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Resizing/shrinking basses: how common is it?

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by MikeCanada, Dec 17, 2015.

  1. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    Every once in a while when discussing older instruments there is mention about how huge some of them were. 43"+ string lengths, 5/4 (by current standards) bodies, etc. and there is talk about how some basses have been altered to meet our current demands at some point in their lives. We also hear about how "church basses" or other smaller than basses but bigger than cello instruments have been modified to become cellos, how most of the Stradivarius violins have had their necks reset for steel strings (among other work) and some other interesting things, but I'm trying to stay relatively bass orientated.

    I know that neck resets and new necks with or without a scroll graft are fairly common, and I have seen photos of basses that have been through large scale restorations where there seems to be more new wood than old. From most of the talk I have had with luthiers and makers, currently there seems to be a lot of emphasis placed on preserving the original maker's work, which has me making the assumption that many of these basses that shrunk did so at some point in the past? Is this an operation that is still occurring? What makes a bass a good candidate? Does deciding it should have a shorter string length and potentially altering the outline to make it more playable greatly impact the value of the instrument?

    Maybe someone has some resources to point me towards to help satiate my curiosity?
  2. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    My teacher had a Gagliano which had had the shoulders cut down, I think in the 1940's. In those days people cut notches in the scrolls to fit extensions, even on two hundred year old Italian basses! I don't think anyone does anything so invasive today. Big shoulders can largely be dealt with by increasing overstand. String length can be shortened somewhat at the nut end. I think that in the modern world we have much more respect for the makers's work than we did years ago, and you would find very few luthiers who would even be willing to discuss things like altering the outline on a high value instrument. Shortening the neck is a different thing, though, as most very old instruments are unlikely to have their original necks anyway.
    Just my two Euro cents!
  3. Jeff Bonny

    Jeff Bonny SUSPENDED Supporting Member

    Nov 20, 2000
    Vancouver, BC
    Talking about having replaced the neck on his bass NHOP said "find a body you like the sound of and the rest is mechanics".

    @robobass how did that cut down Gaglianio sound? I know it was different times but even in the 40's it was still a ****ing 16th century Italian master bass! I have difficulty fathoming the thought process of messing with something like this just because the shoulders are big.....
  4. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    What can I say? Mr. Mensch only let me play the bass a few times. It was of course amazing, but at the time I had nothing to compare it to. I also have difficulty with the thought process. But consider other things that were happening in those days. Ethnic minorities were held in prison camps, segregation, lynchings, women's rights issues, treatment of gays or communists, etc., general violence against "the other" all around. I wonder how many musicians were beaten and their instruments destroyed because some bruisers thought that classical music was "faggy"? As bad as things look right now, I think I'm happy to be living today rather than 80 years ago. At least they don't cut up old basses anymore. That's a start, right?
    Matthijs likes this.
  5. IMO "master" basses belong to the classical world, with maybe a few jazzers thrown into the mix. Of what use is an instrument to an orchestral player if s/he cannot play it? I suspect most of the alterations are to make the instrument manageable for its owner.

    And I'm sure there was a time when these were considered to be just "old" basses, not vintage pieces to be kept to original spec as much as possible. We see how that particular shibboleth has distorted the electric bass market. None of these instruments were intended by their makers to be collected, put in glass cases, and admired. They were built to be used.
    salcott likes this.
  6. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    For sure! But...Do we really want to take a chainsaw to an instrument when a generation later a scalpel might do the job? The C-Extension is a good example. Nowadays we can build completely non-invasive extensions. Little help for those priceless basses whose scrolls were unnecessarily mutilated in earlier days. I know it's a bit silly to value an old Fender completely upon how original it is, but dude, this is really a different thing.
  7. Basses got zero respect until recently. In New York, it was common for damaged flat backs to be replaced with plywood. A friend has a Calvin Baker (first-generation Yankee maker) whose neck and scroll were replaced with a German factory neck, and whose original top was removed, thrown away, and replaced with a crudely-made replacement top. The trend of cutting large, older orchestra basses into the French pear shape to increase their playability is Mickey Mouse stuff compared to that kind of butchery, at least in my opinion.
    Jake deVilliers likes this.
  8. It is really a different thing now, but in earlier days I expect the same practice was followed as we claim to today: folks went with the best available technology. Which to our 21st century eyes might be chainsaw butchery, but in 1838 might have been the best scalpel available. The goal is to try to make things better; which is not to say we will ever reach consensus on "better."
  9. On successive annual visits to the northern VA area this one particular bowed string shop had a lovely little 1/4 sized carved bass. Oh how I wanted that instrument, but I figured it was beyond my budget. After the third visit and the bass was still there, I figured I would roll the dice and phoned the shop. The asking price turned out to be several hundred dollars less than the max I could go.
    Went to the shop, took the bass into a glassed-in play test room. Disappointment. The bass was dead: no resonance, no projection. No voice.

    It was as KfS has said. The original flat back had been replaced with a plywood slab attached with Ambiguous Glop. And the back's cross bracing was heavily-glued 1 x 4 s. I simply folded 'em and walked away.
  10. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    There are a lot of things that happen to basses and bows that I cannot imagine doing today, but they likely made perfect sense at the time. Fitting an extension by cutting the scroll would be easier and faster (and as a result cheaper) than doing it the way we do now, and if you look at it as a permanent upgrade to the instrument, no one is ever going to remove it and be bothered by the piece of scroll that is missing. Swapping out a damaged neck, back, top, ribs, etc. for a new one also fits the easier, faster, cheaper mould, and depending on the type of damage would be a "better" solution with the available techniques and technology of the time.

    There are bow repairs we do now that were never done in the past. The shop/original maker if they were still alive or the repair person it was taken to would say "just throw it out and get a new one". Techniques and technology have also changed the game in bow making, especially with the epoxies and glues available now that make repairs possible that never would have been in the past. Even if a bow loses a significant percentage of its value, the market warrants repairing bows that wouldn't have been financially worth it fairly recently.

    Repairs/alterations to meet the player's demands also seem like they were significantly more invasive/dramatic then they are now. This was inspired by a story I read combing through old posts about a pedigree bow owned by a player who decided it was too long, so he took it to a shop and had them shorten it for him. I trembled when I read that, not only for the bow, but for the state of the industry at the time where a request like that was granted. I am guessing most of the basses that have been resized were similarly requests of "I really like this bass, but it's too big for me to get around, can you hack it to pieces, I mean, make it more manageable for me?"

    I am guessing it largely depends on how well the work was performed, and obviously things like replacing entire tops/backs is different from reshaping them, but how does value/market price work into the equation? The strad violins that have been very heavily altered over the years are still considered strads and still selling for astounding prices. At what point does someone say "well, it might have been a XXX at some point, but it isn't anymore" and the value tanks?
  11. Considering that Ray Brown bought his mystery Italian from a pawn shop as a shell for $200, I'd say your market value theory holds water.

    As for the rest of it, I can't really say, but as a student of history I can tell you that there are periods of time where conservation is simply ignored.
  12. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    At times, I am not sure whether to laugh or cry when I hear the old guard talking about their basses. I am aware that a dollar 50 years ago was a different dollar than it is today, but I cannot comprehend how much the market has changed. Pedigree basses were purchased for pennies on the dollar that they are trying to sell them for now, pedigree bows were sold for fractions of cents comparatively. New makers were essentially giving their instruments/bows away. A bow maker who is now very well regarded in the industry sold his first bow for $100 and talks about how he was happy someone paid that much for it. Now his bows sell for several thousand dollars, and that is over the span of a living maker's career. There are musicians I know who purchased fantastic instruments for next to nothing, and part of the negotiation process was throwing in a Sartory, or some other bow that would sell for tens of thousands now.

    If it was just musicians who were attempting to keep the market alive, I would be very worried about the bubble popping. A generation ago a freelancer could play a fantastic old instrument. Now, there are musicians who are winning major orchestra seats who are playing instruments on loan from collectors, investors, arts organizations, etc. because they cannot possibly afford to purchase one themselves, or in some cases the orchestras/universities/conservatories that they work for are providing loans or connecting them to benefactors so they essentially take out an instrument mortgage. Investors, some of which are not even amateur players are purchasing instruments, because they are appreciating in market value faster than financial instruments. While I would like to see it come crashing down to the benefit of all of the players who currently cannot possibly access instruments that should be played, I am aware that there are musicians in the mix as well who have found a way to own some of those instruments who are counting on them as nest eggs who would be in financial ruin if the market collapsed.

    We still are very much living in a time where conservation is simply ignored, arguably with far more research and information available to us as to how much damage we are causing. Pernambuco, Ebony, Rosewood, and Ivory come to mind as raw materials we use for instruments and bows. We might not be shortening bows anymore, but we might have to find something else to make frogs out of if we don't do something about it. As we look back at history and wonder what they were thinking, we can look at ourselves here and now and wonder much the same.

    There is a lot of progress and a lot of positive change happening. Pernambuco reforestation is happening and there is a very real possibility that within my lifetime we could be harvesting sustainably again. We aren't dramatically altering bows and instruments in a way that was once common place. Our business is changing in a good way, and that influences other aspects of musicians' lives as well. I just worry that instead of looking back at the changes we are making now and thinking "wow, they really did some good" history is going to look back on us and wonder "why didn't they do so much more?"
  13. Brobass


    Mar 18, 2011
    Hello, this correspondence is long ago and I hope you are still there! I am looking for info about an old Italian bass sold by Billè to Zimmerman. Maybe ending up with H.Mensch? The shoulders were cut down and apparently it sounded awful afterwards. Any ideas? It went to Europe eventually. Thanks a million!
  14. robobass


    Aug 1, 2005
    Cologne, Germany
    Private Inventor - Bass Capos
    I never got into the provenance of the instrument while a student of Homer. Kurt Muroki might know something about this.
  15. Steve Swan

    Steve Swan

    Oct 12, 2004
    Burlingame, California
    Retailer: Shen, Sun, older European
    A substantial part of my bass business is getting commercial school basses from the 1960s - 1990s hotrodded with regraduated tops, neck resets (or even replacements) for better over stand and bridge height, and new fingerboards in most cases. Modifying these plentiful commercial instruments to make them function like a 1920s-1930s is a very good thing, in my view. Nothing is lost and everything is gained.

    On the other side, I am continually aghast at the high dollar conversions of fine old instruments to a different shape, just because the 5'8" player can't play it as easily as the 6'4" player. One local player and teacher has made a cottage industry for the top luthiers in the area in cutting down magnificent old large basses to a new small shape, which throws off a lot of the geometry and function of these grand old girls, not to mention the beautiful lines of these fine old instruments.

    With all of the choices in great new instruments available, it seems a crime to moles and forever change the corpus shape these larger older instruments. Each one modified is one less that will be available for future generations.
    james condino likes this.
  16. mdcbass

    mdcbass Supporting Member

    Feb 6, 2005
    Seacoast of NH
    Does anyone here own a Calvin Baker? My bass has some indications of same (the button and shape) but no label.
  17. One has to wonder exactly what is meant by this: make them function like a 1920s-1930s. What are the defining characteristics which would make a bass function as a 1920s-30s?
  18. Less commercialized.
  19. salcott

    salcott Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2007
    NYC, Inwood.
    A Gagliano (known as the "dark" Gagliano) was sold by Bille to Anton Torello, who sold it to Oscar Zimmerman in 1939 with a 44+" mensure. Oscar had the shoulders reduced to bring it down to 40 3/4", making it practical for modern orchestral use.* It sounded fantastic when I heard it played during my student days. I'm not sure, but I seem to remember hearing that it is now owned by a Swedish orchestra.

    *Bass World Vol. 32, #1-great article about Bob Zimmerman plus an appreciation of the two Gaglianos.
  20. Neil Pye

    Neil Pye

    Apr 13, 2016
    Horsham, UK
    I had a conversation last year with the guys from Thwaites String Instruments in London, and it was teir view that there is a significant number of big old basses that will HAVE to be cut down in order to be playable for the modern player. They cut these down because otherwise there is literally no market for them. If that is genuinely the case, I say cut 'em down and play them. It seems now that everyone also regards any stop length over 41 inches as too big. My bass is 43 1/4 inches, and she's perfectly playable. It's a bit of a stretch playing octaves in the low thumb position ( slow movement of the Koussevitsky, for example), but in general I think far too much is made of this issue
    salcott likes this.

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