by Arnold Schnitzer
This article was published in #Issue 19 in summer 2016
Q: My bass has a thick neck, and I’m thinking of having it thinned down. Is there any downside to this?
A: Yes, there are some potential pitfalls to thinning a bass neck. Firstly, you need to realize that a double bass does not generally have a truss rod or other reinforcement in the neck to counter the forces of string tension and wood movement. The necessary stiffness of the neck assembly depends on the strength of both the wood of the neck and the fingerboard, as well as a secure joint between the two, which is made with quality hide glue. The reason for the hide glue is that it does not creep like PVA glues (Titebond or carpenter’s glue), and it is also reversible for repair or fingerboard replacement. Removing a substantial amount of wood from the neck should only be done if the fingerboard is thick and of high-quality, stiff ebony. Otherwise, you may find your neck bending into a curve that is difficult to play on.
Secondly, it is a fact that playing double bass on a thin neck can cause hand and wrist strain. Assuming the player uses proper technique, with the thumb behind the neck and opposite the first or second finger, playing on a thin neck encourages squeezing, rather than letting one’s arm weight close the notes. The traditional “claw” grip has significantly more strength when holding a thick, rather than thin, object. Try this little test: find a very thin and a fairly thick hard cover book. Grasp the thin one with the bass-playing grip, and ask an accomplice to take it away from you. Then do the same with the thicker book. You will find that you can hold on to the thicker one with relative ease, while the thin one can be dislodged without much force.
Thirdly, when a bass’ neck becomes thin, it loses strength and can get “mushy.” Then the string energy is not only exciting the body (where the amplification takes place), but it is getting wasted making the neck flop around in space. The result can be loss of power and slowness of response, especially when bowed. When I build my handmade basses, I inlay a carbon fiber insert into the neck, below the fingerboard. I also use this technique when repairing a bass that has a weak neck or response problems. The resulting stiff neck assembly translates into a quick-speaking instrument with a more stable neck.
No one wants to play on a bass neck that feels like the business-end of a baseball bat. But an overly thin neck can cause problems to both the player and the instrument.
Q: I have a magnificent 7/8 size bass that has a huge acoustical sound (I play mostly jazz). But when I amplify it, I lose the punchiness and my sound gets lost in the mix. I love this bass, but I am at a loss for what to do.
A: This is a common problem. You may have noticed that many jazz bassists play on a generic 3/4 size bass, usually German or Czech, often an older Juzek or similar. [I’m thinking of Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Marco Panascia and Carlos Henriquez, among others.] These basses have a moderately strong sound when played acoustically, and are especially forward in the midrange, with lots of attack, or “front” on each note. When amplified or mic’ed in a live setting, they punch through the mix and can be heard and felt, whereas a large bass that puts out a slower, more complex sound with lots of bottom will tend to get lost. Some professional players prefer to use a plywood or hybrid bass when they amplify, because the simpler, stronger midrange sound is easier to squeeze through an amp or P.A. system.
This reminds me of a story told to me by a great bassist well-known in the jazz world. Years back, he had been playing on a run-of-the-mill 3/4 German bass, with nothing special in the way of tonal complexity. His main gig at the time was with the legendary baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Anyone who has played upright bass with a bari player knows that there can be significant crossover of registers, and the bassist has to be careful to avoid the soloists’s range, and to play with a good deal of punch, so these relatively low frequencies will stay separate in the mix. Anyway, he had found a fantastic big old French bass with a gorgeous tone and purchased it from an orchestral player. He practiced on it until he had the note placements down, then brought it on a gig with Mulligan. He set up and tweaked his amped sound, and the band got going, swinging hard. Halfway through the first tune, Gerry turned around to him, looking pretty flummoxed, and shouted, “Where the f&%@ are you? I can’t hear a note you are playing!” He adjusted the amp, turned up, moved to a different part of the stage, but things just got worse. After the gig, he was told that if he brought that bass to another gig, it would be his last. This story was related to me as I was setting up his smaller German bass, which he then used pretty exclusively in live settings.
I’m not saying that a large bass with a lot of bottom can’t be used in a live jazz setting. But without a professional sound engineer in the audience, it can be really difficult. One small thing to try is folding a piece of lightweight foam through the strings below the bridge. This will effectively turn off the sympathetic vibrations that can muddy up your sound. You may also want to try one of the new generation pickups, such as the Fishman Full Circle, which has a very flat and adjustable sound, or the Realist Lifeline, which to my ear is the punchiest bass pickup available. Also, have a look at Chris Fitzgerald’s past columns in the magazine, which often contain tips on using sound reinforcement gear.
Q: The varnish on the edges of my bass top has worn off. Should I do anything about it?
A: Yes, indeed. When varnish wears off the top or back plate, up near the neck, or at the bottom of the bass, unsealed end-grain is exposed to the elements. End grain soaks in and gives up moisture with changes in relative humidity much faster than other parts of the wood. As a result, more swelling and shrinking can occur, even popped seams or cracks in extreme circumstances. The look of bare edges is nice, and you can keep that patina by having the edges sealed up with a few coats of spirit varnish rubbed to a flat sheen. If you are a do-it-yourself-er, get some Zinser Seal-Coat shellac and a small brush. Clean the area well and let it dry. If needed, give it a very light sanding with super-fine paper or 0000 steel wool. Then apply several coats of the shellac, waiting a few hours between coats. The next day, you can abrade it lightly with the steel wool to cut down on the gloss and blend into the existing finish.
Keep those questions coming. Kindly direct them to my direct e-mail: email@example.com