hybryd at a store that sells mostly student level orchestral instruments, but I still had to get it set-up at David Gage.

  15. Thrash, a buddy of mine here in Montreal is selling his plywood bass. He just bought a carved Chandler. His plywood is an Englehardt (blond) that he originally purchased from David Gage. He is selling it for $3000 Canadian (about $2000 US) I have played it and it is a really good sounding plywood instrument. If you are interested I can put you in touch with him.
  16. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    Thanks Randy, I appreciate it, but I don't have that kind of money saved just yet - I'm just starting to look around for the day when I do!
  17. Methinks we've all been there at least once, eh wot ?

    Sometimes a bass just sorta up and says "take me, I'm yours."

    Though, to be sure, unless you're buying through a trusted reputable luthier, preferably a bass specialist, or unless you're a true old hand yourself like Don, best to resist love at first sight (hear/ play), and do all the checks that Sam and others here recomend. The better to assess your "all-in" cost to get the thing into playable, durable shape.

    PS Don, every time I see your little avatar, I wish I could enlarge it. It does look to be an unusually lovely specimen. wondering, is this the one listed in your stats as "of indeterminate pedigree" ?
  18. Yorick:
    I don't know its age or origin, but nobody doesn't love it when they play it.
    I'm still trying to find someone to teach me how to post photographs. When I learn, I'll do alot of showing off.
  19. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    Here's one Ottawa luthier, Dominik Zuchowicz:


    I'm posting this simply because there are some really beautiful instruments on that site, and some of you may want to take a peek.

    Thanks again!