Call it the doghouse
Call it the doghouse, an upright, a bullfiddle, a slap bass, string bass, contrabass, bass violin,
floor bass or double bass - it is one big air moving device that supports
and holds up the bottom of a symphony orchestra like the foundation of
my neighbor the World Trade Center. Why is it called the double bass?
- because it doubled parts in the orchestra an octave lower. Why the doghouse?
- I won't go there.
But I'm proud to have opportunity to discuss the 'dog house'
in this contemporary forum. Through economic competition between the established
acoustic players and the upstart electric players of the '60's, a wall
was put up between the "thumpers" and the "noodlers" that like the Iron
Curtain will start to crumble at the end of the millennium. It's time
to get together and find the ways we can all gain as we broaden our understanding
of the bass community. With roots going back to the beginning of this
century, it doesn't make sense to plead the fifth and deny the continuum
of the fretted double bass to the fretless electric.
Our noble instruments share a history. In the beginning both
had frets. The string bass originally had gut frets and single gut strings
that had to be long and very wide to work at all. It was a cumbersome
instrument that no one of note played and of which Mozart complained in
a letter "… rumbled generally out of tune." It was not until the late
18th century when virtuosi started appearing in the Viennese school and
composers started writing good things for the double bass. A Golden Age
of Virtuosity was underway and was concluded with the two greats Domenico
Dragonetti (1763-1846) and Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889). It is significant
that during this period came the invention of wound strings allowing an
increase of linear mass while keeping the same elasticity allowing cleaner
articulation at the lower stops. The bass, evolving through the years,
giving us a grounding which we now stand on. We are undoubtedly in a Golden
Age of Virtuosity for the bass right now. I'll discuss this phenomenon
in future columns. It involves both electric and acoustic basses, rooted
together in harmony.
This renewed virtuosity has required a new look at the instrument's
setup. This setup will be different for 'classical' and 'jazz' playing.
First is the arc of the strings on the bridge. Unlike the electric bass,
the string bass bridge top has a substantial arc so that the player can
play one string at a time with a bow. Classical players generally need
their strings to be higher off the fingerboard with more arc to the bridge
top than jazz players as they are required to play louder acoustically.
The higher the bridge, the louder the instrument across the board. The
g string has to be at least 7 millimeters (the e string 10mm) off the
end fingerboard to avoid string slapping on the board when playing the
loudest. A lesser arc enables the jazz player to make those lightning
quick rotations across the strings with the right hand. In either case,
the fingerboard needs to be curved across the board all the way to the
nut to facilitate easier playing in the lower positions.
There is no truss rod to create a curve along the fingerboard.
This curve must be planed into the more rigid string bass fingerboard.
The old school of setup planed a deep curve in the board with high strings
to ensure no string slap. Ouch! The high technical abilities of today's
players demands a friendlier setup to articulate cleanly the demanding
lines. In my opinion, the curve should be the same for jazz and classical
- minimal. It takes much longer to shape this finer curve as the tolerance
between the board and string excursion is so close. I highly recommend
bridge adjusters (wheels with a threaded axis) to raise or lower bridge
height according to volume versus facility demands of the player.
Obviously strings are a major contributor to style of playing.
String bass strings are expensive but really effect the attack, sustain,
timbre and decay of the note played. There are strings that are designed
for arco or bowed playing, for pizzicato or finger playing and some that
are supposed to do both. The manufacturer's concept is not necessarily
a reality to the player. The qualities inherent in a particular string
bass will dictate the player's choice. For example, a dark almost muddy
sounding Italian bass may require a pizzicato string in the bottom to
enhance articulation for an arco player. Later I will get into player's
string choices and why.
The soundpost is that stick you see under the g side foot that
not only holds up that side but also dictates in part how the top plate
vibrates. We start by putting the soundpost below the g foot by the width
of the post and centered on the trunk of that foot. To a degree the soundpost
can effect the string feel, string volume balance and the breadth of tone
quality. Every bass reacts differently. Generally the closer to the bridge
the more focused and thinner the sound, away from the bridge the warmer,
less defined the sound. We move this to meet the players' demands - a
quick example may be the classical player who wants the bass to speak
more quickly and the jazz player may want more front end to the attack.
It is noteworthy that sometimes the instrument doesn't have everything
a player wants and a compromise is necessary. Such is life. Just don't
compromise the effort.