Philthy Talk

by Phil Maneri

This issue contains only our second double bass review, and the first review we’ve done of an “orchestral-quality” instrument. The criteria for evaluation of these instruments require such a different perspective that we devised an entirely new template for the review. The bass guitar has been the subject of most of the instrument reviews in previous issues. At its core, it’s an instrument based on the electric guitar. The double bass is hundreds of years older. Follow its lineage through the millennia, and you’ll see a design and construction that have distilled far more precisely than the relatively new bass guitar. In comparison, it’s a newbie on the instrument scene, having only come into being during less than half the lifetime of many currently operating double basses on this planet.

Ultimately, the electronics shape so much of what happens in an electric bass. Yes, the wood makes more difference than anything else, but they are generally slabs of lumber with electronics. Not much volume out of them without an amp. Double basses are of the viol or violin family of instruments. When made well and used correctly, they can fill up a concert hall all on their own. Certainly not with the volume or power of a Precision Bass through an SVT of course, but in its own way, a far more amazing piece of design and construction with a range and subtlety that eclipse the potential of the electric bass.

That construction has a lot of variables that appear to allow large differences in shape and size and structure, yet the tolerances for perfect function are quite tight. It’s a delicate tightrope walk that allows the builder a great deal of artistic freedom, but somehow within a narrow range of very specific details that must exist for perfect function.

For instance, the bridge height should be between 6”-7”. Neck thickness should be bigger than 38mm, but not so big as 44mm. Overstand between 30-40mm. Pegbox angle at least 10mm, among other things. Change any of these drastically, and the bass may play, but it will cause the player to make significant accommodations, or rob the bass of potential power and range.

There are many other non-quantifiable variables. For instance, when regarding the instrument laying down, it needs to lay flat without the scroll touching the floor or the neck diving from extension weight. Asymmetry is desired to maintain the look of a handmade instrument, perfection being the mark of a factory bass which are generally considered inferior.

In playing position, the C bouts need significant clearance for a German bow to play on the E string. The left shoulder angle derives from the neck set angle. If it’s too low, it stresses the player’s left shoulder. The rib depth and the rib taper both affect the tone of the instrument and the ability for the player to transition into thumb cleanly without overreaching or odd angles when addressing the bass. The arching needs to find a balance between too drastic and too flat, where the midrange pops and carries the sound to the last row. The tuner installations need to be properly spaced so the thumb doesn’t hit the other tuner as one is adjusting them.

F-hole placement and the associated bridge notch need to be not so far towards the endblock that the 3rd position transition happens too far into the neck. The f-hole width needs to be large enough to accommodate the soundpost setting, but not so wide or close to the purfling to compromise the top. The bridge/bass bar relationship needs to comfortably fit inside the f-holes.

Bridge widths are different, but there are common measures one must fit into. In setting the neck and the arch height, one must end up with a bridge height that allows 1” of wood above it, while maintaining proper bow clearance in the bridge crown in traditional string heights: like 6, 7, 8, 9 or 7, 8, 9, 10. So, all the little angles add up to really big things in the end of the build. Miss one, and the bass doesn’t feel quite right or sound quite right.

Soundpost fit and construction has been debated forever, and one could write a detailed essay on just that. There are so many more details to be considered, here, and I will talk more about them in subsequent reviews as they show themselves in the basses we see. Suffice it to say, this is an entirely different can of worms than the electric bass reviews we have done so far.

The priorities are completely different, and although the skills to attain them are similar, the details required on the double bass are more numerous, more cumulative in their effect on each other, and way less forgiving in the acceptable range than one can get away with on the electric bass guitar. That’s one of the many reasons why the good ones are so damn expensive. And worth it.