I’ve been saving up for a new bass for nearly three years now. During that time the economy tanked and I noticed a marked increase in prices from the luthiers I had been keeping my eye on. My budget has now caught up to modern times and an instrument just popped up on my radar that has given my that tingly feeling.
My two years of diligence has paid off. I have enough money for the bass I want to buy, and tomorrow I will begin the process of finding the instrument that is right for me.
Buying a string instrument is a lot like buying a house. These instruments can be priced similar to houses, and are built to last generations. Many of my colleagues in the Jazz and Classical worlds have instruments valued at five or six figures that were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries. In these cases, the player’s roll is one of a stewart of the instrument, rather than an owner. Your instrument is going to outlast you by a great deal.
My situation, by comparison, is significantly less of a financial impact. The music I play is much less involved virtuoso wise, and much more focused on endurance. Tone and playability are important to me, but durability and value play equally critical rolls.
The past five years has given me lots of perspective on what I need in a bluegrass and honky tonk bass. The following is a list of thoughts and considerations I plan to take into account when choosing my instrument.
Bringing an instrument into a dive bar that is comparably valued to a luxury car is out of the question. I encounter plenty of drunks and other unsavory folks in the places I play. If an unfortunate situation arises, I don’t want to be tempted to make compromises to my safety in order to protect my investment.
There is also the matter of being the sole financial provider for my family. It took me more than two years of gigs to save for this instrument. There simply isn’t enough money in the simi-pro americana music circuit to justify huge investments in equipment. $4,300 is my limit.
I play outside a lot. For hours at a time. In direct sunlight. In the fog. In the heat of the summer, and in the cold of winter. I lug my instrument in the backs of pickup trucks, vans and SUVs multiple times a week. A fully carved instrument isn’t built to take that kind of abuse, and I don’t have a huge budget for repairs. A fully laminated or laminated/carved top hybrid will not only hold up better to this abuse, but will meet my cost requirements as well.
I play quite a bit of traditional bluegrass. I need volume. Banjos and thumb-picked guitars are forces to be reckoned with in my world. When we use sound reinforcement in the bluegrass band, we use a single condenser mic for everyone but me. I usually go direct to the soundboard with my pickup, or wedge an SM57 in my tailpiece. Both of these options are less than ideal. I would prefer to be on a level playing field as the rest of the band. Besides, with all that moving around, it's easy to get tripped up on the cables.
I also play in an electrified honky tonk band. Two blistering telecasters, drums, and sometimes pedal steel, fiddle and banjo require that I use an amp. This poses a problem. The more resonant an instrument is, the more prone it is to feeding back. The huge amounts of volume I require from my instrument when it is not plugged in can be a liability when it is plugged in. This is where the real meat of my decision lies.
I do have quite a bit of experience using an amp, and I take pride in the consistent tone I am able to achieve in a wide range of venues. I know all the tricks to avoid feedback. I am also very comfortable with my preamp, and the parametric EQ on my amp. Feedback is very rarely a problem for me with my current setup. I think if anyone stands a fighting chance against feedback, it is me.
I'm hopeful that the instrument I have in mind will provide just the right balance of volume and control when plugged in.
For most of the past few years, I’ve had my heart set on a blond bass. This changed a few months ago when I saw Upton’s matte finish on their UB Delux. This isn’t actually the bass I currently have in my sights, it just opened my eyes to other options.
High on the complaint list for my current bass is the painted maple fingerboard. I slap a lot, and I really hate cleaning the black paint out from under my fingernails after every show. I don’t know if this is a typical side effect of painted fingerboards, but this could be a deal breaker with the instrument I am about to audition. It has a painted fingerboard.
Another feature I’ve been pining for are violin corners. The two basses I play most both have gamba corners. Bluegrass gigs tend to require lots of walking around, and violin corners provide a much better grip for lugging your bass around.
I’ve also been wanting to try out a larger instrument. I like the string nut to be at my eye level. My intonation seems to come more naturally that way. I sometimes play in boots that make me a few centimeters taller than my current end pin is able to go. I’ve been playing 3/4 size basses for most of my career. They are definitely more friendly to lug around than a full size bass, but I think a 7/8 could be a happy medium here. The bass I’ll be auditioning tomorrow has a 43 1/4" string length, which puts in in the 7/8 category.
Buying a new bass is quite an involved process. It’s easy to see how critical it is to find an experienced dealer or luthier you can trust. Tomorrow I’m off to South San Francisco to meet with Steve Swan. He comes highly recommended by a few of my friends. He plays bluegrass and honky tonk, and probably has the biggest inventory of basses in Northern California. I’ll report back later this week, hopefully with good news!