by Arnold Schnitzer
Many players and aspiring luthiers have asked me about the differences between jazz, classical and bluegrass set-ups for string bass. Well, the differences can be subtle, or they can be extreme. Complicating my answer is the fact that many bassists play more than one style, especially in this age of boundary-crossing and world music. Here are some of my observations and recommendations about set-ups for different playing styles:
JAZZ: The most important part of a good jazz set-up is the string choice. A player’s choice should be based on the type of sound and style he wants to create. In jazz bass playing, there are several “schools” of playing and tone, such as the “old-school,” pure gut sound, the “Ray Brown” solid, deep, punchy sound, the “Scott LaFaro / Eddie Gomez” sustaining upper register sound, etc. Every player has a favorite jazz bassist and may emulate that player’s sound, whether or not he does so consciously. I will list here the most popular string choices for jazz players:
Pirastro Eudoxa and Oliv (flat-wound metal over gut)
Damian Dlugolecki (hand-made)
Thomastic Spirocore (Mittel and Weich gauges)
D’Addario Helicore Hybrid and Pizzicato (Medium and Light gauge)
Pirastro Evah Pirazzi (Regular and Weich gauge)
D’Addario Zyex (Medium and Light gauge)
Velvet (Garbo, Compass 180)
The next factor to consider is the set-up of the fingerboard. Most jazz players need a moderate amount of fingerboard camber (scoop), which is the relief curve along the fingerboard’s length. Gut string players need more, while lighter, sustaining-type players need less. All jazz players who rarely bow tend to prefer a fingerboard with less arch (curve across the width), because it makes right-hand pizzicato string crossings easier. Of course, the bridge needs to be arched in a way that compliments the fingerboard. In general, the string heights at the end of the fingerboard should increase about 1mm as you move across from the G. An average set-up for steel-string jazz playing is 5mm/G, 6mm/D, 7mm/A and 8mm/E. An average set-up for synthetic strings is generally a tad higher. Gut strings need considerably more clearance, averaging about 8 mm (G) to 12mm (E). Also, the underside edge of the E string side of the fingerboard needs to be nicely rounded, so the player’s thumb will have a comfortable place to anchor the right hand.
I, personally, do not treat the sound post differently for the various styles. That said, players looking for a deeper sound will likely enjoy having their sound post set a bit further from the bridge and the bass bar, compared to those looking for a tighter, more articulate sound. In general, pizzicato players prefer the articulation of a lightweight tailpiece.
Word of caution: Players who combine steel-core and gut strings should be careful about the difference in tension between the steel and gut strings. This difference causes uneven tension on the bridge and top, and can cause top sinkage, or worse. A safer choice is to combine G and D gut with a light-ish synthetic string, such as Evah Pirazzi Weich or Zyex light. Players find the tonal match better than using gut and steel core, together.
CLASSICAL: String choice for classical (arco) playing is very personal and depends on the desired tone/response the player is looking for, as well as fitting with the particular instrument. The main difference between jazz and classical strings is the extra damping built into classical strings, which makes bowing more pleasant and tamps down on unwanted overtones and scratchiness. Most classical players perform in a section with multiple basses, and therefore try to blend with their section mates. Different strings accomplish this goal better with certain instruments. Here is a list of commonly-used classical bass strings:
Pirastro Flexocor, Flexocor Original and Flexocor Deluxe
Pirastro Original Flatchrome
D’Addario Helicore Orchestra
Pirastro Evah Pirazzi
Pirastro Eudoxa (silver flat-wound)
Pirastro Oliv (chrome steel flat-wound)
The fingerboard set-up for classical playing generally requires a moderate amount of camber, but a higher arch than for jazz playing. This higher arch contributes to cleaner bow string crossing and helps avoid the dreaded “unwanted double-stop.” A heavier tailpiece tends to help damp down spurious overtones and can help a bit with preventing wolf tones. I usually set the sound post to the player’s taste; those looking for an articulate tone will often prefer the post a bit closer to the bridge; those looking for more “spread” will often prefer it a bit further from the bridge. A note of caution: modern strings (especially steel-core) are fairly tense, and exert a lot of downward pressure on a bass’ top plate. Setting the sound post far from the bridge can result in sinkage or cracking of the fragile softwood of the top, especially in an older bass built before metal strings became popular. I rarely place the sound post farther than a post diameter from the bridge.
BLUEGRASS: Well, first I need to say that bluegrass bass playing ain’t what it used to be! With players like Edgar Meyer and Paul Kowert playing incredibly difficult arco passages, as well as traditional 1-5 bass lines, this musical genre requires different types of set-ups, depending on the type of playing to be done. The traditional bluegrass set-up involves gut strings positioned high on a plywood bass, for a thumpy, percussive sound. That suits many players, but those who emulate the “newgrass” style are generally best served with a classical-type set-up. The Meyer “school” uses solo strings on the top three, tuned A, E, B from top to bottom, with a C extension tuned normally (C open, E closed). Most have a C extension with chromatic stops.
The traditional bluegrass set-up allows for slapping, as well as regular plucking. This requires the strings to be quite high over the fingerboard (12mm or higher). Some players like all four strings at the same height. This is a very individual thing. However, for bluegrass playing without slapping, gut strings should be set around 8-12mm (G-E) or so. Some players have moved to synthetic strings or combination sets. Traditional bluegrass playing requires moderate fingerboard camber and minimal arch, because there is little if any arco playing.
Bluegrass Strings (for traditional and slap styles):
Pirastro Slap (gut and synthetic combination)
Pirastro Evah Pirastro
Thomastic Dominant Solo (tuned regular)
Innovation Super Silvers
Regardless of the type of playing you do, a quality set-up will help you play your best and avoid injury. A good luthier who knows the ins and outs of string bass set-up and maintenance is your best friend. A good source of information is the Facebook group “Double Bass Luthiers;” a good source for finding bass luthiers is the directory on the www.gollihur.com website. Groove on!