The Company Line
Around February of 2017, this guy who goes by the handle “smithcreek” started a thread on TalkBass.com about a “Double Bass Guitar” archtop acoustic/electric hybrid build. The name of the thread was intriguing enough, and the initial pictures definitely pulled you in. You can check out the original thread here: https://www.talkbass.com/threads/double-bass-guitar-archtop-acoustic-electric-hybrid-build-thread.1266795/. I was immediately hooked, and couldn’t wait to see how this ambitious project turned out. I was even more excited when luthier David Smith contacted me and asked about the possibility of a review in Bass Gear Magazine. Before the calendar year was out, David had a bass in my hands, and trust me, this was even more exciting!
Up the Creek
So who is this David Smith guy, and what’s he all about? I will let him introduce himself in his own words:
“I’ve been a bass player since my second year of high school in 1982. In the early ‘90s, I started playing banjo, also. I learned that banjos are very expensive, so I decided to build my own. With no woodworking tools or training past eighth grade wood shop class, I started my luthier career. I built banjos at a few buck more than cost for friends – and friends of friends – to get experience and moved on to do the same with mandolins. Over the course of about six years, I worked my way from part-time to full-time builder and eventually had several top-notch bluegrass musicians playing my mandolins.
I started logging Adirondack red spruce and curly maple trees to use on my own instruments, but after a couple years, I had more than enough for several lifetimes, so I started selling tonewood to other builders. Around the same time, I bought a CNC machine, taught myself CAD and learned how to use the machine. I had a lot of wood and a CNC machine, so it only made sense to sell CNC-carved archtop top and back plates for various instruments to other luthiers. Eventually, the parts side of my business grew to occupy most of my time, and for the most part, I stopped building instruments. At that point, I had built about 150 mandolins, so I took a break from building for several years and just sold parts to other luthiers.
Being an electric bass player and an archtop instrument builder, the idea for an arcthop acoustic bass guitar that would amplify well had been brewing for a number of years. When I finally started to actually design the instrument, the goal became to capture as much of the tone and feel of a double bass as possible in an instrument that would feel familiar to an electric bass player. I also wanted it to ‘feel’ like a double bass – meaning, a very physical and dynamic instrument. Play it HARD, and it should respond to that with volume and tone. Play it soft, and it should respond to that, also. There’s something about the sound of a double bass; I don’t know how to describe it, but you can almost hear the air moving, and none of the answers to the age-old question, ‘How do make my electric bass sound more like a stand-up’ – like putting foam under the bridge – came close to capturing that sound. That’s what I wanted this bass to do.”
It is not very common that I unbox a product for review and discover something that totally defies all conventional categories, but at the same time, immediately makes sense as a musical instrument. In fact, I don’t think it’s happened before… But before I expound on that initial playing experience, it is worth taking the time to discuss David Smith’s vision for a “double bass guitar.”
Yes, the hollow-body bass is nothing new, but one unique aspect of the Christopher Bass is that the body is fully acoustic, meaning that the arched top bears all of the downward pressure of the strings, alone. There is no block under the bridge. Yes, other bass guitars have been made to sound somewhat like a double bass – the Rob Allen Mouse comes to mind – and even some bass ukuleles cop a bit of that vibe. But, can you think of other “bass guitar” builds which use double bass strings? True, David’s original plan was to build an instrument that could use standard extra-long-scale electric bass strings, but as it turns out, he was able to tweak his design to accommodate actual double bass strings. More on this, below.
Another unique “double bass” design feature is the tailpiece, which effectively anchors the strings to the “tail” of the instrument. These are typically made of ebony, which is the material used on the custom-made tailpiece for the Christopher DBG (the fingerboard is also ebony). On a double bass, the tailpiece connects to the “tailgut” or “tailpiece wire,” which wraps around the endpin. Not having a need for an endpin, David needed to fabricate an anchor to hold the wire that the tailpiece is attached to. This tailgut anchor is one of the “secret weapons” employed by the Christopher Bass to give it such an authentic upright bass vibe and feel.
Of course, this is a “bass guitar,” and so it does employ the typical 34” scale length, has a comfy, familiar neck, and is built to balance well while sitting or standing – for your hands to fall right about where they would with a conventional electric bass guitar. Any electric bass player would feel right at home playing this instrument.
Collectively, these are some fairly unique design goals, but if you think about it, they really do make sense. Of course, many plans that look great on paper fall on their face when put to the task in the real world. So, how does Christopher fare?
And Now For Something Completely Different
When the Christopher Bass first arrived for review, the sheer size of the box which arrived told me that this wasn’t my Father’s Fender. In truth, the first prototype hard shell case which Smith Creek sent us was pretty darned huge (though certainly protective and sturdy). The second hard case David sent was somewhat smaller, but still on the large size. It is very attractive, with the words “Christopher double bass guitar” embroidered on the top. These cases need to be on the big side, because the body on this bass is somewhat larger than your average bass guitar. However, David now offers an even smaller hard shell case made by G&G which is only slightly larger than your standard “Fender-sized” case. A Studio Slips padded gig bag is standard.
Even when you kind of know what to expect before you pick up a Christopher Bass DBG for the first time, it’s still an amazing moment. Although the body of the bass is larger than a conventional electric bass, but it seems very natural. When you pick it up, it feels immediately comfortable, and the (maple) neck is soooooo comfortable. This bass just begs to be played. It calls to you, demanding attention. In fact, my photo shoot for the Christopher DBG was seriously delayed because I couldn’t stop playing it (when I should have been shooting photos).
The unamplified tone is more than sufficient for private practice, and even at this lower volume level, the upright flavor is clearly present. When you plug it in, though, things get really interesting. At first glance, you may think that the two knobs are volume and tone, but they are actually two volume knobs for two separate K&K pickup/preamp systems. One set of pickups is mounted under the saddle, and one set is mounted to the soundboard. Each of them is mated to its own preamp, with controls for gain, bass, mid and treble.
Looking at that unassuming face, with its two knobs, you would never suspect that there are two gain controls, two volume controls, and a total of six bands of EQ at your disposal. David’s choice was to keep the majority of these controls hidden from view inside the control cavity. Having played plenty of electric bass guitars with six or more knobs on the top of the instrument, it did seem odd to me – at first – to have the tone controls “locked away” inside the control cavity (which is held in place by six screws). But after playing with this bass for a while, and spending time with the control plate off (and screwdriver in hand), I came to a couple of conclusions. The first is that David is a genius, and the second is that those two knobs offer an amazing level of flexibility.
Even if there were no tone controls on board, the separate volume controls for the undersaddle and soundboard pickups offer a good bit of tonal control. The undersaddle pickup offers a “bigger” tone, in terms of the lows to low-mids. The soundboard pickup has more of a “singing voice,” with a sense of “acoustic clarity.” Blending these two together in varying degrees offers a lot of tonal variation, and the range of control you get with those two volume knobs is impressive. While it can be nice to have a number of different tone controls at your immediate disposal, too much EQ can present a rabbit hole that is difficult to escape. I have long believed that it is easier to screw things up with EQ than it is to really make things better. The approach, here, is that you can use the two preamps to dial in the tone of the output from each set of pickups, and then when you get it where you like it, put the control cavity cover back on and forget about those little white wheels. If you need to adjust for a room, your first option is to vary the mix of the two pickup systems. If this does not get you where you need to go, well, that’s why amps have tone controls, right?
When exploring the ranges of adjustments available via the K&K preamps, I reached the conclusion that David had set things up just about perfect right out of the gate. Interestingly, each channel had the bass turned all the way up (or close to it), the mids turned all the way down, and the treble set fairly close to halfway (those slightly different on each channel). Neither of the gain controls were set to maximum – which is a wise choice, as I did encounter some feedback issues as I turned them up. As previously mentioned, once you dial things in (or make the wise decision to leave David’s settings alone) on the internal preamp controls, you can dial in your tone (and volume, of course) with the two volume knobs. However, I can’t help but think that it would nice to have easier access to these controls when/if you needed to make an adjustment. A magnetic control cavity cover would be really useful, here, especially as the 9v battery is also located inside the control cavity. And while we’re at it, maybe hide away a tiny little screwdriver inside there…
As previously mentioned, the Christopher bass was originally envisioned as utilizing electric bass strings, but is currently strung with double bass strings that have been trimmed down to size. David explains the process that led to this conclusion:
“The number one biggest issue of building this bass was, ‘How do I get strings I think will give it the sound I want, that will fit?’ I originally designed that bass around the idea of using extra-long-scale electric bass strings, made for 35″-36″ basses. I wanted customers to be able to buy strings fairly easily, and thought electric bass strings would be the best way to go and there would be some choices available. The extra-long scale would give me enough length at the tail end to go over the bridge and to the tailpiece. I also wanted to use extra-heavy gauge strings to get the string mass/weight and tension as high as possible. That is why I originally had LaBella 1954s on the bass. I thought those strings sounded okay, but when I started searching for other strings to try, I realized that there was absolutely no other electric bass string that that was going to work. First, getting strings long enough was very difficult. I would have to commit to buying ten sets just to try out a new string, but more importantly anything lighter than the 1954s did not sound good.
I kept thinking ‘I need to get double bass strings,’ but they were too long, and any string manufacturer I contacted just said, ‘No, we can’t do a shorter length.’ I finally decided I had to devise a way to put any string I want on the bass, so I came up with a new tailpiece that solved the problem by locking onto the string with a set screw – like I has seen on some headless basses at the headstock end. Now the bass can use any string that is long enough, which includes pretty much any double bass string. The only step I don’t do anymore is solder the string before cutting. I made the string holes in the tailpiece so the string will slide through. Then just tighten the set screw and cut off the extra.”
Our review bass shipped with D’Addario Helicore Pizzicato strings (heavy gauge). When I asked David about this particular string choice, he responded, “I tried Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore Weich (heavy) and they sound great, too. The Thomastiks sound great almost immediately, where the D’Addarios seem to take a little while to lose the metallic ‘boingy’ sound. Unfortunately, the Thomastiks cost almost five times as much, so D’Addarios are standard equipment!”
An Upright Comparison
Enough preamble. Let’s dig into the heart of the matter. “How does it sound?” And, “does it really sound like an upright?” Well, the respective answers are: “awesome,” and “pretty much, yes!” Much as I fell in love with the acoustic feel and tone when I first picked up the Christopher Bass, I also immediately fell in love with its amplified sound. The tone is big, without being too big, and round, without being too round. It has the note attack that is distinctive of an upright bass with flatwound strings, and the “air” and “body” of a large acoustic instrument.
Yes, I knew I needed to compare it to my Kay upright, but I was also really interested to hear how it would stack up against one of my go-to “reduced-size upright substitutes,” the aforementioned Rob Allen Mouse. Trust me, this was a fun comparison! All three can generate tones in the same general wheelhouse, but there are plenty of differences to discuss. The Kay is a C-1 model from the ‘50s, and it was recently fitted with a new bridge (and a Fishman Big Circle pickup) and a fresh set of D’Addario Heliocore Hybrids.
Ironically, the Mouse has the “biggest” tone/feel of the three, and sounds a bit more loose and warm than the other two. If you had never heard the Christopher, you would probably be amazed by how much the Mouse captures the basic tonal profile of an upright bass (especially when you dial back the high end about halfway). The Kay, on the other hand, has a certain “depth of note” that the other two couldn’t quite match. I’m talking about more of a “feel thing” than a “tone thing” when I say that. The Christopher DBG certainly gets closer than the Mouse to the Kay in this regard, but does not quite match it. However, the Kay also has a “non-brittle clarity” to the attack, and the Christopher Bass can very much match this. There is “snap” and “air” to the attack, but even the high end attack has a fullness to it.
By blending the two volume knobs on the Christopher Bass, it could be made to sound fairly close to the either the Mouse or the Kay; not exactly matching either, but doing a better job of mimicking them than they could do in return. All-in-all, the Smith Creek DBG can sound an awful lot like an upright, even when slapping. Color me impressed!
On the Job Training
My first gig with this bass ended up being in one of the larger venues I regularly play, which generally means higher stage volume and potential feedback issues. Fortunately, David had just sent me some nifty f hole “plugs” to help ward off the feedback demons. With them in place, I was able to get as much volume out of the archtop Christopher as I was out of my solid-body basses. That being said, when I tried removing the plugs, the DBG was definitely more prone to feedback.
Walking over towards our guitar player during the first song I played on the Christopher Bass, he immediately pointed to the bass and shouted, “That thing sounds great!” Why yes … it did! And this is basically an out-of-the-box, out-to-the-gig experience, with no learning curve necessary! The Christopher Bass felt as comfortable out on the gig as it did when I first picked it up. Subsequent performance have confirmed its gig-worthiness. I’ve been using it on songs that I typically play on my Kay, as well as songs where I might otherwise play a (fretted) hollow-body electric bass. Again, with the plugs in place, feedback has not been an issue over the course of numerous gigs.
Fit and Finish
After getting so caught up in the unique design and imminent playability, I forgot to tell you about the lovely fit and finish on our review bass. The arched top is made from carved red spruce, and the back is flamed maple. The top and back are fitted to a core, made of two pieces of poplar. David has also made some instruments out of mahogany. There are integrated braces running lengthwise on the underside of the top that are carved as part of the top (not glued-in later). The body and neck are finished in a thin nitrocellulose lacquer, with a beautiful satin sheen and a tremendous feel under the hand. The Mother of Pearl “Christopher” inlay on the ebony headstock is a nice touch.
All of the woodwork and joinery is executed at a very high level. This bass feels like a “classical” instrument, but also feels sturdy enough to stand up to regular gigging. David includes a handy jig for locating the bridge if it happens to move on you (like when you change strings).
The Bottom Line
By its very nature, this bass is not for every player. But for those who are intrigued by its virtues, it will not disappoint. Far from it. The Christopher Bass DBG is wonderfully innovative, but also makes so much sense. It absolutely delivers on its design goals – to offer the tone and feel of an upright in an “electric bass-sized” package – and it is flat-out enthralling to play. The tone, both amplified and acoustic, is as impressive as its looks. The quality of construction is at a very high level, and considering the amount of effort and hours that go into building an instrument like this, the price is extremely reasonable. This is an amazing instrument, from any angle.