Plywood Basses in Bluegrass: will student models cut it?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Zac Watson, Nov 22, 2022.

  1. Zac Watson

    Zac Watson

    Jun 25, 2019
    Hi gang

    I've recently made the decision to start leaning my double bass setup more towards old school bluegrass/country, complete with gut strings and a plywood bass.

    I know Kays and the like seem to be what alot of the players I love tend to use, however I'm in Australia and those instruments are very rarely found.

    My question is: given those older Kay style instruments were essentially plywood student models, would purchasing a good quality plywood student model like an Eastman put me in a similar ballpark, or would I gain more from starting to look at a carved instrument?

  2. Jay Corwin

    Jay Corwin Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    An entry level ply with gut can serve you just fine for the music you want to play. I don't have any experience with Eastman, but I started on a Shen and it worked fine playing roots music.
  3. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    In 1975, I was looking to get a Kay to replace one that had been smashed. My luthier told me that I'd do better to get a plywood German shop bass. I believe he was right. Nowadays, one of those might cost more money than you want to spend, but the good news is that the Chinese and the Romanians are making some nice basses too. Many contemporary plywood basses are as good as (and probably better than) Kays. The Eastmans have a good reputation, but there are other good names too. Check back here with your choice before you put your money down.
    John Chambliss and Sam Reese like this.
  4. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    In the bluegrass circles I participate with in the western states of the USA I see Asian imported ply double basses a lot. Strung appropriately for tone they sound really great. Most of the bluegrass folks I play around use synthetic strings or various metal strings like Spiros, instead of guts which are rare, although I've seen a few synthetic or metal EA / gut DG mixed DBs around. I really can only remember seeing two all raw-gut strung DBs in bluegrass circles. There is a fair amount of light slapping going on too.

    Kays or other 20th century USA-made double basses are still pretty popular as are some European made double basses, but they can be hard to get here too lately. I'd estimate a split of probably around 40/40/20 with USA/Asian/European DBs, with occasional hybrid or carved examples too.

    On stage, people are pretty accepting and understanding about DBs. It's not unusual to see some EUBs and even occasional uBasses on stage, especially with traveling bands. Jams are still very sensitive about amps, so actual DBs still tend to prevail there.
    AGCurry and bassgrass like this.
  5. bassically_eli

    bassically_eli Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2010
    Mebane, NC
    This. I don't have much experience with old Kays, but based on everything I've heard over the years and the Shens I've played, I think I would actually take a Shen ply over a Kay. Add to that the fact that laminate Shens seem to go for something like 60% of what a good condition Kay costs here, and it's a no brainer to me.

    If you want something better than that, look for a good student model hybrid.
  6. Ed S

    Ed S

    Nov 14, 2019
    Plus, Kays are >50 years old. Inexpensive ply instruments do not necessarily improve w/ age - especially if ridden hard.

    IME, newer plys vary considerably in terms of weight. A Shen (just one example) ply is FAR superior to whatever they are offering at Sam Ash (a US mega-music store.)

    I love EP slap guts on my Englehardt.
    AGCurry likes this.
  7. Yes a plywood bass is ideal is for bluegrass.
    they are robust enough for all the rustic locations, and temp and humidity changes that come with outdoor playing.
    I think they sound best for that type of music too, a carved bass in general has a complex envelope to the sound and ply has a boom perfect for rhythmic harmony IMO. ( but this is cork sniffing territory that really no one other than bass players will care about, either work fine)

    More important than bass type is setup. Bluegrass is very physical to play, you are pumping fast on the lowest notes for hours acoustically. check for a bridge with adjusters to raise and lower height. the nut and FB chamber will play a big role in ease of playing.

    Finally when trying basses (of any make/ model) make sure the low E will produce a big full sound. Many plys cannot produce a full E fundamental, (might be setup, might be build)
    Keith Rawlings and AGCurry like this.
  8. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard Commercial User

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    Black Dog Bass Works
    Full disclosure. I sell Shens. With that out of the way………………

    Last Spring John convinced me to begin carrying the ply so I bought an SB88. After setting it up with new Spirocores I compared it to a Kay M-1 I had done with a tapered shim and new fingerboard, and my my 1940 which had the same treatment. It was very close with no clear winner, although the Kays had more of that ‘plywood’ tone. A little barky rawness, if you will. The Shens are loud, even and have a more refined tone. Kays have charm and mojo but I think the Shen may be a better instrument. The 1940 sits in the rack as people buy the Shens.
  9. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    I have a '30s-vintage Kay C-1 with all guts. I like it for the few bluegrass-type gigs I play. It hasn't had any of the upgrades frequently done and so plays like it always did. The thin neck, funky endpin setup and original fingerboard give it the mojo and drawbacks of Kays in original condition. I like the tone and feel for those gigs but wouldn't really want to play it for anything else. Another reason I occasionally use it is historical. I reminds me that this kind of instrument and setup is what countless bass players played for many years in all sorts of performance situations. It puts me in a kind of virtual past, which to me is fun and makes me realize and appreciate how things have changed for us since those days. Whether they're better or worse I'll leave up to you.
  10. bassgrass


    Nov 11, 2021
    I have an Eastman VB-80 (actually a rebranded version from a local music store), and it's great for bluegrass. A local bluegrass friend has one too. I think they always have adjustable bridges. I use Superior Bassworks Deluxe Dirty Gut strings (just needed the G string nut slot widened a bit) and raised the action, and it's a very easy playing, thumpy sounding bass with plenty of volume and projection.
  11. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Frankly I get tired of the assumption that the right sound for bluegrass is some kind of muddy toneless no-sustain thump, just because that's what you heard on early recordings. The reason those early recordings sounded like that was they guys were playing old beat-to-hell Kays and the like that had traveled thousands of miles tied to the top of a station wagon, and they were recording in cheap-and-cheerful studios where they could get in and get out in a morning.

    I very seriously doubt that Bill Monroe ever said to a bass player "I can hear the pitch of the notes you're playing too clearly, give me more of a muddy ill-defined thump".

    In my (amateur) experience I've always played the same fully carved bass I use for everything and people certainly seem to like my playing. Again, I've never had anyone complain that they can hear the pitches I'm playing too clearly. "Oh man, I hate it when I can hear the chord progression; can't you play some stuff that's less clear?"

    I'd suggest that if people tell you they don't want to hear a clear well-defined pitch from your bass, that you're playing out of tune.
  12. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    The bluegrass police will pay a lot more attention to you working on good timing and a great attitude than if you change from one plywood bass to another....:thumbsup:
  13. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    I think we need to be careful about comparing live with recorded bass sound in this context like any other. The old Kay I own is about as beat up as it can be and still be playable. The gut strings are decades old. In spite of this, the sound I have gotten on some recording projects is better than I expected. Especially on older recordings we have to assume the instruments didn't sound like that live. The conditions of recording could be very unnatural, let alone the equipment quality. I heard bass players playing this type of bass and set up years ago and the live acoustic sound they could get is something I only wish I could duplicate.
    james condino likes this.
  14. kinopah


    Oct 19, 2014
    I've got a 62 Kay which has become my main gigging bass and a 70's German ply bass which I just got back after a neck reset. The German is way lighter, louder, and more complex. The setup on my Kay handles delightfully low action, which playing amplified, makes a 3-hour show a far less debilitating experience (but plenty of other plywood basses will get you that). A bass that's well made which plays the way you want will give a greater yield than any label on the tailpiece.
  15. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    So I have been listening to the 8 collections of Flatt and Scruggs on the Grand Ole Opry, and I can tell you that I can hear Jake Tullock's bass pitches very clearly. Not "thumpy", each note is long enough to be clearly heard and pitched. Yeah, it's not Chris Squire or John Entwistle boingy-boingy, but the bass man in one of the top three or four bluegrass groups then working did NOT have a thumpy ill-defined bass sound.
    AGCurry likes this.
  16. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    Exactly. So much depended on the qualities I mentioned. Some of the old F&S recordings have so much reverb they could have been recorded in a barrel. That's why I said to not judge the sound or playing quality based on the recording quality.
    AGCurry likes this.
  17. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    That even applies now -- perhaps more so since the move from tape to digital. There is so much that can be changed now by techs in a well setup studio, it's actually pretty amazing. In reality, it's hard to know how actual instruments sound because so much modification can be done by the tech.

    For example, for some studio session work recently my wife and I were asked to add tracks to an existing recording. Two of the existing songs were tuned low about 1/4 step from concert pitch. The tech tuned them up to concert pitch for us before we added our tracks.
  18. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    You're right. It's also important that the engineer knows how the instruments are supposed to sound acoustically and not to change them by too much processing. I've done projects where the sound has been essentially ruined by too much tweaking or trying to make things sound too electronic because that was the only sound the engineer knew how to produce. It's possible to make such great sounding recordings now that it's very frustrating when they aren't.
    dhergert likes this.