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Setup Ignorance - Tone of Bass

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by mefloyd, Aug 5, 2007.

  1. mefloyd


    Jul 31, 2007
    Saint John, NB
    Being a 5-string banjo player, I know how extremely important it is to have my instrument setup properly to achieve the best tone and very importantly, its playability. Both of these aspects are extremely adjustable on the lowly banjo. For example, one major component of the tone on a banjo is the tightness of the head.

    Due to my ignorance of upright basses, I have a hard time applying the same science when speaking about the tone of the bass. For one thing, the bass doesn't have an adjustable head that can be tightened or loosened that could drastically change its tone. I have heard and read much about the importance of proper setup on the upright bass. I can see a direct correlation when it comes to the playability of the bass, but what about tone?

    I want to purchase an upright bass and I want a nice deep, rich tone. Can I go to a store and simply pluck each open string and get a good idea of what the bass sounds like, regardless of the finer points of a good setup? Again, I can see how important a good setup would be for playability, but what about tone?

    I'm asking this question because when shopping around, it seems most shops tell me something like "it's not setup." How am I supposed to know how the bass will sound when setup properly?

    I know also that string choice may be a big factor in the tone of a bass, but given whatever strings are on the bass at the time, can I expect an improvement in tone with a proper setup, or is a good setup mostly going to affect playability only? It makes it hard to decide on purchasing a bass when you haven't got a clue as to how it will sound when setup.

    As you can tell, I am quite ignorant on the topic of setup when it comes to an upright bass, but I'm trying to learn and find out as much as I can before making a purchase.

    Thanks in advance for any input on the topic.

    Michael Floyd
  2. Floyd,

    I have just recently (re)started playing the upright. Why shops have instruments on display, and not set up is a mystery to me as well. What I have learned on here is the soundpost (wooden dowel inside the bass) when setting your bass up is what will affect the tone, and volume of the bass, similar to the banjo head. I will let someone else explain the technical stuff.
  3. This should have been the first stop here for both of you-
    It will answer a lot of the questions that you have.
    Floyd, I am assuming you have very little experience with DB based on your questions. No, you can't tell how a bass wil sound just by giving the strings a pluck. Take someone who knows how to play with you, have them play it while you stand anout 10 feet away. Then you may have an idea of the sound. There's tons more to consider, but check out those newbie links first.
  4. mefloyd


    Jul 31, 2007
    Saint John, NB
    Thanks reedo35. Despite all of the reading I've been doing and despite all the browsing I've done at Talkbass.com, it's very easy to overlook stuff like this.
  5. mefloyd


    Jul 31, 2007
    Saint John, NB
    Reedo35, I took your suggestion and read all of the posts for newbies to the double bass. I learned a lot, but honestly, I didn't see anything that addresses my specific concerns. At best, when it comes to the tone of a double bass all I am able to discern is how important setup is, but without any details as to why with the exception of the importance of sound post placement.

    I'll ask my question another way, sort of:

    Without regard for the playability of the instrument, can I get a pretty good idea of what the tonal characteristics of the bass will be? You know, how deep and rich sounding is it verses how thin and buzzy it sounds. Buzzy is probably not a good word to use here as I'm not referring to the buzz that might be produced from the result of the strings being too low, but rather what I think of as the opposite of "rich" and full bodied.

    Does the bass need to be completely setup to determine the basic tonal characteristics? And while talking about setup, from all of my research thus far, it seems one of the first things luthiers do is carve the bridge, typically thinning it out at the top, if I'm understanding correctly. I can definitely see how this particular operation would affect the tone in a big way. I'm now realizing it sounds as if I may be in contradiction to my initial question about whether a setup is really required to determine the tonal characteristics of the bass.

    I'd like to know how a luthier determines whether thinning a bridge will help or not. I'm assuming there's a lot of knowledge based on experience and the trials and errors of the many luthiers that preceeded our geneation.

    Alright, clearly I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm doing my research and I'm trying to be informed. I have enough curiosity to want to know the "why and how" and not just the end result, which I personally think is a good thing.
  6. That is not in and of itself a bad thing, but the answers are not as clear cut as you would think. I'm tempted to say "you'll understand when you're older:smug: ", No disrespect, but the questions of sound, setup and physical acoustics have been researched for years, and it takes a lot of time to get an idea of what it's all about.but I'll try to explain some general things.
    BTW I'm not a professional luthier, but I have hung out with enough luthiers, both in the US and Germany, to learn more than a thing or two about basses...

    The sound- What you seem to want me to say is -
    that you will be in a shop somewhere, pluck a g string, and the sky will open with a chorus of angels singing...:hyper:
    Um, no. The truth is, yes you can get a good sound out of a bass that is not set up, but how many great basses have you played or listened to up close? Enough to know what a good bass sound is? And what is a "good" sound to you, anyway? Good for Jazz? Classical? Bluegrass? Everything?
    The other factor is that it may sound great to you in the shop, then you go on a gig and it sounds like Mud. Or maybe it sounds great in the high register, but the Low notes won't speak. Or it doesn't sound even across the spectrum.
    That's why I said take someone with you who can play.That way you can really tell from an observers standpoint if the sound you hear is THE sound for you.

    The Bridge- Generally a luthier will not "Thin" a Bridge, He will shape the top to fit the fingerboard radius, and shape the feet to fit the Body of the Bass. If you think this is not hard, think again.
    There is a maximum thickness that a bridge top can be, usually about 5mm. Any thinner and it could warp or snap
    Check out this article http://www.davidgage.com/z_david_archive3.htm
    David Gage is a master Luthier with a ton of experience.
    Hope this answers your question better.
  7. Jake deVilliers

    Jake deVilliers Commercial User

    May 24, 2006
    Crescent Beach, BC
    Owner of The Bass Spa, String Repairman at Long & McQuade Vancouver
    I feel as if I just posted this response but couldn't find it any where.....

    All of the parts of a stringed instrument have an effect on the sound, both the tone and the volume.

    Some of the more influential adjustables on the DB include the soundpost size & placement, the bridge size, shape & placement, the strings & the string height, the fingerboard, its shape & material, the tailpiece, its size & material as concerns weight, the tailpiece wire and the nut.

    As reedo said, there ain't a cut & dried answer, anymore than there is a cut & dried answer for banjo setup. The head material & tension, the co-ordinator rod angle & tightness, the tailpiece weight & angle, the bridge material(s), the resonator depth, the strings & their height all have influence on the final sound of the banjo.

    The difference is that banjo is mostly mechanical setup and easy to reverse, DB is ultra-fine woodworking and kinda one-way. :)

    Your best ally is someone with a lot of experience with the instrument, so as to know how to nudge the particular DB in the appropriate direction.

    I don't understand why your local store doesn't have a ready-to-play bass (unless its Long & McQuade, they just don't know any better) but your plan of playing as many as you could at the local bluegrass festivals is the right idea.

    Either that or order one from an online seller who will deliver you a bass with a good setup.

    Happy hunting!
  8. Because not everyone wants the same thing in a setup. Setups are parts and labor intensive for shop owners; it would be a waste to set a bass up for an aggressive jazz player if it winds up getting purchased by a bassist who needs a low setup, or to plane the fingerboard for a great growl and have a classical player buy the bass.

  9. mefloyd


    Jul 31, 2007
    Saint John, NB
    Do you think this should apply to the bridge of the instrument as well? Maybe the top of the bridge can't be shaped until one knows how the fingerboard will be planed, but couldn't we at least have the feet of the bridge fitting properly? I suppose not. Maybe the bridge might have to be moved forward or aft during the setup.
  10. Hi Michael,

    It's really great to hear from someone who is so much interested in double basses! Kudos for that. That said, I think that you really need to visit one of the dedicated bass luthiers. You'd be able to listen to different basses, have someone play them for you, get answers to all of your questions, and have a lot of fun!

    I realize that there are probably no bass luthiers where you live, but it's worth a trip, in my opinion.
  11. The standard placement of the Bass Bridge is between the notches on the F holes of the bass. Any variance from this standard will change the aspects of the instrument, and usually not for the better.
  12. mefloyd


    Jul 31, 2007
    Saint John, NB
    I can't help but think there must be cases where a body is a little longer or shorter than the optimum, or a neck is a 1/4 inch out or something like that, or maybe the f-holes weren't cut in the exact right place, or maybe even the f-hole notches are a little off. Surely some adjustment must come into play from time to time, even if it's as small as 1/8 of an inch or less, one way or the other. Am I crazy here?
  13. From David Gage:

    The location of the bridge on the top is important. The instruments of the violin family are theoretically symmetrical in design. If you could fold the top down the center the f-holes would line up with each other. Since we feel that the f-holes create the dynamic center of the instruments, the outside edges of the feet of the bridge should be equidistant from the inside edge of the f-holes. The bridge size should be wide or narrow enough to allow the bass or E foot stem to be directly over the bassbar. The E or bass foot should be over the thickest part of the bassbar. This allows the bridge to most efficiently drive the top plate. Generally the thickest part of the bassbar is at the intersection of an imaginary line between the inner nicks of the f-holes and the bass bar.
  14. If you get a poorly made instrument possibly some of this may be true. If you get an instrument with a false nut, possibly, if it has been cut down and the neck length changed, possibly. Do you see what we mean? In the general case of a normal well dimensioned instrument there is only one place for the bridge. Every exception is just that. It makes no sense to answer the question differently unless you are describing a defined exception. My guess is that you are not, that you are talking about basses that have been built by knowledgeable makers and have original specification. It isn't like bass guitars where makers do all kinds of crazy things. These are instruments that have been dimensioned proportionally the same way with few variations, and those are well known, for more than 300 years. Differences are in the number of strings, 3, 4 or 5, with 4 being the most common, 5 being somewhat more common in European orchestras, 3 being archaic. Also there are D necks and Eb necks. You need to go to Bob Gollihurs 700+ bass links page and do some serious homework. I'm not admonishing you, but encouraging you to utilize a very in depth resource. Also utilize the search functions on this forum and you will see discussions of false nuts, raised saddles, bridge carving, and yes the bridge is thinned down from a thick blank, but there is no way to just generalize and say "this is why ...." without discussing a specific instrument. Tone, also, is a subjective term and doesn't have a specific meaning to everyone. The advice and information you have been given so far is very good.

    If you visit a shop and the instruments are not set up to play well, try a different shop. The shop I visit most often;- all the basses are set up. Some different from others, but all of them are set-up and the bridges are already carved and fitted. That's the kind of place to hear some basses and learn about them.
  15. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    New Mexico. USA
    On most basses the bridge can be moved up or down a little (say up to 10mm or so) without causing any problems. Of course the soundpost must be adjusted accordingly. Yes, the f-hole notches indicate the maker's preference for bridge placement, but a little fiddling is rarely going to hurt anything. Of course it makes sense that a qualified person should oversee this fiddling, to rule out the possibility of causing damage.
  16. When I played the 5 string banjo my goal was to get the best sound the instrument was capable of producing. Everything was a balancing act....the tone ring, the head tension, the height of the tailpiece, the bridge and the gauge of string. All those factors had to complement each other.
    Much the same with your bass. A good quality European spruce sound post, placed in the right spot for you, a good quality bridge thinned for optimum sound and the biggest problem.....the right strings for the bass. The type of tailpiece (ebony or a softer wood) and the tailpiece wire (nylon, aircraft cable) also affects the sound. After that its up to you to get the sound out of the bass with your own playing. Touch is very important. It can be a long process getting it to sound the way you want.
    Sometimes what a luthier likes for sound and what you like are different. Its also tough to tell them what you want and get them to experiment while you are there until you are happy. I solved that by learning how to set up the bass myself. Even volume across the fingerboard and good volume on the B flat on the A string are signs your bass is performing well.
    All I can say is that when its all THERE...you will know it. You will never want to go back after that!
    Good luck.

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